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Stockbridge-Munsee Oral Tradition


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     The Long Journey
     The Origin of the Big House Ceremonies
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     A Widow’s Revenge
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The Four Directions

When the Creator was finished making the earth, he gave responsibility for the four quarters of the earth to four powerful beings, or mani'towuk. Their duty was to take care of these regions. These beings caused the winds to blow from different directions, and are responsible for other phenomena as well. Winter is the result of a game of bowl and dice between the mani'towuk of the north and the mani'towuk of the south. When it is cold for a long time and the winds blow fiercely, it is the result of the successes of the mani'towuk of the north in the game. These mani'towuk are called Grandfather at the East, Grandmother at the South, Grandfather at the West, and Grandfather at the North. Each year their story is told, and people who gather herbs or prepare medicines pray to them and offer tobacco.

(Adapted from Mark Raymond Harrington, 1921, Religion and Ceremonies of the Lenape, New York: Museum of the American Indian.)

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The Long Journey

Long, long ago, the ancestors of the Stockbridge Indians lived far to the west of their present home. One day, as they looked across the water to the east, they saw an island in the sea. With their canoes, they travelled to this island. It was large, with many plants and animals which they could use for food, and a small number of people moved to the island and built their homes there. Living there, their population increased.

After living on the island for many years, they saw another island to the east in the water. They visited this island, and found it better than the island which they called home. They abandoned the first island for the second and moved there. Some time later, the first island sank beneath the waters and disappeared.

Having established themselves on the second island, they later saw other islands farther beyond, and over the course of time moved their villages to these other islands. Whenever they moved to the new islands, the ones they had inhabited previously sank out of sight. Moving continually for many centuries, they established themselves on the North American mainland.

By this time, the ancestors of the Stockbridge were quite numerous, and they spread further throughout the land. Other tribes lived near them, including one which built villages fortified with stockades of poles and banks of earth. These people also built mounds to bury their dead. The relationship between the Stockbridge and these moundbuilding people was friendly. As they lived in peace, another group of people attacked and fought them, destroying the villages of the moundbuilders and killing their people. The Stockbridge continued to life in peace, and remained where they had long dwelled until the Whites came.

(Adapted from a story told by John W. Quinney to William Kribs, published in 1928, “Indian Folktales,” Wisconsin Archeologist 7[1]:223-31.)

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The Origin of the Big House Ceremonies

Long ago, when the Munsee and other Delaware people lived in the East, there were three boys who were often badly treated. Their relatives did not take care of them, and seemed not to care whether they lived or died. One day, when the boys were out in the woods thinking about the way the other people treated them, they saw a face, a Living Solid Face with no body. The Face spoke to them, and gave them strength so they could no longer be hurt. He took one boy up to the place where he was from, high up in the air and stretching far to the south and north. The face promised the boy that he would grow large and strong enough to have anything he wanted. Then he brought the boy back. The three boys alone knew that there was a Living Solid Face because they had seen it with their own eyes.

At that time, the Delawares had a Big House to worship in, but at that time it was built of bark and posts and was undecorated. There they would sing about their dreams and visions of power. Some time after the three boys met the Face, the people gave up the Big House and had no form of worship.

Because they had abandoned their traditional religion, a great earthquake came and lasted twelve months, causing great hardship for the people. In one of the Delaware towns, a chief still had a bark big house, and the people met there to worship and to try and stop the earthquake by bringing back their religion. To stop the earthquake, they built a new Big House. When it was finished, they met there and sang and prayed all winter. In the spring, while they were holding a meeting, the Face appeared to the east, making a great noise. The chief did not know what was making the noise and asked for a volunteer to go outside to investigate. The three boys, now grown to manhood, went out. Having seen the Face before, they knew they could speak with him and find out how to stop the earthquake.

