The Crooked Lake Review

Winter 2003

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Welcome To Iroquoia

A Review of the Literature


Stephen Lewandowski

The League of the Iroquois by Lewis Henry Morgan, 1851
A Narrative of the Life of Mary Jemison by James Seaver, 1823
Skunny Wundy by Arthur C. Parker, 1926
The Death and Rebirth of the Seneca by Antony F. C. Wallace, 1969
The Reservation by Ted Williams, 1976

In their own language, they called themselves individually Ongweh Howeh, or "real People," and as a member of the group Ho-de-no-sau-nee, "people of the longhouse." The French missionaries and traders who first explored their homeland in what has since become New York borrowed a word from their longtime Algonquin enemies and called them Iroquois, "real snakes."

Say four hundred years ago to this winter day, the native inhabitants of the village of Canandaigua, "place chosen for habitation," would have been keeping themselves busy inside their bark longhouses and hunters' shelters. A few men might be out in a hunting party looking for deer yards or beaver lodges, but most people would have been doing a little light work, tanning hides, stirring the stew pot, sewing and repairing equipment and clothes, playing with the children, carving a snow snake or a spoon, lounging on the racks of bed-shelves built over corn storage bins against the lodge walls, gambling, eating, telling stories or sleeping. Stories were an important feature of the long winter season when families kept close to their fires in the bark and pole lodges. During winter months, old people told stories to teach the youngsters and amuse themselves. The etiquette of storytelling confined the practice to the winter months, "when the snakes could not hear them."

Illustration by Bill Treichler

With snow making the roads slick today, I can imagine myself snowbound here in Canandaigua, as I sit comfortably in the bay window of what was my great-grandparents' house. Looking out the windows from the comfort of my chair, feet up on the warm radiators, I can tell you about the time when Main Street was a short section of the Great Trail which ran east-west as a sort of Main Street of the League of the Iroquois. It crossed streams at shallows, connected lake to lake, and village with village as clearings in the vast forest.

Seneca-Cayuga-Onandaga-Oneida-Mohawk, just like that west to east. Add the Tuscaroras in the early 1700s. They stretched across the finger Lakes—Conesus, Hemlock, Canadice, Honeoye, Canandaigua, Seneca, Cayuga, Owasco, Skaneateles, Otisco—and surrounded Onondaga and Oneida Lakes. The trail connected tribes whose dress, customs and language would have been immediately and noticeably different to the Ongweh Howeh, but who could make themselves understood in their neighbors' territories. Among them there were some small differences but much was the same.

In the village clearings there were longhouses, some several hundred feet long, made of elm bark lashed over poles, with open fires inside and smokeholes above, housing several families. The family "apartments" were casually separated by bark, mats and hanging furs. Around the outside of the village clearing, they may have erected a log palisade to discourage any surprise visits. Running water was always nearby. Also around the village were their fields and orchards: apples, plums and peaches. In the mounded fields were the dry stalks of corn, beans and squash, harvested and stored away months before. The villages were small centers of activity in the forests which stretched for hundreds of unbroken miles, the only openings made by fire, blow-downs and washouts. During the winter months the home fires would have burned continuously but were banked low for slow times.

The Iroquois may have provoked more literature than any other Native American group, more books than any "discovered" people. The Iroquois have been in fashion, out and in again, both in popular images and anthropological study. They have been both "noble" and "dirty," have occasioned good and bad books, accurate and inaccurate accounts, sensational novels (literary Cooper and popular Chambers), and many collections of their goods, habits, history, rituals and stories. Here, I'll only discuss a few outstanding examples of the books which I like best, and I like each of them for different reasons.

The League of the Iroquois is considered a classic as a first study in the modern discipline of anthropology. The author, Lewis Henry Morgan, an attorney from Aurora, New York, practicing in Rochester, became interested in the Iroquois through fraternity ritualism and was lucky to find an excellent guide and informant in the person of Ely Parker. Parker, a Seneca of a distinguished family, was eager to be taught legal practices so that he might defend tribal lands against the encroachments of the Ogden Land Company. Morgan was a wealthy lawyer, able to help the Seneca to a long-fought but momentary victory in retaining their lands. Both Morgan and Parker gained by this symbiotic relationship, though there is evidence that Parker should have received more credit for The League… than he has. Later in life, Parker became an aide-de-camp to General Grant during the Civil War, wrote the terms of surrender at Appomatox, and was appointed by President Grant as the head of the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

The League of the Iroquois is a detailed account of Iroquois life covering both significant and everyday times, necessarily selective, without precedent, and remarkably thorough. Morgan laid much of the groundwork for the discipline of anthropology as a scientific study of man. Major John Wesley Powell, ethnologist, explorer of the Grand Canyon, and first head of the Bureau of American Ethnology called The League… "The first scientific account of an Indian tribe." The book presents a strong account of Iroquoian social and political structure but is less complete on arts and material culture. One need only consider the neoclassical literature which preceded it to appreciate what a leap The League… makes, especially in advancing the scientific analysis of a society. Morgan was particularly excited by the matriarchal and communistic elements of Iroquoian society; he went on to enlarge his study of these aspects of life in societies around the world in Ancient Society.

