July 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 V. The Dancing Boys


Continuing into my fifth essay, 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.

As I worked with the Iroquois stories, I slowly realized how complex a task I faced in my efforts to discover personal meaning in them. Not only did the Iroquois have a long history of interactions with European-Americans (stretching back to the 16th century) but the work of modern archŠologists had opened up an extensive "prehistory." More than that, the Iroquois continued to exist as a distinctive community. They possessed not only a past, but a present and a future as well.

Maybe, I thought to myself, I should make an effort to understand Iroquois stories in the light of these larger contexts—and in that spirit, I returned to Parker's book.

In one of his stories Parker told of seven young brothers who were learning to dance. Believing that they had perfected their skill, they asked their mother to provide them with food for a journey. After she refused, they resumed dancing. But this time they danced a magical dance.

Soon the boys were circling in the air, high above the ground. Realizing too late what was happening, their mother pleaded with them to look down. But they ignored her pleas and continued to dance, all the while rising higher and higher. Again and again she cried out. Finally, the eldest looked down—and immediately fell to the earth.

For months afterward the woman watched the spot where her son had landed, and in the spring she noticed a tree beginning to grow—which became the first of the pines. Meanwhile, her other sons continued their eternal sky dance, forming the "dancing-stars" cluster—the same cluster that the ancient Greeks had called the Pleiades.

Parker's version of the story (which he had heard from Jesse Cornplanter) had not been the first to appear in print. For more than a generation, researchers in the newly-emerging field of cultural anthropology had been recording the oral traditions of the Iroquois and other groups of Native Americans. In these efforts, one especially active organization was the Smithsonian Institution's Bureau of American Ethnology, and its second annual report (published in 1883) included Erminnie A. Smith's collection of Iroquois myths.

In the section entitled "Origin of the Constellations," Smith briefly considered the Pleiades. Although the boys in her version were not brothers, the basic story was the same. The boys asked their parents for food but were refused. When next they began dancing, they rose into the sky—all except one, who fell to the ground after looking back.

More detailed was an Onondaga version, published in 1900 in the Journal of American Folklore by William M. Beauchamp. As was their custom each autumn, a band of Indians traveled to their hunting grounds near a lake. While the adults worked, the boys amused themselves by dancing. They also decided to have a feast of their own—with an outcome similar to the other versions. As the dancing boys rose into the sky, one of them returned to the earth as a falling star. Meanwhile, the rest became the formation that the Onondaga called Oot-kwa-tah," meaning "There they dwell in peace."

Even before Parker published his version, he had edited Myths and Legends of the New York State Iroquois by Harriet Maxwell Converse—which appeared in 1908 as New York State Museum Bulletin No. 125 (still available in a reprinted edition). Here the boys were again brothers. This time, however, they were eleven in number, and they were enchanted in the woods by singing voices. As they rose, their dancing made the stars dizzy. In exasperation the Moon turned the boys into a permanent constellation.

At about the same time that I was pursuing my library work, I also discovered how the story remained an integral part of contemporary Iroquois folklore. On 31 July 1993, at the "Native American Dance & Music Festival" held at Ganondagan, Seneca storyteller Virginia Snow included "The Dancing Boys" in her portion of the program.

"I'm going to tell the version I know," Snow explained, acknowledging that the story exists in different forms. According to her, the boys had been watching each evening as their fathers met around the campfire to talk about the day's events. Wanting to emulate their elders, the boys found a place in the woods to build a campfire of their own. They also chose the eldest among them as their leader, and after they decided to have a feast he suggested that each of them ask his parents for food.

As in the other versions, the boys' efforts were unsuccessful. "Cheer up," said their young leader, when they returned empty-handed, "we will dance. I have a magic song." The by-now-familiar result was that the dancing boys began to rise. After they appeared above the trees, their parents caught sight of them and began calling out. One of the boys failed to ignore their pleas and fell. But the others continued to rise. "In the latter part of January or the early part of February," Snow concluded, "these stars are high overhead—and the elders say 'The seven dancing boys are dancing tonight.'"

Experiencing the story in these various ways helped me to appreciate its significance more fully. To begin with, it conveyed to adults the moral to "feed children well" (as Beauchamp had put it). In addition, it explained the origin of falling stars (and—in Parker's version—the origin of pine trees). Also included were the activities of dancing and magic, both of which were central to traditional Iroquois culture.

But the story's main feature was its account of how the Pleiades had originated. Stories of constellations (the other notable example being the Big Dipper) didn't appear frequently in the sources I consulted, which suggested that the Pleiades had a special importance. Sure enough, I learned that the Iroquois had traditionally begun their annual cycle of ceremonies when the Pleiades reached their zenith. After the last hunt of the season—and with the appearance of the new moon during the time that the "Dancing Boys" were directly overhead at sunset—the Iroquois celebrated the onset of their New Year with a Midwinter Ceremony.

Having gained a better understanding of the story, I again gave free rein to my imagination—and found myself inspired by things that my aunt had once told me. During one of our occasional get-togethers, I mentioned Parker's book and told her how disappointed I had been that so few of his stories could be linked to specific places on current maps. She then reminded me that his stories had been part of an oral tradition and that the people who told them had lived across a wide area.

My aunt's remarks led me to rethink the story of the dancing boys. I now began seeing it as a metaphor for the distinctive relationship that Indian stories have to the land. Just as the boys had danced round and round, so the Indians had told their stories again and again. In the process, the stories had lost their ties to specific places. Just as the Indian boys had risen higher and higher, so the stories had become more and more generic. Yet—like the dancing boys—the stories had not disappeared completely. Instead, they remained overhead, offering points of reference from which the inhabitants of the land (even non-Indians) could still take their bearings.

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