September 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 VII. Grief and Thanksgiving


In my seventh essay I reach for the true links between the stories and the land 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. In this last essay I use their own term for themselves—the Haudenosaunee.

The Seneca story that had first struck within me a resonant chord was the title entry in Susan Feldman's anthology, The Storytelling Stone: Traditional Native American Myths and Tales (Laurel Books, 1965)

The story was about a young Indian boy who hunted birds in the forest. One day, after traveling farther than usual, the boy came to a clearing with a large stone at its center. As he sat there, adjusting the feathers on his arrows, a voice nearby asked: "Would you like to hear stories?"

Looking around, the boy could see no one. But then he heard the voice ask again: "Would you like to hear stories?"

To his amazement, the boy realized that the stone itself was speaking! "What are stories?" he managed to reply.

"They are accounts of times long ago," answered the stone. "If you give me your birds, I'll tell you some."

The boy did as the stone had suggested, and for the rest of the afternoon he listened to the stories it told. When the stone concluded, the boy hurried home. But he returned the next day, and the next and the next, each time leaving gifts in exchange for stories.

The other villagers noticed that the boy was spending all day in the woods without bringing home nearly as many birds as before—so some of them decided to follow him. As a result, they too heard the stone tell its stories. Finally, the whole village came. Day after day they listened, until the stone said that it had finished. In the future, it explained, they would have to tell each other the stories.

At the time I first came across this story, I had been studying the geology of the Finger Lakes region and visiting the Hammondsport Glen—so my original idea had been to visit the storytelling stone and to experience firsthand how one and the same rock formation could be associated with Indian stories as well as geology stories.

Despite my disappointment at being unable to link the storytelling stone to any specific site, I continued my studies. Among other things, I learned that the Iroquois had once viewed the various natural features of the earth—including rocks—as possessing spirits. It wasn't that they worshiped these spirits. Instead, they worshiped the world's Creator. Nor was it the case that the earth's natural features could actually talk—though that's how the stories were told. Instead, the traditional Iroquois had shown so deep a respect toward the things the Creator had placed on the earth that they were able to live in a state of spiritual communion with those things.

As this picture emerged, I found myself able to understand better something I had experienced earlier. On one of my return trips from Washington, DC—the time I had purchased my copy of Parker's book—I had just passed Williamsport, Pennsylvania, and was driving along a stretch of newly-opened four-lane. Rising to the left, high above me, were cliffs streaked by vertical grooves. But despite the freshness of these blasting scars, I was able to glimpse the natural strata—and at that moment I caught myself weeping.

A short while later the new construction ended, and I rejoined old US-15 for the climb up the Allegany Front. By then I had recovered my composure and had begun wondering: how had a bunch of rocks been able to turn me to tears?

Very soon some answers started to surface. In part, I had responded to the massiveness of the cuts—which demonstrated so clearly the power of modern engineering to reshape the landscape. Yet that wasn't the full story, for the essential character of the mountains had not been completely obliterated. Instead, what really hurt was knowing I had come along the new road by choice. Anxious to return home as quickly as possible I hadn't taken the usual route—for I had wanted to avoid its stoplights and its low speed limits. The problem was that the old road also boasted a state historical marker—the one describing the Williamson Road over the mountains.

As I continued thinking, I realized how closely my choice reflected the general tendencies of American culture. Because so many people wanted to travel so quickly, public construction projects featured mile after mile of limited-access highways. But unlike other people (or so I imagined), I knew that in racing toward my future I was losing my contact with the past. I wept not because the past had actually vanished but because it was still there and I had chosen not to seek it out.

Maybe—I now thought to myself, pushing toward a more general conclusion—successful development requires grief. Maybe the pace of our progress is limited not just by how successfully we plan for the future but also by how successfully we make our peace with the past. Maybe my social role was to express that grief—not because I wanted us to return to the past but because only grieving would truly free us to move forward.

Yet I sensed there were depths to my experience that I still hadn't probed. After all, the Williamson Road had been in its day a major development project, the 18th-century equivalent of a four-lane highway. The past the roadside marker represented simply didn't carry enough weight to account for the grief I had felt.

There the matter rested until Terry mentioned a book she once read—a book with a title that immediately caught my attention. As soon as I could, I looked up Annie Dillard's collection of essays Teaching a Stone to Talk (Harper and Row, 1982) and turned to the title piece.

In it Dillard described how we live in a culture that has lost the ability to hear the voice of God in the world of nature. "At a certain point," she wrote, "you say to the woods, to the sea, to the mountain, the world, Now I am ready. Now I will stop and be wholly attentive. You empty yourself and wait, listening. After a time you hear it: there is nothing there." (pp. 71-72)

Dillard then discussed her trips to the Galapagos Islands—a site largely undeveloped in an engineering sense and yet closely linked to the intellectual achievements of Charles Darwin. In that context—in the context of modern science—the best we may be able to do is just what Dillard said she wanted to do, namely, to listen to the sound of nature's silence. "If we were not here," wrote Dillard, "material events like the passage of seasons would lack even the meager meanings we are able to muster for them…That is why I take walks: to keep an eye on things." (p. 73)

In my own way, I had long ago reached a similar conclusion. Back in Mississippi I had puzzled over what set jasper arrowheads apart from jasper stones, and I had finally concluded that arrowheads as individual objects were little more than rocks. Even when placed in the context of other artifacts, they expressed only what archæologists could conclude using standard rules of inference—which meant that they conveyed valuable information but precious little in the way of stories.

