Oneida Oral Tradition

The Creation Story

Long, long ago, people did not live on the Earth. Instead, they lived in the Sky World, and things were very similar to what we think of as life on Earth. There were people, birds, animals, and everything else in the Sky World.

There were many different kinds of trees in the Sky World, but there was one special tree that grew right in the center of the Sky World. From it grew all kinds of branches and leaves, and all kinds of fruit. A man lived there whose job it was to protect that tree, and look after it and care for it. This "Tree of Life" was not supposed to be marked or disturbed by any of the beings in the Sky World. The man who took care of the tree got married, and soon he and his wife were expecting a baby. They made plans for the arrival of the child, but unfortunately, the wife was very demanding and hard to please. The man went out of his way to make her happy but was seldom successful.

As women who are expecting babies often do, the woman developed cravings for strange foods, and she asked her husband to bring her various delicacies. As the days went on, this woman became curious about the Tree of Life and its various fruits. The woman decided that she wanted some bark, roots, and fruit from the Tree of Life to help satisfy her appetite. Because he was supposed to care for the tree no matter what, her husband refused, but that did not stop her curiosity.

The woman dreamed that there was something beneath the tree and something beyond the world they lived in, and she kept wondering about it. She kept asking her husband what he knew about any world other than the Sky World. He didn't know anything about it, because he never dug around the tree. The woman kept pestering her husband and finally convinced him to dig around the tree's roots.

He was so eager to please her that he completely uprooted the Tree of Life and they saw a huge hole beneath it. The woman looked into that hole but she couldn’t see anything except the darkness. She leaned farther to see into the hole and started to fall. To save herself from falling, she reached around and tried to grab hold of something. With one hand she grabbed a strawberry plant, and with the other hand she grabbed tobacco leaves, but she fell through anyway.

She fell into the darkness and kept falling for a long, long time. After a long time, she saw a great body of water beneath her, and there were all kinds of waterfowl there on the water. As they saw her fall from the sky, they flew up together and caught her. When they got closer to the water, they saw a giant sea turtle which was coming to the surface. They called down to him and asked him if they could put the Sky Woman on his back. The turtle said it was all right and then all the birds and animals gathered around her.

They asked her who she was and where she was from. She was lonely and she told them that she missed her home. They couldn’t figure out any way to get her back to the Sky World because none of the birds could fly that high, so they asked her how they could make her more comfortable now that she was in their home. She saw that there was no land in this world, and she told them that that was what she needed.

They all thought about the idea of land. Then they told her, "Underneath the water there is land. If that will make you happy, we will try to get some land for you." The different animal and bird beings started to dive down to get some land, but one after the other they failed. The beaver tried first and failed, then the loon, the duck, seagull, and all the other animals.

The land was so far beneath the water that many of them couldn't get to it and many died trying to get it. Finally, the otter offered to try. He went down deep and got a little bit of earth. He came back up breathing his last breath, but in his paws was a little bit of earth he had scratched from the bottom. The other animals took the dirt and put it on the back of the giant turtle.

Once they did this, a strange transformation took place. The earth and the turtle grew and spread. To keep the earth growing larger and larger, the woman walked in a circle following the direction of the sun. In a while, she had a very large place to stand and all around her was land and it began to develop and take shape. After the land was formed, the woman gave birth to a baby girl. This new world was now their home.

As years passed, the woman and her daughter adapted to their new surroundings. One night, after her daughter had grown up, she was visited by the spirit of the West Wind and fainted into a peaceful sleep. When her mother came to wake her up, she found two crossed arrows on her stomach. One was sharp, and the other was blunt. The mother realized what had happened and that her daughter was going to have twins.

When the time came, the daughter gave birth to twin sons. The first one came out the right way as all babies are born. He was perfect in every way and represented everything good. The other twin represented everything bad, and when he was born he broke through his mother's side, and by doing so he killed her.