Both Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels were impressed with Morgan's work, made a translation into German, and used his research as the groundwork for their own economic and social theories. It's difficult to imagine the origins of socialist thought were in the research of a wealthy upstate lawyer. The League… makes good winter reading, requiring both time and patience.

Though the snow lets up, the day grows darker. The days are too short anyway. Let's consider a lighter book informative in its own way but conversational and humorous. Ted Williams' The Reservation belongs in every New York State library as one of Syracuse University Press' excellent titles on native, colonial and local history. The Reservation, as far as it can be accomplished in a written text, reads like storytelling. Williams should be credited for creating and sustaining this style, and the editors deserve our thanks for maintaining the tone through publication.

Apparently, Williams didn't intend to write a book. He was taking a writing class at SUNY Brockport while working his day job as a crane operator at Eastman Kodak. Williams' first literary efforts were poorly received. The stories which make up The Reservation began when his professor advised him to write something autobiographical. To Williams' surprise, his venture into natural speech rhythms and autobiographical prose won the praise of not only the professor but also the class. And it won not only the approval of the class but also an especially warm response from the woman whom he had followed in taking the writing class. To finish the side-story of The Reservation, Williams was encouraged by editors at Syracuse University Press to produce more stories, had his first book accepted before it was completed, and married the woman.

Williams' stories unfold in a leisurely, measured fashion, like listening to the best storyteller you ever heard. You don't want to finish the book. His stories are often a kid's-eye view of growing up on the Tuscarora Reservation in Niagara County. One story, "Thraangkie and You-swee(t)-dad," is nothing more than an account of the meeting and debate between two old Indian men, a traditionalist and a Christian. Though it could be considered a classic example of what not to do in a story ("nothing happens"), the story grounds itself in the heart of Iroquois culture. When I heard Williams read and tell the story one winter night in Rochester, taking first the part of one man and then the other as they strove to divine their relationship, it was a moving experience. In Williams' hands, the story becomes a philosophical mediation of considerable subtlety and feeling.

Other stories such at "Hogart" and "The Sultan" are as grotesque as anything by Rabelais. I was drawn to the stories of Williams' father Eleazar who healed with the traditional herbal medicines he gathered and prepared. Williams depicts twentieth-century Native American life as well as any of the better-known novelists such as James Welch or Scott Momaday. For slow, savory reading through the snowy months, try The Reservation.

A Narrative of the Life of Mary Jemison is a classic of biography, or autobiography, reprinted dozens of times since its original publication in 1823. Mary Jemison was stolen from her family in the Wyoming Valley in 1755 at the age of 12 by Shawnees. She was traded to the Seneca and adopted by a family who had lost a member. She lived most of the rest of her life among the Seneca, first in the Ohio Valley and later beside the Genesee River, sharing work with women in the fields, sometimes suffering from memories of her lost family, but enduring in her new life. She married a Delaware who soon died and then a Seneca named Hiakatoo, who was both fierce in war and kind to Mary. She raised four sons and two daughters on a piece of land granted to her by the Seneca, losing several children to illness and violence. Given a chance to leave the Seneca after General Sullivan's 1779 campaign of destruction, she chose to stay because she believed her children would fare better in Seneca society.

Mary Jemison was eighty when she told her story to James Seaver, to be set down in A Narrative…, but her mind and memory were clear and full of the details of Seneca life. Her enjoyment of that life resounds through the narrative. Unfortunately, her story was tampered with, although Seaver's introduction claims the story was "carefully taken from her own words," it is clear that Seaver prettified her story and edited for literary effect. The scenes of daily life among the Seneca are wonderful and nearly unique, but the account seems at some points partial and lacking in detail due in large part to Seaver's editorial intervention. Reading A Narrative… you find yourself wishing that Seaver had stayed out of the way or, if he had to intrude, he'd asked more of the right questions. I have so many questions for this remarkable woman that I'd gladly walk to Letchworth State Park for a talk, but A Narrative… is her only answer.

The Death and Rebirth of the Seneca was written by Anthony F. C. Wallace in the 1950s and 60s—it's a work which could easily take a lifetime to assemble. With his training as an anthropologist and psychiatrist, Wallace was just the right person to study the effect of the visions of Handsome Lake, the Seneca prophet, on Seneca culture. Handsome Lake testified that, as he lay near death in 1799, messengers from the Creator brought him visions and stories to be passed on to the Seneca. The Handsome Lake religion, sometimes called "The Old Way" or "The Good Message," lives on to this day.

