March 1994

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Iroquois Stories


Thomas D. Cornell

Preface, Essay I, Essay II, Essay III, Essay IV, Essay V, Essay VI, Essay VII


Although my early experiences involving American Indians came to me in bits and pieces, they were a distinctive part of my upbringing. While my family lived in Texas, Dad served as the scoutmaster of a boy scout troop, and on one of their outings he and the scouts found Indian arrowheads. Dad mounted his using fine copper wire, and for years the varnished plywood board hung on walls in our various homes.

While living in Ohio we visited the mounds of the ancient Mound Builders, and while living in Oklahoma I used my first camera to photograph the Indian dancers that I saw on an outing with my cub scout den. But not until after our move to Mississippi did my Indian experiences become self-motivated. It was then that I learned to find arrowheads and pieces of pottery near our house—as I describe in my first essay, entitled "Behind the Fence."

Over the years my boyhood experiences of finding Indian artifacts took on additional meaning. Although my college studies and graduate work led to a series of moves from one city to another, I was still able to find arrowheads whenever I returned home. Even the development of the area "behind the fence" could not fully break my ties to the land—as I demonstrate in my second essay, entitled "The Last Arrowhead Hunt."

The most recent of my city-to-city moves brought me to Rochester. When I arrived in 1982, I was still writing my doctoral dissertation. My plan was to acquire some teaching experiences and then—after finishing my graduate work-—to move on.

Meanwhile, I began making regular trips to visit my grandmother, Marie B. Cornell, of Campbell, New York. I was especially interested in the stories she told and in the way she tied them to the town and the surrounding countryside. But my own ties were more to Grandma than to the land—hence my feeling immediately after her death that now I was free to go wherever I wanted.

At about the same time, my relationship with Terry took a new turn. Although we had known each other since college, we had largely gone our separate ways.

Not long after I received my doctorate, however, we began talking regularly by telephone, and during the early months of 1990 we began considering how we might bring our separate lives together.

One of the main questions we discussed was who would move where: would I move to Knoxville, would she come to Rochester, or would we both go someplace new? Several factors were involved, but what tipped the scales was my growing sense that despite Grandma's death I still wanted regular contact with the Southern Tier.

As a result, in mid-1992 we bought a house in Henrietta, a suburb just south of Rochester proper. The "raised ranch" design offers the advantage of a full, well-lit basement, giving us lots of room for projects and storage. But because the house was built in 1964, it has accumulated all sorts of improvement needs—both inside and out.

This past summer, one of my outside projects was to remove a strip of sod along the side of our "attached garage" and to plant pachysandra cuttings. To my astonishment, as I was mixing peat moss into the clay soil I came across what seemed to be a piece of worked flint.

Visits with Terry to the Rochester Museum and Science Center had taught me to recognize the characteristic grey color of flint—quite different from the red jasper I had found in Mississippi. I had also learned from the exhibits that the artifacts excavated from sites of recent Iroquois settlements often included arrowheads from much earlier times.

For several weeks thereafter I had a hard time controlling my enthusiasm. With my eye retrained to spot the new color—and armed with the knowledge that the Iroquois themselves had collected arrowheads—I examined every patch of bare earth I came across. Unexpectedly, I found chips in most of these places. Then came the embarrassing realization that the limestone gravel used in local construction projects routinely included flint. The presence of this "noise" wherever I looked meant that even if I were finding genuine artifacts there was no proving it.

In the end, however, I was not wholly disappointed with the results. The day I found that piece of flint in the pachysandra bed, I lay on the grass and laughed and laughed. For the first time Rochester had become a place for me. Finally I felt from here-—in a way I hadn't felt from anywhere since leaving Mississippi.

But far more promising than this brief resurgence of my youthful passion for collecting arrowheads were my on-going efforts to establish contact with the contemporary Iroquois. To my delight, I discovered the existence of numerous public events in the area—powwows, festivals, and so forth—which featured Iroquois culture.

By then I had developed an interest in traditional Iroquois stories, and attending these events helped me to view the stories in a different light. In my research, I had been attempting to solve what I call in my third essay "A Narrative Problem." Despite the completeness with which Grandma's stories seemed to cover the Southern Tier, she rarely mentioned the Iroquois—even though the terrain must once have been filled with their stories. Hence the problem: how to fit Iroquois stories into the picture?

One of the first steps I took was to read Arthur C. Parker's collection Seneca Myths and Folk Tales. But—as I describe in my fourth essay—Parker's stories weren't connected to the land in the same direct way that Grandma's stories were. His stories didn't mention specific places that could be visited on day trips.

Starting in my fourth essay and continuing into my fifth, entitled "The Dancing Boys," I present my answer to the question of how the traditional Iroquois stories are tied to the land. Although the places mentioned in the stories are not specifically identified, the stories do refer to general features which are still present—and in my sixth essay, entitled "Cracks in the Sky," I illustrate this relationship using the Iroquois creation story.

But in my seventh essay, entitled "Grief and Thanksgiving," I reach for a deeper answer. Despite the continued presence of the natural features mentioned in the stories, the true links between the stories and the land come from the Iroquois themselves. Because they have endured as a people—and because they continue to speak their own language—their stories remain securely fastened to the terrain.