The Grandmother buried her daughter and planted in her grave the plants and leaves that she herself had clutched in her hands when she fell from the sky world, namely the strawberry and the tobacco. Shortly afterward, plants began to row on the daughter’s grave. From her head grew corn, beans, and squash. From her heart grew the sacred tobacco which was an offering to send greetings to the Creator. At her feet grew strawberries and other plants which could be used as medicines.

The Grandmother knew it was her job to raise the twins. First, she gave them names. She called the first one “Holder of the Heavens.” He was right-handed. She named the second one “Mischievous One,” and he was left-handed. The Grandmother mistakenly thought that the right-handed son was responsible for killing her daughter. She held it against him and started mistreating him and giving more attention to his brother the Mischievous One. By the time the twins grew up, their Grandmother was very old.

Holder of the Heavens felt bad that his Grandmother had favored his brother and felt bad that she blamed him for the death of their mother. Despite this, he loved his Grandmother more than his brother did. When she died, they thought about what to do with her body. The bad twin wanted to just throw her body off the edge of the world into the water. But the other one said, "No! We should place her back into the earth because she felt so strongly about being a part of the earth." They fought over the body and the bad twin pulled off the head and threw it up into the air. It became the Moon and brightened the night world for the favorite left-handed grandson. The good twin took what remained of her body and put her back into the earth. Then he began to go around the world creating all of the animals, different medicines, flowers, and everything else. But while he was doing this, the bad twin followed him, making his own creations and altering what his brother had made.

The good twin made the rose, and his brother put thorns on it. The Holder of the Heavens made deer, elk, and moose, and the Mischievous One changed the nature of the mountain lion so it would kill the other animals. This went on until the good twin had created everything he could think of, but his brother was always behind him, changing things as he saw fit. 

Finally, the good twin got tired of this and confronted his brother. They decided to have a contest to see who would be "The Ruler of the World." The first contest they played was the lacrosse game, but after six days, it ended in a tie. Then, they played the bowl and dice game, and again, after six days, it was a tie. They agreed that they must fight until one of them won. The bad twin made himself a spear, and the good twin put on the antlers of a deer to defend himself. After many days of fighting, Mischievous One appeared to gain the upper edge on his brother, but he fell on top of the deer antlers and was badly hurt.

The Holder of the Heavens didn't want to kill his brother or do anything terrible to him, so they divided the world in half. The night time would belong to Mischievous One, and Holder of the Heavens would get the day time. The bad twin warned his brother than he would always want to get even, and they split up.

(Adapted from  Our Traditional Teachings, 1984, North American Indian Traveling College: Cornwall Island, Ontario.)

Origin of the Four Sacred Ceremonies

After the people were made by the Holder of the Heavens, they had no rules to guide them and no spiritual beliefs. At one point, 12 boys were born at the same time. Eleven of them had fathers, and the one who did not have a father was born with special powers. Because they were all born at the same time, their mothers felt a bond and often brought the boys to play together. Soon the one who had no father became the boy’s leader -- something special about him attracted the others and he was a natural leader.

As the boys grew up, they would often leave the village and go off into the woods. One of the boys’ mothers began to wonder about this, and one day she followed them. She found them all sitting in a circle, and the boy leader was explaining that he was born with a purpose, and that was to teach the people how to give thanks to their Creator. Each time he would finish, he would point to one of the boys and say, "This is what you will be able to do." He did this to each of the 11 boys. He pointed to one of the children and said, "You will be the speaker of the Thanksgiving Greeting. This will be used to offer greetings to our Father at the opening and closing of each gathering. You will speak these good words on behalf of the people." Then, to another he said, "You will be a Singer of the Great Feather Dance. This song and dance will honor and acknowledge the Creator." To another boy, he said, "You will be the Singer of the Atonwa, a song which will open the ceremonies when children receive their names and when men sing their personal chants and share their song with the people." To another, he said, "You will learn the Drum Song which expresses the thanks of all the people for the many things in this world." When the boys returned from the forest, the Leader went to the mother who had watched them and told her that he would tell all the people about their work when they were done with it.

