One morning several young women went out from their tepee village to gather firewood. Among them was Sapana, the most beautiful girl in the village, and it was she who first saw the porcupine sitting at the foot of a tall cottonwood tree. She called to the others: “Help me to catch this porcupine, and I will divide its quills among you.”
The porcupine started climbing the cottonwood, but the tree’s limbs were close to the ground and Sapana easily followed. “Hurry,” she cried. “It is climbing up. We must have its quills to embroider our moccasins.” She tried to strike the porcupine with a stick, but the animal climbed just out of her reach.
“I want those quills,” Sapana said. “If necessary I will follow this porcupine to the top of the tree.” But every time that the girl climbed up, the porcupine kept ahead of her.
“Sapana, you are too high up,” one of her friends called from the ground. “You should come back down.”
But the girl kept climbing, and it seemed to her that the tree kept extending itself toward the sky. When she neared the top of the cottonwood, she saw something above her, solid like a wall, but shining. It was the sky. Suddenly she found herself in the midst of a camp circle. The treetop had vanished, and the porcupine had transformed himself into an ugly old man.
Sapana did not like the looks of the porcupine-man, but he spoke kindly to her and led her to a tepee where his father and mother lived. “I have watched you from afar,” he told her. “You are not only beautiful but industrious. We must work very hard here, and I want you to become my wife.”
The porcupine-man put her to work that very day, scraping and stretching buffalo hides and making robes. When evening came, the girl went outside the tepee and sat by herself wondering how she was ever to get back home. Everything in the sky world was brown and grey, and she missed the green trees and green grass of earth.
Each day the porcupine-man went out to hunt, bringing back buffalo hides for Sapana to work on, and in the morning while he was away it was her duty to go and dig for wild turnips. “When you dig for roots,” the porcupine-man warned her, “take care not to dig too deep.”
One morning she found an unusually large turnip. With great difficulty she managed to pry it loose with her digging stick, and when she pulled it up she was surprised to find that it left a hole through which she could look down upon the green earth. Far below she saw rivers, mountains, circles of tepees, and people walking about.
Sapana knew now why the porcupine-man had warned her not to dig too deep. As she did not want him to know that she had found the hole in the sky, she carefully replaced the turnip. On the way back to the tepee she thought of a plan to get down to the earth again. Almost every day the porcupine-man brought buffalo hides for her to scrape and soften and make into robes. In making the robes there were always strips of sinew left over, and she kept these strips concealed beneath her bed.
At last Sapana believed that she had enough sinew strips to make a lariat long enough to reach the earth. One morning after the porcupine-man went out to hunt, she tied all the strips together and returned to the place where she had found the large turnip. She lifted it out and dug the hole wider so that her body would go through. She laid her digging stick across the opening and tied one end of the sinew rope to the middle of it. Then she tied the other end of the rope about herself under her arms. Slowly she began lowering herself by uncoiling the lariat. A long time passed before she was far enough down to be able to see the tops of the trees clearly, and then she came to the end of the lariat. She had not made it long enough to reach the ground. She did not know what to do.
She hung there for a long time, swinging back and forth above the trees. Faintly in the distance she could hear dogs barking and voices calling in her tepee village, but the people were too far away to see her. After a while she heard sounds from above. The lariat began to shake violently. A stone hurtled down from the sky, barely missing her, and then she heard the porcupine-man threatening to kill her if she did not climb back up the lariat. Another stone whizzed by her ear.
About this time Buzzard began circling around below her. “Come and help me,” she called to Buzzard. The bird glided under her feet several times, and Sapana told him all that had happened to her. “Get on my back,” Buzzard said, “and I will take you down to earth.”
She stepped on to the bird’s back. “Are you ready?” Buzzard asked.
“Yes,” she replied.
“Let go of the lariat,” Buzzard ordered. He began descending, but the girl was too heavy for him, and he began gliding earthward too fast. He saw Hawk flying below him. “Hawk,” he called, “help me take this girl back to her people.”
Hawk flew with Sapana on his back until she could see the tepee of her family clearly below. But then Hawk began to tire, and Buzzard had to take the girl on his back again. Buzzard flew on, dropping quickly through the trees and landing just outside the girl’s village. Before she could thank him, Buzzard flew back into the sky.
Sapana rested for a while and then began walking very slowly to her parents’ tepee. She was weak and exhausted. On the way she saw a girl coming toward her. “Sapana!” the girl cried. “We thought you were dead.” The girl helped her walk on to the tepee. At first her mother did not believe that this was her own daughter returned from the sky. Then she threw her arms about her and wept.
The news of Sapana’s return spread quickly through the village, and everyone came to welcome her home. She told them her story, especially of the kindness shown her by Buzzard and Hawk.
After that, whenever the people of her tribe went on a big hunt they always left one buffalo for Buzzard and Hawk to eat.