May 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

Essay III. A Narrative Problem


Despite the completeness with which Grandma's stones 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?

At times it's been hard to share with my fiance what the Southern Tier region of New York State means to me. If I express myself clearly, all's usually well. But when I'm in the middle of an emerging thought, the going can be difficult.

One such moment came during a conversation we had during the summer of 1991, over supper at the China Inn restaurant in Knoxville, Tennessee.

Terry was then still living in the two log cabins that her father had moved in the 1960s from their original sites in rural East Tennessee to the wooded property where the family was building a new house. Each cabin had two floors, with a stone fireplace on the first floor; each had its tulip-poplar logs chinked with cement; and each had electricity and running water. But only one was fully furnished for year-round living.

Having come from Rochester for an extended visit, I set up my computer in the second cabin—so while Terry was off cutting mats at the Grey Goose Gallery, I was able to keep myself occupied with writing projects. A relaxed work pace gave me plenty of time for reflecting, and as new ideas surfaced, I'd get excited. By the end of the day, however, Terry would be wanting to wind down from the "fancy cuts" she'd been making. Between her lack of concentration and the rawness of my ideas, we'd both get frustrated—which is exactly what happened during our conversation at the China Inn.

The idea that I tried expressing had to do with the way in which Indians appeared in Grandma Cornell's stories. Hour after hour Grandma had told me about her own life, about the results of her genealogical research, and about her interest in local history. From time to time she'd mention the Indians who once inhabited the area. But such references usually occurred in the midst of some larger story she was telling.

One of these fragments involved her parents' farm in the hill country above Campbell. In describing the various fields, Grandma would comment that the topmost had been known as the "stone pile" field. She'd explain that the presence of stones made it ideal for growing potatoes. Then she'd mention how her father had found arrowheads there.

"What happened to those arrowheads?" I once asked, wanting to pursue a topic of special interest to me. Grandma didn't know. But she did offer an explanation for why the artifacts had been there to find in the first place. Although the best corn land lay further north and west—along the Genesee River—the Indians came south to hunt. A group would work their way up the sides of a hill and then shoot the game they had surrounded at the top.

Another fragment involved the name of the local chapter of the Daughters of the American Colonists (a genealogical society to which Grandma belonged). Originally known simply as the "Corning Chapter," the members voted to rename it the "Forbidden Trail Chapter."

Running basically along the southern edge of Seneca territory, the Forbidden Trail followed the Chemung River and then the lower reaches of the Canisteo River before heading west to the Allegheny River. Grandma explained to me that the trail was "forbidden" because the Senecas sought to prevent whites from penetrating further into their territory than where today stands the village of Painted Post.

In stories such as these came the few references to Indians that I ever heard Grandma make. Instead, she tended to fill the land with stories about the white settlers and their descendants. As I became aware of her European-American emphasis, I began wondering what had happened to the stories that the Indians themselves must have told. Surely the whole area had once been bathed in a rich atmosphere of their own stories. Could I experience these in the same way that I had experienced Grandma's—and if so, would I be able to find a place for them in a terrain already thickly overlain with European-American stories?

What surfaced on the day of the China Inn conversation with Terry was a possible solution to this narrative problem of how to fit Indian stories into the picture. Wasn't it true of stories, in general, that they took shape as people interacted not only with each other but also with the land they inhabited? Despite the cultural differences between my family and the Indians, hadn't we shared the same terrain? Thus wasn't it logical to conclude that if I attuned myself to the landscape, while at the same time exposing myself to whatever Indian stories I could locate, I'd be able to feel a special relationship to some of them?

Had I been alone that evening in Knoxville, I would have spent the time expressing my new idea on paper. Years before, I had discovered the tremendous leveraging power that writing has for giving permanence to the ephemeral. Once a thought is recorded on paper, you can return to it at your convenience—to examine it, expand it, edit it, whatever.

By contrast, effective talk requires constant monitoring—something I wasn't especially good at—so I was slow to sense that although Terry was listening to me she wasn't offering much in the way of comments or questions. In the face of her apparent non-responsiveness, I first found myself headed toward the shoals of self-indulgence—for I began to worry that I was talking just to hear the sound of my own voice. Then I found myself snagged by the fear that I had failed to make myself understood, a situation guaranteed to make a teacher feel frustrated.

At that point, there was nothing to do but to ease up and back off. Further consideration would have to wait until Terry was more rested and I had developed the idea more carefully.

Amazingly, however, the gist must somehow have gotten across, because during a telephone conversation several months later (by which time I was back in Rochester), Terry quoted a passage from a book she'd been reading—a passage that went right to the heart of the matter.

The book was an interview with Joseph Campbell, who had spent his life studying myths and seeing in them the traits shared by all humankind. "I think that for Americans," he told Michael Toms (An Open Life, Harper and Row, 1989, p. 32):

American Indian material is very important, because the mythology is rooted in the land as well as in the psyche. Our [Christian] mythology has been brought from the Near East, a very long time ago, and it does not relate to our land unless we can, through our own experience, make it so. Do you see? And if you do not have that experience, then the Holy Land is somewhere else. But the great realization of mythology is the immanence of the divine—here and now—you don't have to go anywhere else for it. This is the holy land, the holy moment.

There it was: confirmation (from one source, at least) of my earlier idea that Indian stories could be approached through their ties to the land. Now all that remained was to test how well the idea would work in practice.

© 1994, Thomas D. Cornell
Preface, Essay I, Essay II, Essay III, Essay IV, Essay V, Essay VI, Essay VII
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