By the time the boys were young men, they were finished with their work. They explained to the people what they had been learning. The Leader explained that he had been sent here by his father to teach people how to be grateful for all the things that we have in this world and especially how to be grateful to the Creator. He told them that all of the other creatures were their relatives and that they all had their own purpose which should be respected. He told them that he had taught the other boys songs and dances to honor the Creator and all the things which had been given to them, including the Thanksgiving Greeting, the Great Feather Dance, the Drum Dance, and the Atonwa or the Personal Chant. He told the people that these dances were to be held at particular times of the year when the people would come together. He divided up the responsibilities of knowing all the dances and songs because no one could remember them all and so they could be shared among the people.

The 11 young men gave their instructions to the people, and they adapted them to the cycle of the seasons:

Midwinter Ceremony - in the middle of winter; starts a new cycle
Maple Syrup - at the end of spring
Thunder Dance - early summer; honors water life
Moon Dance - early summer; pays respect to the Grandmother and to all female life
Strawberry - early summer; pays respect to the medicine plants and healing powers
Planting Ceremony - early summer; acknowledges the food sources
Bean Dance - midsummer; honors this food
Green Corn Dance - midsummer; honors this food
Harvest Dance - end of summer; celebration and thanks for the harvest
Moon Dance - early fall; pays respect to the Grandmother and to all female life
End of Seasons Ceremony - fall; prepares for the next cycle

The Leader told the people that he was not finished with his work; he had to go tell other people about his purpose and give them the same messages. He told the 11 other men to keep hold of the teachings he had given them.

He was gone for a long time and then he came back through the water. He had been hurt across the water, but he told them that he had come back to give them one more ceremony, the Great Peach Bowl Game, which was to be played for the Creator’s amusement, and to show the people that what they have is theirs only for a short time and that they should freely share it.

With that, his work was done, and he left them to journey back to the land of his father.

(Adapted from  Our Traditional Teachings, 1984, North American Indian Traveling College: Cornwall Island, Ontario.)

The Birth of the Peacemaker

A long time ago, in a Huron village in Ontario, a baby was born to a young woman. She dreamed that she would bear a son named Deganawida, who would be a messenger from the Creator and bring peace and harmony to the people. The young woman was not married and her mother was quite ashamed, and she pestered the girl to identify the baby’s father. The girl did not know the name of the father because the baby had been given to her in a dream. The Grandmother felt it must be the work of an evil sorcerer. Once the baby was born, the Grandmother tried to get rid of him, but every time he came back to his mother safe and sound. One night, the Grandmother had a dream which told her that the baby was sent to this world to do work on behalf of the Creator, and not to interfere. After that, the Grandmother helped her daughter raise the child.

When the boy was seven years old, he announced that he knew he had a great mission on Earth and that he needed to be alone to receive his instructions. He fasted and prayed for guidance. While he was growing up, he showed many unique powers. When he was a man, he said to his mother and Grandmother, "The time has come for me to start my mission, and I will build a canoe from this white stone. It is time for me to stop the wars and killing between all the Indian nations." When he finished making his canoe from stone, he said goodbye to his mother and Grandmother and told them that his mission would prevent him from ever coming back again to see them. Because of his mission, Deganawida was also known as the Peacemaker.

(Adapted from  Our Traditional Teachings, 1984, North American Indian Traveling College: Cornwall Island, Ontario.)

The Messenger of Peace

The Peacemaker crossed Lake Ontario and headed for the land of the Iroquois tribes, or Hotinonshonni as they call themselves. He looked for signs of village fires as he approached the shore, but did not see any. All of the villages were built away from the lake for protection because the Iroquois were all at war with each other.