One final note: my terminology in this series of essays is intended to help express the change that occurred in my thinking. In the earliest essays I deliberately use the term "American Indian" (or just "Indian"), because that's what I used as a boy. As the essays start to reflect my growing understanding of American Indians from the Rochester area, I shift to the term "Iroquois." But only in the last essay do I use their own term for themselves—the Haudenosaunee.

Although there is much about the Haudenosaunee that I still don't know, I've learned that they are a remarkable people whose culture—past, present, and future—deserves far wider attention than it has received.

Essay I. Behind the Fence

I was 9 going on 10 during the summer of 1961 when my family moved from Oklahoma to Mississippi. There are many things that I remember about our earliest years in Starkville. But what stands out most clearly is the walk home from school.

I was entering fourth grade at the time of our arrival, and my brother Don was entering third. In the mornings on his way to work, Dad would drop us off at Overstreet Elementary, and in good weather we'd walk home.

The basic route took us to the old railroad depot and then alongside the tracks. If we wanted to stop at the public library, we'd head toward Main Street. Otherwise, we'd cut across the parking lot behind the Baptist Church. Next came the funeral home, followed by the Methodist Church and the hospital. The final landmarks were the Corner Store and the Junior High School. When they came into view, our walk was almost over.

After two years of renting, my parents bought a newly-built house north of town, in the "Plantation Homes" subdivision. Several years before, someone had cut down most of the bodocks (bois d'arcs) on the lot but had left the felled trees where they lay. Because the dense yellow wood is slow to rot, and because the stumps quickly send up new growth, the result was an impenetrable weave of thorny branches.

So heavily wooded was the property that an early visit (while construction was still in progress) led to the discovery of a gully whose head lay fifty feet from the southwestern corner of the house. Only after several years of cutting down trees and burning out stumps were we able to open up a lawn beneath the towering pecans.

Clearly the backyard also made accessible the southern edge of our property, along which ran several strands of rusty barbed wire. On the other side of this fence was the right-of-way for a power line. From there, the land rose gently toward the southeast.

When we first went "behind the fence," my brothers and I just played. One early pastime was running through the gullies of loose chalk on the badly eroded hilltop. Even then I was interested in fossils, and as we played I looked for them. Although none ever turned up, we did find small stones—red, mostly, as well as yellow and white—and even in the bare topsoil of the old tractor paths I noticed pieces of "curved brick," like bits of crushed terra cotta pipe.

Our move had involved a change of schools, and toward the end of my sixth-grade year at Sudduth Elementary one of my new classmates brought some Indian artifacts to show us. Right off, I recognized what he called pottery as being identical to the "curved brick" I'd seen. That, in turn, got me thinking: maybe some of the stones I'd been saving in old peanut-butter jars were arrowheads.

The first time through I looked for triangular shapes—which turned out to be the wrong approach. Later I learned that you don't want anything that shows the rounded, dull-colored surface of the original stone. Nor do you want anything with a smooth, shiny surface—for that bespeaks a flake. Instead, the surfaces of the arrowheads we found were intricate and multifaceted, each facet being a place where a tiny chip had been removed. In short, it's not the shape you look for. It's the texture.

With practice, my eye became so well trained that arrowheads seemed to leap from the ground as I passed. Nevertheless, collecting them was slow work. The fields "behind the fence" were no longer plowed, which meant that after searching the "good spots" I'd have to wait a few seasons before trying again.

Meanwhile, I continued with school—first at the Junior High (back in our old neighborhood) and then at the High School (south of town). At the same time, I also found myself getting busy with other things—scouts, band, church, dating, and part-time work at the public library (housed in its new building).

Then I left home for college and for city life. I went to Memphis for an undergraduate degree, to Atlanta and to Baltimore for graduate studies, and finally to Rochester for a college-teaching job.

Each move required creating for myself a new mental map. But on occasional visits home, I took comfort in walks "behind the fence." Finding additional arrowheads and pottery pieces always left me feeling that here, at least, was one place where I already knew the lay of the land.

Throughout the same period, however, the once idle terrain around "Plantation Homes" was steadily developed. The trend began with the construction of a road, and in short order the hilltop with the chalk pits became the site for a new hospital. Elsewhere along other new roads, the fields and woods became neighborhoods of private homes.

At first there were enough different places where I could find arrowheads so that when one site was paved or planted in grass other sites remained for me to try. Finally, however, on a visit home during the spring of 1990 my entire route "behind the fence" followed sidewalks and roadside shoulders.

There was a time I knew my way
Along tractor paths and cattle trails
From the chalk gullies atop the hill
To the open fields below.
I sometimes brought my scout patrol
To the hillside grove of trees
For overnight camping trips
When I first became their leader.
But mostly I explored alone,
Eyes to ground, intent on finding
"Curved brick" and flecks of rock:
Indian pottery and arrowheads.
Year after year I'd return
To sites of past success
Until fresh pavement and new lawns
Robbed me of my bearings.
For a while the land had stood
Open to minute inspection;
Then the place I new so well
Disappeared forever.
© 1994, Thomas D. Cornell
Preface, Essay I, Essay II, Essay III, Essay IV, Essay V, Essay VI, Essay VII
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