The Story of Old Fort Johnson

W. Max Reid

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CHAPTER XVII

THE EARLY MOHAWK INDIANS' IDEA OF THE "CREATION"

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I am somewhat at a loss to select a name for the subject of this chapter. I dare not dignify it by the title of a history of the Mohawks, because a true history of that notable people never has nor never can be written. It is true that Colden' s Five Nations, Morgan's League of the Iroquois, and Schoolcraft's notes are looked upon as authority on this subject; but Morgan's work is a great measure legendary, and altogether unsatisfying, and the same may be said of Colden and Schoolcraft, although the little the Colden has to say about the Mohawks is accepted as authority as far as it goes.

As to the origin of the Mohawks, it will always remain a mystery. Conjecture may or may not approach the truth, but from the fact that they had no written language, no records on stone or parchment from which we can obtain knowledge of their origin or early history, it is evident that our only sources of information are the vague traditions that have been transmitted orally from parent to child or from sachem to sachem.

The Author Restoring the Great Mohawk Jar.

How unreliable and unsatisfactory these oral traditions are may be noted in what is called the Iroquoian Cosmology as translated by J.N.B. Hewitt, of the Bureau of Ethnology. Mr. Hewitt gives three versions of the "creation," the Onondaga, Mohawk, and the Seneca. They are practically alike, differing only in minor statements. The Onondaga is the longest and the Seneca the shortest version. I will give you, however, a condensed rendering of the Mohawk tradition; it says:

 

In the sky above were man-beings, both male and female, who dwelt in villages, and in one of the lodges was a man and a woman, who were down-fended, that is, they were secluded, and their lodge was surrounded by the down of the cat-tail, which was a sign that no one should approach them, nor were they allowed to leave this precinct. The man became ill, and stated that he would not get well until a dogwood tree standing in his door-yard had been uprooted. So when his people had uprooted the tree he said to his wife, "Do thou spread for me something there beside the place where stood the tree." Thereupon she spread something for him there and he said to his wife: "Here sit thou, beside my body." Now at that time she did sit beside him as he lay there. Then he said to her: "Do thou hang thy legs down into the abyss." For where they had uprooted the tree there came to be a deep hole, which went through the sky, and the earth was upturned about it.

 

And while he lay there he recovered from his illness and turning on his side he looked into the hole. "After a while he said to his wife, ŽDo thou look thither into the hole, to see what things are occurring there in yonder place.' And as she bent her body to look into the hole he took her by the nape of the neck and pushed her, and she fell into the hole, and kept falling into the darkness thereof. After a while she passed through and as she looked about her, as she slowly fell, she saw that all about her was blue in color, and soon discovered that what she observed was a vast expanse of water on which floated all kinds of water-fowls in great numbers.

Thereupon Loon looking into the waters and seeing her reflection shouted, "A man-being, a female, is coming up from the depths of the waters." The Bittern answering said, "She is not indeed coming up out of the depths of the water, she is falling from above." Thereupon they held a council to decide what they should do to provide for her welfare.

They finally invited Great Turtle to come. Loon thereupon said to him: "Thou shouldst float thy body above the place where thou art in the depths of the water." And then, as Great Turtle arose to the surface, a large body of ducks of various kinds arose from the face of the water, elevated themselves in a very compact body, and went up to meet her. And on their backs she did alight, and they slowly descended bearing her body on their backs, and on the back of Great Turtle they placed her.

Then Loon said, "Come, you deep divers, dive and bring up earth." Many dived in the water, and Beaver was a long time gone. When his back appeared he was dead, and when they examined his paws they found no earth. Then Otter said, "It is my turn." Whereupon he dived and after a longer time he also came up dead. Neither did he bring up any earth. It was then that Muskrat said, "I will also make the desperate attempt." It was a still longer time that he was under water, but after a while he also floated to the surface dead. In his paws was mud and his mouth was full of mud. And they took this mud and coated the edge of Great Turtle's shell all around, and other muskrats dived and floated dead, but brought up mud, which was placed on Great Turtle's back. And the female man-being sat on the back of Great Turtle and slept. And when she awoke the earth had increased in size, and she slept again, and when she awoke willows were growing along the edge of the water. And then, also, when she again awoke the carcass of a deer, recently killed, lay there, and a fire was burning, and a sharp stone. And she dressed, cooked, and ate her fill. And after a while a rivulet appeared and rapidly the earth increased to great size, and grass and herbs sprung from the earth and grew to maturity.

And after a while the female man-being gave birth to a girl child, who grew rapidly to maturity and not long after gave birth to two male man-beings, but the daughter died in giving birth to the twins. And the grandmother cut off the head of her dead daughter and hung her body in a high place, and it became the sun, and the head she placed in another place and it became the moon.

And when she examined one of the infants she found his flesh was nothing but flint and there was a sharp comb of flint over the top of his head, but the flesh of the other was in every respect like a man-being.

It seems that these two were antagonistic from their birth, the grandmother clinging to the flint child and driving the other into the wilderness; and in his wanderings he came to the shore of a lake and saw a lodge standing there. Looking in the doorway he saw a man sitting there, who said to him, "Enter thou here." This man was Great Turtle, who have him bow and arrow and also gave him two ears of corn, one in the milky state which he told him to roast and eat as food, and the other, which was mature, he should use for seed corn.