As he neared the shore, some men came running out, having seen the sparkle of the white stone canoe. He called out to them and they told him that there was fighting in their village, and that they were running away. He told them to go back to their village because he had been sent by the Creator to bring them a message of peace.

Because of the canoe made of white stone, they knew Deganawida had special powers, and they agreed to take this message back to their village. As soon as the hunters left, he continued on his journey to the east. He came to the longhouse of a woman who lived by a path which went east and west and which was used by the warriors on their raids. She had a reputation for evil, because she would offer the warriors a home-cooked meal as they passed by, and instead would poison them.

Deganawida accepted her offer of a meal, and she welcomed him into her home and set food before him. She thought she had another victim, but Deganawida said, "I know what you have been doing to men who pass by here. You must stop this wickedness and accept the good message that I bring from my father the Creator who sent me here to offer it to all human beings." She asked about the message and he told her, "The message I bring is that all people should love one another and live together in peace. This message has three parts: peace, righteousness and power, and each part has two branches. Health means soundness of mind and body. It also means Peace, because that is what comes when minds are sane and bodies are cared for. Righteousness means justice practiced between men and between Nations. It means a desire to see justice prevail. It also means religion, for justice enforced is the will of the Creator and has his sanction."

The wicked woman said, "What you say is true, and I accept your message of peace, righteousness, and power, and enforce it. I will not return to my evil ways and hurt people who come to my lodge." Deganawida said, "Since you, a woman, are the first to accept the Law of Peace, I declare that from this point forward, women will name the Chiefs."

The woman was thankful, but told Deganawida that unless all men and all Nations accepted the Law of Peace, there would be no end to the revenge and killing. She asked him where he would go next and he answered that he would continue east toward the sunrise. The woman cautioned him, "Beware of a man in that direction who eats humans." And the Peacemaker answered, "Then that is where I must go first in order to bring such evils to an end, so that all people may be without fear."

(Adapted from  Our Traditional Teachings, 1984, North American Indian Traveling College: Cornwall Island, Ontario.)

The Flint Nation

The hunters who Deganawida had seen earlier by the lake returned to their village, which was of the Flint Nation, who were also called the Mohawk. They told their people about the Messenger who was coming and passed on his message of Peace, Power, and Righteousness. The next morning, some of the people saw smoke coming from the clearing away from the village. This let them know that a visitor wished to approach them to visit because warriors would have simply attacked without letting anyone know that they were in the area.

Some of the warriors chosen by the Mohawk Nation approached the fire cautiously. They were surprised to find Deganawida quietly sitting by his fire and smoking his pipe and thinking. The warriors escorted him to the village to tell about his message of Peace. After hearing the Peacemaker's message of peace and unity, the Chief Warrior said, "It would be very good to see all men and all Nations live together in peace and harmony, but how can we know that your words are true? Before we can accept your message, we need proof that you are who you say you are. If you have been sent by the Creator, you should be able to die and come back to life. Give us a sign that you are able to do this." They devised a test for this and told the Peacemaker to climb to the top of the tree which stood by the side of a waterfall. The warriors cut the tree down, and the Peacemaker fell into the chasm created by the falls. If he should survive the test, they would accept the terms of his message of peace. The people watched to see if the Peacemaker came up, but there was no sign of him. They waited a long while, and concluded that the man who had called himself the Peacemaker had not survived. Sadly, they went back to the village.

With the next sunrise, the children of the village saw some smoke coming from somewhere near the village. They went toward the smoke and saw a man sitting by his fire. It was the Peacemaker. When the children returned to the village and told what they had seen, the people went and brought the Peacemaker back to Council place. The Chief Warrior spoke, "I no longer doubt your message. You are a Messenger from the Creator who has come to offer us a better way of life." Without hesitation, the People of the Mohawk Nation accepted the Message and the Law of Peace.

The Peacemaker said, "I am glad that you have accepted my message of Peace,” and explained that on his journey toward the Mohawk Nation, he had encountered some evil people who had accepted the Message and who would now encourage the acceptance of the Law of Peace.

