Iktomi: The Selfish Sioux Trickster
Iktomi is a trickster spirit and culture hero in Sioux legend. He’s no villain, but he’s a terrific antagonist for RPGs. He’s easy to insert when you need some complications for your adventure. His natural selfishness is sure to disrupt your PCs’ plans!
This is specifically the version of Iktomi presented in the 1901 collection Old Indian Legends by the Yankton Sioux writer Zitkala-Ša. Like all good storytellers, Zitkala-Ša adapted her stories for her era. She was trying to humanize Indians in the eyes of a hostile white audience 11 years after Wounded Knee: an audience that refused to grant Natives citizenship, let alone the rights that go with it. If this Iktomi differs from others, it’s because he is the product of his time.
Zitkala-Ša ca. 1898
Zitkala-Ša describes Iktomi as a “fairy.” It’s a convenient word to describe this corporeal, quasi-immortal being with supernatural powers and an impish demeanor. Though he is a “spider fairy”, he’s consistently described as man-like:
“He wears brown deerskin leggings with long, soft fringes on either side, and tiny beaded moccasins on his feet. His long black hair is parted in the middle and wrapped with red, red bands. Each round braid hangs over a small brown ear and falls forward over his shoulders. He even paints his funny face with red and yellow, and draws big black rings around his eyes.
“Iktomi is a wily fellow. His hands are always kept in mischief. He prefers to spread a snare rather than to earn the smallest thing with honest hunting. Why! he laughs outright with wide open mouth when some simple folk are caught in a trap, sure and fast.
“He never dreams another lives so bright as he. Often his own conceit leads him hard against the common sense of simpler people.
“Poor Iktomi cannot help being a little imp. And so long as he is a naughty fairy, he cannot find a single friend. No one helps him when he is in trouble. No one really loves him. Those who come to admire his handsome beaded jacket and long fringed leggings soon go away sick and tired of his vain, vain words and heartless laughter.”
The core of Iktomi’s utility at the table is his schemes. For example:
- Tricking a flock of ducks into listening to a magic song that made them dance with their eyes closed. (Success: Iktomi wrung their necks one by one and ate them)
- Offering a blanket to the Great Spirit in exchange for food, then taking the blanket back. (Failure: the Great Spirit took back the food)
- Instead of sharing a bowl of soup with Muskrat, wagering it on a footrace around a pond. (Failure: Iktomi cheated, but Muskrat anticipated this, swam the race faster than Iktomi could run, and made off with the soup)
- Growing the bark of a tree around a Dakota brave fated to slay a monstrous eagle and win the hand of a chief’s daughter. Once the brave was trapped, Iktomi stole his clothes and magic arrow to masquerade as him. (Failure: Iktomi was found out, bound, and shamed)
- Making mischief by telling a tribe that Fish and Turtle had come to make war on them. While this was true, Fish and Turtle were dangerous only when attacked, and had the tribe not attacked them, Fish and Turtle would have been harmless. (Success: in trying to defend themselves, the tribe was drowned)
Iktomi is a great antagonist because you can insert him and his selfish schemes anywhere. He doesn’t weave long, cunning plots. His plans are short-term, usually centered around getting a good meal for nothing, a pretty girl for a night, or creating mischief for the sheer joy of watching others suffer. For all his pettiness, his magical powers are prodigious and varied. At your table, you might insert Iktomi:
- In a dungeon, racing the party to the good loot at the end. He may offer a bet: he’ll take one route, the PCs another, and to the faster side go the spoils! The PCs have nothing to lose by taking the bet (it’s not like he won’t try anyway, even if they refuse), but be careful! He is absolutely going to cheat, and they’d be wise to cheat as well.
- In the wilderness, trying to sucker the PCs out of some valuable resource: water in the desert, blankets on the tundra, or fuel in outer space. He’ll barter (offering promises he won’t honor), cheat, trick, steal, and ensorcel, but he won’t resort to a direct, violent confrontation. It’s just not his style.
- In a political intrigue, creating chaos and disrupting everyone’s carefully-laid schemes. He may assume the shape of a PC and make three contradictory deals with three different NPCs, all of whom expect the party to honor ‘their’ agreement. Of course, he’s spoiling the plans of all the NPC movers and shakers too, so quick-witted players may try to improvise their way through the chaos to a strong bargaining position. Players who prefer to plot carefully, by contrast, will want to get Iktomi out of the picture as quickly as possible.