He also endowed him with preternatural powers. And when he was about to depart he said to the young man, "I am Great Turtle, I am thy parent."

Sapling, which was the name of the young man-being, created animals out of earth, and birds by casting handfuls of earth into the air. He also formed the body of a man and the body of a woman and gave them life and placed them together. Returning shortly after he found them sleeping. Again and again he returned and still they slept. "Thereupon he took a rib from each and substituted the one for the other and replaced each on in the other's body. It was not long before the woman awoke and sat up. At once she touched the breast of the man lying at her side just where Sapling had placed her rib, and, of course, that tickled him. Thereupon he awoke, awoke to life and understanding." As in the biblical story of Cain and Abel, the two brothers fought and in the end one was slain. But it was the unrighteous one, the one with the flint body, who lost his life.

Nearly three hundred years ago, the Jesuits recorded traditions of the Algonquins and Huron-Iroquois of Canada which were practically the same in their main features as the above. (See Jesuit Relations, vol. X, pages 127-129.)

The Montagnais and Adirondacks of Canada, and in fact all the Algonquin nations, seem to have some tradition of the deluge, which, in some way is mixed with the Huron-Iroquois tradition of the creation. In fact it deals with a re-creation of the earth.

They say that one Messou restored the world when it was lost in the waters. Their story of the deluge is practically as follows:

This Messou went a-hunting with lynxes instead of dogs and was warned that it would be dangerous for his lynxes in a certain lake near the place where he was. One day as he was hunting an elk his lynxes gave it chase even into the lake; and when they reached the middle of it, they were submerged in an instant. When Messou arrived there and sought his lynxes, who were indeed his brothers, a bird told him that it had seen them in the bottom of the lake, and that certain animals or monsters held them there. He at once leaped into the water to rescue them, but immediately the lake overflowed, and increased so prodigiously that it inundated and drowned the whole earth.

Astonished he gave up all thought of his lynxes, and turned his attention to creating the world anew. First he sent a raven to find a small piece of earth with which to build a new world. The raven returned unsuccessful. He made an otter dive down, but he could not reach the bottom. At last a muskrat descended and brought back some earth. With this bit of earth Messou restored everything to its former condition.

But it is among the Iroquois that Great Turtle plays the principal part in the creation; in fact it is said that he upholds the earth to this day.

In one of the cases of the Richmond collection in the museum of the Montgomery County Historical Society is an old rattle which can be traced back more than a hundred years. We have looked upon it as an interesting relic of the Senecas, a rude musical instrument. It is made from a turtle shell and skin, and in the enclosed spaces have been placed pebbles for rattles.

But this instrument is interesting beyond all that. Father LeJune, in his Relation of 1639, makes the following statement in describing a dance at a feast given for a sick woman:

 

At the head of the procession marched two masters of ceremonies singing and holding the tortoise, on which they did not cease to play. This tortoise is not a real tortoise, but only the shell and skin so arranged as to make a sort of drum or rattle. Having thrown certain pebbles into it they make from it an instrument like that the children in France used to play with. There is a mysterious something, I know not what, in this semblance of a tortoise, to which these people attribute their origin. We shall know in time what there is to it.

 

It is said that in no Amerind (the word Amerind is a new work coined by the Bureau of Ethnology to take the place of the three words North American Indian: You will notice that it is composed or formed from the first four letters of American and the first three letters of Indian) language could find a word to express the idea of God or His attributes. Although the most charitable of people and showing the utmost affection for their children, the Jesuits were unable, in the Amerind language, to impress upon them, or to communicate to them, the idea of an all-loving and charitable Supreme Being. They had their Manitou, but they feared them and gave them the character of the devil, one who should be propitiated by presents, by penances, or by scourges and feasts.

A Colonial Doorway, Guy Park.

In the Amerind's mind, each animal had a king, as the Great Turtle, the Great Bear, etc. The fathers said to them, "If the animals have each a Supreme Being, why should not man have a great chief of men, who lives in the sky - a Great Spirit?" This idea they accepted, and, although they did not or could not give the attributes of the Christian's God, the Great Spirit became "a distinct existence, a pervading power in the universe, and a dispenser of justice."

This idea the Jesuits had to accept, although in exceptional cases they seemed to impress their idea of God upon some of their converts while they had them at the missions, but they were sure to become apostates when they returned to their people in the wilderness. So you will see that the "Great Spirit" of the Indians is a modern idea received from the whites and not, as some think, a Supreme Being evolved ages ago from the Amerind mind.

Parkman says:

 

The primitive Indians believed in the immortality of the soul, and that skilful hunters, brave warriors, and men of influence went, after death, to the happy hunting-grounds, while the slothful, the cowardly, the weak, were doomed to eat serpents and ashes in dreary and misty regions, but there was no belief that the good were to be rewarded for moral good, or the evil punished for a moral evil.

 

So you will see that the writing of a history of the Mohawks would be an arduous task: a history filled with mystery and superstition together with kindly deeds and warlike acts; a history of a people endowed with minds that were able to conceive a union of tribes, states, or nations, call them what you may, and to perpetuate that union for centuries, the success of which suggested to our forefathers the union of States, the government under which we now live.

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Transcribed from the original text and html prepared by Bill Carr, last updated 12/11/99.

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