And so that was how it came to be that among the Iroquois, the women would select the leaders of the Nation, and how the Mohawk became the first Nation to accept the terms of the Great Law of Peace.

(Adapted from  Our Traditional Teachings, 1984, North American Indian Traveling College: Cornwall Island, Ontario.)

Hiawatha and Tadadahoh

While the Peacemaker was delivering the message of Peace and Brotherhood to the Mohawk Nation, a man named Hiawatha was attempting to do the same thing with the Onondaga Nation.

Hiawatha was having great difficulty delivering words of unity to the Onondaga. There was no peace in the Onondaga Nation and the people were very afraid of witchcraft and stayed in their homes except in the daytime. Hiawatha heard about a man who lived south of the village who was so evil that he had snakes coming out of his hair and his body was twisted with his hate. He ate human flesh and practiced bad medicine. Everyone in the village feared him and they would do anything he said. This evil man was called Tadadahoh.

Together with Hiawatha, the Onondaga met to try and stop Tadadahoh’s evil ways. Hiawatha had tried before to clear Tadadahoh’s mind of hate and evil, but he had never succeeded. The people decided that they would go and meet with Tadadahoh and try to bring him the words of Unity. When they were in the middle of the river, Tadadahoh made a storm come up to overturn their canoes and many were drowned.

The second time they tried to reach Tadadahoh, half of the men went by canoe and the other half walked along the shores. Again, Tadadahoh saw them coming. To get their attention, he yelled to the warriors to look at the eagle flying up in the sky. Then Tadadahoh killed the eagle with his magic, and the feathers floated down towards the warriors. The warriors knew how sacred the eagle feathers were and wanted them for their ceremonial dress. They ran, pushing and shoving to get the eagle feathers and grew angry and hated each other, which drove the Message of Peace from their minds.

The mission had again failed and so the people gathered back at the village. Hiawatha reminded them of their promise to try to stop Tadadahoh, and he told them not to pay attention to anything that happened along their way. At the same time, another group was having a meeting and were listening to a great dreamer. This person had dreamed that a man would come from the north and pass to the east and that this man was destined to meet with Hiawatha and go to the Mohawk Nation. The Dreamer told the people that Hiawatha must not remain with the Onondaga, but must go to the Mohawk people. Together, all the Onondaga tried to figure out a way to make Hiawatha go with Deganawida so he could fulfil his destiny.

Hiawatha had seven daughters he loved very much. The people knew that without his daughters, Hiawatha would be sad and would no longer stay with them, and would thus go meet the Peacemaker as was destined. A powerful sorcerer named Ohsinoh climbed a tree near Hiawatha's lodge and imitated the sound of a screech owl. He called to the youngest daughter and sang, "Unless you marry Ohsinoh, you will surely die." Within three days, the girl died. Hiawatha grieved, and no one came to comfort him. Five of the other daughters passed away, each in the same manner. Hiawatha’s relatives went to his home. They were suspicious about how so many members of one family could die so suddenly, and they suspected that witchcraft was being used against Hiawatha’s family.

These relatives went to visit Hiawatha one evening. There was no moon and Ohsinoh climbed the tree near the house and sang his song, "Unless you marry Ohsinoh, you will surely die." When morning came, Ohsinoh began to climb down the tree. Hiawatha’s relatives attacked him, but he bewitched them and they could not continue. Within three days, Hiawatha’s last daughter died. Hiawatha grieved and no one came to console him.

Hiawatha’s grief was so great that he decided to leave the Onondaga and just live in the forest by himself. Hiawatha's mind was covered by a cloud and he departed from the Onondaga Nation. He traveled for days and came to a place where some rushes grew. He made some beads out of their tubular stalks and said, "If I met anyone as burdened with grief as I am, I would console them. I would lift the words of condolence with these strands of beads, use the beads to remember proper speeches to address them."