The Face instructed the three men to stop their meetings for now and attend to their crops. After the harvest in the fall, the Face would come live among them and instruct them in the ways of the Big House. He told them to carve a face just like his, and to paint it half red and half black as his was. The mask was invested with power by the Living Solid Face, and he instructed them in how to use it, along with a stick and a turtle rattle. The face also instructed them to carve twelve faces on the posts of the Big House, to carve these faces on their drumsticks, and how to hold the Big House ceremony. In return, he asked that they offer him hominy in the spring, and additionally he promised to keep the deer close by wherever they built the Big House so they would have enough to eat. He told them never to give up the Big House or else there would be another earthquake or other disasters. The earthquake stopped, and since that time, the Delaware have had the Big House and its ceremonies as dictated by the Solid Living Face.

(Adapted from Mark Raymond Harrington, 1921, Religion and Ceremonies of the Lenape, New York: Museum of the American Indian.)

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The Origin of the Doll Being

Long, long ago, some children were playing with sticks and decided to cut faces on them. They were very surprised when the little dolls came to life. The children’s parents made them throw the dolls away, and most of the children soon forgot what had happened. However, one little girl wanted her doll back. It bothered her, and she dreamed of the doll every night. She told her parents about her worries and her dreams, and they realized that they should not have forced her to throw the doll away.

One night the doll appeared to the child. It said to her: "Find me and always keep me, and you and your family will always be happy and healthy. Every spring, you must give me new clothing and hold a dance for me." The doll told the little girl exactly how everything should be carried out.

The next day, the little girl told her parents about the doll, and what it had said. Her parents looked for the doll and found it. They made some hominy and killed a deer and held a feast and dance in the doll’s honor. This Doll Dance has continued to the present day.

(Adapted from Mark Raymond Harrington, 1921, Religion and Ceremonies of the Lenape, New York: Museum of the American Indian.)

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A Widow’s Revenge

Once some young men went hunting in the winter. They travelled high up the Mohican River-which we know of today as the Hudson River-where they always hunted. One day they all were hunting, and one woman-the wife of one of the men-and her child stayed alone in the camp. She hulled corn, then took the corn to a place where a spring came out of the side of a mountain to wash it. While she was there, she saw some men in the water. They had paint on their faces and she knew it was a bad sign.

She hurried back to where the rest of her group was camped. The men were still out hunting, but when they returned she told them of the men she had seen and told them that their camp would be attacked that night. The men prepared for battle and told the woman to go off and hide herself so she wouldn’t be hurt in the fighting. Since there were only a few warriors in their party, they had little hope of winning the battle. It was already dark and the woman knew she couldn’t go very far, but she remembered a large hollow log and hid herself inside it with her child.

Once she was safely inside the log, she heard the sounds of the attack. She heard a man’s voice call out her husband’s name and say "The dog has bitten my thumb." She realized that her husband and the other warriors had been attacked by people who knew them, and that they were murderers from their own tribe and not members of an enemy tribe. But she had not recognized them when she saw them in the water.

Soon afterwards, it became quiet. The woman heard noises outside of the log where she was hidden, and they were looking for her. One said "We saw a woman, and she can’t be far off." Then another said "Maybe she is inside this hollow log." One used a stick to feel around inside the log, but the stick did not reach her, and they did not discover her hiding place. Soon they went away. The woman and her child lay quite still and stayed quiet all night long inside the hollow log.

When dawn came, the woman crawled out and took a shortcut back to her village so she could arrive before the murderers did. She told the story of the attack and said that all who had been with her had been killed by the murderers. The chief sent for all of the warriors, directing them to assemble. The women cooked food so the warriors could eat and then hid herself in case they recognized her.

All of the warriors arrived, and the chief directed them to eat and they continued eating until they had had enough. He saw one warrior with a bandage on his thumb and asked what had happened. The warrior answered "What? Oh, a beaver bit me." He had been out with a group of his clan-relatives the day before. But the woman whose husband had been murdered jumped out of her hiding place and said, "You liar, my husband bit you!" All of the other warriors fell on the murderer and those who had been with him and killed them. The revenge of the chief was all the more bitter because the murderers could be buried, while the woman’s husband and his comrades had been left in the woods to be eaten by the wild animals.

(Adapted from John Dyneley Prince, 1905, “A Tale in the Hudson River Indian Language,” American Anthropologist 7[1]:74-84.)

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