Handsome Lake's teachings emphasize reform and return to traditional Iroquois values. In 1799, Iroqouis culture was in dire need of renewal—as a people they faced the impending theft of their lands, alcoholism, infectious disease, and a deepening demoralization. Hemmed in by antagonistic settlers and an alien culture, their lives fell apart, lacking a center. Handsome Lake's Old Way offered an opportunity to re-affirm and return to traditional values, ritual speech, songs and dances. The Old Way provided a real alternative, previously missing from their lives, to accepting Christianity or dispersing.

Handsome Lake's message could not re-weave the cultural fabric by itself (in fact, it was the source of considerable conflict), but it could serve as a patch, lashing the remnants together long enough to make a plan and to begin to find a way to the future. The Good Message, unlike the later Northern Plains' Ghost Dance, was not aimed at undoing colonial culture's impacts; the Good Message was an accommodation and a compromise, borrowing freely from such Christian sects as the Society of Friends (Quakers). Iroquois community life was badly damaged in the cultural collision, and the Iroquois would have understood little of the colonists' notions of freedom, individualism and liberty.

After the Revolutionary War, the Iroquois culture could have collapsed. Parts of the tribes dispersed to the west and north, but Handsome Lake's Good Message gave them a focus for regrouping and defending their culture, rights and land. The Good Message is eminently practical and millennial at once. The Death and Rebirth of the Seneca provides a deep and understanding look at lives in great stress. Is there more we could learn from it?

Arthur Parker was a prolific author in many genres. As a museum administrator and educator for much of his life, he was particularly concerned that young people learn truths about Native American life. He sensed how prejudices were rooted in innocent lives, to quote the homely metaphor, "as the twig is bent so grows the tree." Consequently, many of his books have a clarity and simplicity that will appeal to young and old alike.

Three of Parker's scholarly books, Iroquois Uses of Maize and Other Food Plants, The Code of Handsome Lake, the Seneca Prophet, and The Constitution of the Five Nations, have been reprinted in one volume by Syracuse University Press. Parker also wrote a history of the Seneca Nation, many archaeological papers, a biography of Red Jacket, The Indian How Book, (a compendium of native woodcraft), a collection of Seneca myths and folk tales, and Skunny Wundy. Skunny Wundy is generally intended for the youthful reader because, as Parker explains in his "A Story About My Stories," he heard them first from his elders at an early time in his life, growing up on the Cattaraugus Reservation. As an important part of his education, he is eager to share them with modern children.

Skunny Wundy is a trickster whose name translates more or less as "cross the creek" or "better guess." As Skunny Wundy says, "I never get caught." Most of these stories fall into the category of how-stories: how the bear got his short tail, etc. and most are about animals. Animals are by no means the only subjects of Iroquois tales, however, and a glimpse of the grotesqueries of Iroquois tales can be found in Jeremiah Curtin's Seneca Indian Myths or Joseph Bruchac's Iroquois Tales which include flying heads, stone giants, vampires, cannibals and skeletons.

Several of Skunny Wundy's stories are mysterious, and Parker ends the book with a spooky tale of vengeance, "The Ghost of the Great White Stag." He also includes "The Mysterious Caves of the Jungies," one of the few descriptions and discussions of the Iroquois "little people" anywhere in the literature. Jungies are small and old but formed like human beings. They lived on earth before men came. Like the animals, part of some older creation. They are of the earth, living in cliffs, caves and grottoes. The Creator gave them three main jobs, all related to man's use of the land—some are "stone throwers" who make the rounded stones useful for hammers and leave them where men may find them. Underwater jungies guard springs and seeps, keeping them clean and flowing. "Drum dancers" are the caretakers of fruits and other food crops. The jungies are like men and often help men but can be powerful enemies when slighted or aroused by some wrong. They are the guardian deities of place whose influence many religious people have seen in traditional landscapes. As Parker intended, these stories give a brief glimpse of the Iroquoian world, through their children's eyes. He was convinced that we would be changed by what we see.

I have left out a great deal in what's selected and noted here. In choosing these five books as examples, I haven't mentioned some of the great names in Iroquoian scholarship: Fenton, Trigger, Paul Wallace, Beauchamp, Jesse Cornplanter, Curtin, Graymont and Tooker. Writing the lives of a people properly, could take a book as large as the land itself. Most of the books chosen illustrate a past time and a changed world. Instead of village clearings in a vast forest, most of the modern Iroquois live in isolated reserves or in the midst of great cities. Who knows how long or well they will preserve their unique identities? Who knows what has been lost already? The feeling of their impending disappearance is nothing new, however, and has been proved generally untrue—their culture is still here among us, available to those who want to learn.

© 2002, Stephen Lewandowski
Index to articles by Stephen Lewandowski
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