Hiawatha traveled on and came to a small lake where he saw a flock of ducks in the water. There were so many swimming together that they looked like a raft. Hiawatha knew that he was destined for great things, and decided to test his power. He called out, "All you ducks floating there, lift up the water so I may cross the lake bed." The ducks flew up so swiftly that they lifted the water with them and Hiawatha walked across the dry bottom of the lake. As he walked, he noticed many empty shells of fresh water clams. Some of these were white and some were purple. So picked them up and filled a pouch with them and continued on his way. The ducks settled back and refilled the lake with water. Hiawatha continued on his way to meet the Peacemaker.

(Adapted from  Our Traditional Teachings, 1984, North American Indian Traveling College: Cornwall Island, Ontario.)

The Story of Corn and Beans

Once a man walked along in the woods singing, "Who will marry me, who will marry me?"

The owl heard and answered, "I will marry you."

The man said, "You? What will you give me to eat?"

And the owl answered, "I will give you snakes and mice to eat."

"Oh!" answered that man, "Thanks anyway, but I don’t think I could marry you and eat snakes and mice."

The man went on, singing "Who will marry me?" The frog answered, "I will marry you."

The man answered, "Well, Frog, what will you give me to eat?" And the frog answered "I'll give you worms and flies."

"Oh! I don’t think I could marry you and eat worms and flies." And the man went on his way and kept on singing "Who will marry me?"

As he came to a different part of the woods where it was next to an open field, he was still singing and he heard an answer: "I will marry you." He asked "What will you give me to eat?" And he heard the answer, "I will give you corn."

"Then I will marry you," he said and he was so happy, he ran and gave her a hug. She was corn and he was beans, and this is the way the Indians always planted corn and beans, right together so the beans could twine up the corn stalks.

(Adapted from Hope Emily Allen, 1944, “An Oneida Tale,” Journal of American Folklore, 57[226]:280-81.)

The Thunder God

Once, a hunter got caught in a thunderstorm, and heard a voice calling him to follow. He followed and found himself in the clouds, surrounded by beings which seemed to be human. The chief of these beings was the Thunder God, and he told the hunter to look down below and say whether or not he saw a huge water-serpent. The hunter could not see the water-serpent, and the Chief waved his hand over the hunter’s eyes. After that, he could see the monster in the waters below him. The Chief told one of the warrior-beings to try and kill the water-serpent, but he could not. Then the Chief told the hunter to try and kill it because it was an enemy to the humans on Earth. He shot an arrow down to it and killed the water-serpent. Then they took the hunter back to earth.

This was humans’ first contact with the Thunder God and his assistants, and this is how they learned that the Thunder God would protect them from the monsters of the earth.

(Adapted from Erminnie A. Smith, 1883, “Myths of the Iroquois,” Second Annual Report of the Bureau of American Ethnology, 1880-81:47-116.)

The Origin of Medicine

A long time ago, an old man was travelling. He was very sick and he came to an Iroquois village. Over the door of each longhouse, the people had hung up the skin of an animal, and that told everyone what clan lived in that house. The Beaver Clan house had a beaver skin over the door and the Deer Clan house had a deerskin, and so forth.

The old man went to the Beaver Clan house and asked for some food and a place to stay, but no one there would ask the sick old man to stay with them or offer him any help. He tried the Wolf Clan house, and the Turtle Clan House, and all the other houses, and no one would help him or give him anything to eat. At the last house, which had a bearskin over the door, a woman welcomed him in and gave him plenty of food and a bed to rest on.

Because he was sick, he asked the woman to go into the woods and collect medicine for him. She went out and collected the herbs he described and came home with them. He told her how to prepare them so they could be used as medicine and he got better. A few days later, he came down with a different sickness and again he instructed her in what herbs to find and how to prepare them, and he got better again. This went on for a long time. When she had learned all of the medicines for all of the sicknesses and how to gather and use them he told her that his mission was accomplished. He also told her that because of her kindness to a sick old man, the Bear Clan would always have knowledge of the medicines needed to cure sickness.