By the time I got around to reading Dillard's essay, however, I wasn't fully comfortable with her conclusion about nature's silence. Although my understanding of the experience remained incomplete, something extraordinary had happened to me at the Williamsport Rocks. I also knew that even if stones couldn't tell stories, people certainly could—and as a resident of Western New York I was coming into contact with the contemporary Iroquois, whose traditional stories differ so dramatically from the stories I had heard Grandma tell.

As I became more familiar with the great stream of Iroquois stories, I gradually realized what drew me so powerfully. Again and again, I found myself returning to the upper reaches of the watershed—to the stories whose events predated the arrival of Europeans. With the onset of European contact, the Iroquois had entered into trade relationships that transformed their material culture, and by the end of the 17th century their stone weapons and tools had largely been replaced by weapons and tools made of metal. In their traditional stories, however, they continued to tell about men and boys who hunted in the forest using arrows tipped with stone points.

What fascinated me was how today's Iroquois still possessed an oral tradition extending unbroken to the ties when their ancestors lived stone-age lifestyles. To a degree, of course, their continued knowledge of the traditional stories rested on published versions collected by Parker and others. Yet it's also true that their oral tradition had never died out.

I once heard Peter Jemison—the manager of the Ganondagan State Historic Site—describe how he learned only after his grandmother's death that she had spoken the Seneca language. But he also mentioned how others had come to visit her because she knew the old words. Thus the continued existence of the Senecas as a community has meant that for every case of missed opportunity there have been other cases of opportunities seized.

Jemison himself now plays an important role in helping to preserve the traditional culture of the Iroquois—as I saw last summer, when I attended the "Native American Music & Dance Festival" at Ganondagan.

It was a balmy afternoon. The sun had dipped notticeably below its zenith, and the time had come for Jemison to set in motion the official closing by introducing an Iroquois Elder—a Haudenosaunee Elder—to offer the final remarks.

From the edge of the tent, the old man got up from his lawn chair. As he walked slowly past the first mike stand, he hung on it his black cowboy hat. Then he seated himself next to the mike that Jemison had used.

After a few sentences in English, the old man slipped into a language I didn't understand. His words had a pleasing sound, but there was nothing in them for me to grab hold of—no obvious cadences, not even imaginary patterns like those we see in the clouds. Yet on and on he went, without hesitation, according to a purpose known to some around him but completely foreign to me.

As I listened, I imagined the flow of his words sweeping over me and the rest of the audience. But the words didn't stop there. From the edge of the tent, they spread across the field until they reached the line of trees that marked the near horizon. Then they jumped to a distant hill—and from there, to the far horizon.

The thought came to me that once again the land was feeling the weight of Seneca words, and I found myself at peace—for I had finally discovered the true force sustaining the Seneca stories.

By themselves, neither artifacts nor landscape were enough. In the end, only people tell stories: Haudenosaunee themselves. But more than just preserving their traditional culture, the Haudenosaunee were willing to share it with non-Indians—and in so doing, they offered me something that I was unable to provide for myself.

Despite Annie Dillard's assessment, the long arm of the past had reached out to me from the Williamsport Rocks, touching that part of my soul still immersed in the stone age. Without anything further to work with, I doubt I'd ever have fully understood my tears. Even if I were to follow my family lines as far back as Grandma's genealogical research had taken her, my reach would extend only to the Renaissance—well short of stone-age Europe. But because of where I live, I was not restricted to the kinds of stories that Grandma had told me. Stones can't talk, but the Haudenosaunee can—and now I was listening with all the intensity I could muster.

The next day I returned to the festival at Ganondagan, and during a lull in the program I made a point of asking Jemison what Huron Miller had said in his remarks the evening before. It was the Thanksgiving Speech, Jemison told me. Right away, I recognized what he meant—for at the Black Creek Powwow earlier in the summer I had heard Jemison himself present an English version.

Offered regularly at Haudenosaunee ceremonies, the traditional Thanksgiving Speech can last from a handful of minutes to over an hour. But whatever its length, the speech follows a standard order. Moving from the earth to the sky, it expresses gratitude to the Creator for the things He has created, and each verse concludes with the same refrain. "The trees," for example, "are still here, doing what the Creator intended them to do. We give thanks to the Creator that this is so. And now our minds are as one."

That afternoon I again stayed for the festival's official closing—and again Huron Miller came forward to offer the final remarks. But this time as I listened, I imagined a verse of my own. "The Haudenosaunee are still here," I thought to myself, "preserving their traditional culture and making it available to those who express an interest. We give thanks to the Creator that this is so. And now our minds are as one."

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