Many tales have been told of the culture hero Manabozho (or Nanabozho, Wenabozho, Michabo… his name took on many spellings). This hero is known among the Anishinaabe people (also known as the Ojibwa or Chippewa). This story concerns Manabozho, a snake, and a cat.
One day, as Manabozho was walking from one place to another through the forest, he became so overcome with weariness he had to lie down to rest. He saw a tree with soft moss growing under it, and there he lay down and quickly fell asleep, lulled into a peaceful rest by the pleasing sounds of the forest’s birds, insects, and leaves.
As Manabozho slept, a large poisonous snake came slithering through the undergrowth. When it saw Manabozho lying defenseless under the tree, it hissed, “Yesterday this man warned that stupid cat that I was about to strike her, and she got away. ‘Watch out, little cat, watch out!’ he said. Idiot. I could have eaten that cat, if not for this man. Well, today I will kill him. Then we’ll see who should watch out!”
The snake slithered closer, but suddenly Manabozho stirred. “Watch out, little cat, watch out!” he mumbled in his sleep. The snake stopped, waiting and ready to sneak away if the man woke. But, seeing Manabozho sleeping on soundly, the snake again began his approach, slowly and taking care to make no sound as his scales slid among the leaves and twigs that littered the earth. Then, when it was close enough, the snake coiled its long body and raised its horrible head. Its eyes focused on the spot on Manabozho’s arm where it intended to strike.
Manabozho slept on.
Now, up in the branches of the tree was a little cat—the very cat whom Manabozho had helped the day before. The cat’s eyes widened as the snake drew closer and closer to her friend, and her tiny body shivered when the slithery creature made ready to strike. What could she do? The snake was so large, and she was so small… But Manabozho had saved her, and so, without another thought, the little cat leapt from her branch, landing on the snake’s head in the moment he began his strike.
Manabozho slept on.
When Manabozho awoke, it was to find the little cat sitting next to the dead snake. He understood right away that the cat had saved his life. Wanting to thank her and reward her for her bravery and friendship, he said, “How can I honor you? Your sight and hearing are sharp and keen. You can run swiftly. Ah, I know… From this day, you shall be known as a friend of Man, and you will always be welcome in Man’s home. And, since you leapt from the tree to kill the serpent, as long as you live, you shall leap where you will, and you shall always fall upon your feet.”
This story has been adapted from Florence Holbrook, The Book of Nature Myths (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1902); and Frank de Caro (ed.), The Folktale Cat (Little Rock: August House, 1992).