(Adapted from Erminnie A. Smith, 1883, “Myths of the Iroquois,” Second Annual Report of the Bureau of American Ethnology, 1880-81:47-116.)

The Origin of the Turtle Clan

Long, long ago, there were many tortoises of the kind known as mud turtles, and they lived in a small lake. One summer, it was very hot and the lake dried up. The turtles needed water to live, so they all set out to find a new lake for a home. One of the turtles was very fat and wasn’t used to walking, and had a hard time following the other turtles. His shoulders became blistered from rubbing against his shell, and finally, he just took off the shell. After that, he grew and grew until he became a human being and his descendants were all members of the Turtle Clan.

(Adapted from Erminnie A. Smith, 1883, “Myths of the Iroquois,” Second Annual Report of the Bureau of American Ethnology, 1880-81:47-116.)

How the Bear Lost His Tail

One winter, a fox saw a man dragging a sled full of fish that he had caught. The fox wanted some fish, so he tried to think of a way to get some of those fish on the sled. He went out to the path and lay down and pretended to be dead. The man came by and thought that the “dead” fox had nice fur, so he picked up the fox and put him on the sled with the fish. When the fisherman wasn’t looking, the fox picked out several big fish and threw them off the sled and then jumped off himself. He had a good fish dinner and didn’t have to get his feet wet.

The fox met a wolf and told him about tricking the fisherman, and the wolf decided to try it himself. The wolf lay down and pretended to be dead and let the fisherman find him, but the fisherman couldn’t be tricked again. As the wolf was laying on the ground, the fisherman took a stick and whacked the wolf hard to make sure it was dead. The wolf didn’t like that and got up and ran away without getting any fish.

After his dinner, the fox also met a bear who wanted some fish. Together they went to the lake, which was frozen, and cut a hole in the ice to catch some fish. The fox told the bear, “Just put your tail down into the water and when the fish nibble on it, we’ll get them.” The bear sat and sat with his tail in the water, but no fish nibbled at it. But it was so cold that the hole they had cut in the ice froze over and the bear’s tail got stuck. He had to yank it out of the ice and he lost most of it in the ice, and so that is why the bear has a stumpy tail.

(Adapted from Erminnie A. Smith, 1883, “Myths of the Iroquois,” Second Annual Report of the Bureau of American Ethnology, 1880-81:47-116.)

The Origin of the Bird’s Feathers

In the beginning, all the birds were naked, and they did not go out much. They didn’t like staying home all of the time and so they had a council and asked the Creator to do something so they wouldn’t be naked. They offered tobacco and songs, and the Creator listened to what they asked. The Creator told them that their new plumage was all ready for them but that it was stored a long way away, and that they either had to go there or send someone to get them. Since they were naked, they didn’t all want to go out in the open, so the turkey buzzard volunteered to go and get the new feathers for all of them.

At that time, the turkey buzzard was a clean bird. The suits of feathers were a long way away, and he wanted to get there fast and come back, so he didn’t stop to hunt. Instead, he just ate anything that he found, which included some pretty rotten stuff that was just laying around and which had been left by other animals.

When the buzzards got to the place where the plumage was, he felt that he deserved the best one because of all the work he had done to get there, find the feathers, and bring them back. So he selfishly took the best-looking bird coat for himself. The Creator did not think this was right, and instead gave the buzzard the suit he has now, and all of the other birds picked out the ones they wanted. Despite making the buzzard take one of the ugliest bird coats, the Creator gave the buzzard the ability to soar gracefully through the air to make up for the ugly suit of feathers.

(Adapted from Erminnie A. Smith, 1883, “Myths of the Iroquois,” Second Annual Report of the Bureau of American Ethnology, 1880-81:47-116.)