Wednesday, August 1, 2012
Iroquois Supernatural: Talking Animals and Medicine People
Book Review: Iroquois Supernatural: Talking Animals and Medicine People by Michael Bastine and Mason Winfield (Bear and Company 2011)
This book is full of past and contemporary stories of Iroquois ghosts and mythic tales. The Haudenosaunee, or “People of the Longhouse” consists of five tribes – the Seneca, Cayuga,
Oneida, Onondaga, and Mohawk, with the later addition of
the Tuscarora who migrated up from the Carolinas.
These tribes all settled in what is now New York State, most having been there
for at least 500 years and probably much longer. These became the league of six
nations whose political setup influenced that of the . Compared to other
tribes they occupied a rather small area and consisted of small numbers but
also had a strong influence. They became divided in the colonial wars with most
siding with the British while the United States
and Tuscarora sided with the colonists. This devastated and separated them with
many driven to Oneida Canada, some
and some to the west, but the Seneca and small numbers of the other tribes
managed to stay on their ancestral lands to some extent on reservations and
some are now returning or return often to visit. Wisconsin
Mason Winfield comes from a background of writing about ghosts, the supernatural, and local history. Michael Bastine is an Algonquin who has studied under several Iroquois Medicine People.
The Iroquois are distinguished by the longhouse, a wooden multi-family dwelling that could be 100ft long, 20ft wide, and 25ft high, walled with bark and skins, with a central fire and smoke hole, bunks to the sides, and a door on each end. I have seen a small replica of one at the Seneca museum in
. The traditional territories of the
tribes of the federation are also set up symbolically in the manner of the
longhouse. The western door was with the Genesee Valley Seneca and the eastern
door with the Mohawk of the Salamanca, NY . The Onondaga in
the central territory are the “fire keepers” and this is where the council fire
is kept. The Cayuga and Mohawk
are sometimes called the “younger brothers.” Each of the tribes has separate
legends and different origins but they also share much culture and myth. The
Iroquois, like many native tribes, adopted many non-Iroquois into the tribes as
full members. This included captives and some whites and blacks as well. The
Onondaga tribe in the center of Iroquois territory claim the great pine tree of
the famed Peacemaker (where they ‘buried the hatchet’). The Onondaga are known
as “People of the Hill” possibly due to fortified hilltops. They now have an
independent nation near their original lands around Oneida . I have an old friend that I heard
was living there. Hiawatha, friend and assistant of the Peacemaker, was
Onondaga, as was the wizard king Tadodarho, who was transformed by the
Peacemaker. These events refer to the beginnings of the Iroquois Confederacy
which is usually dated somewhere between 900 and 1450 CE. The Seneca tribe was
the largest in area and known to be warlike. They have lived on three reservations
in Syracuse Western NY since the Treaty of Canandaigua
in 1794. Famed legendary Senecas include the fabled Peace Queen and the
hero-trickster Skunni Wundi. Known people include Chief Cornplanter, prophet , and orator Red Jacket – all who
were born in the mid-1700’s. Mary Jemison was a white woman adopted by the
Seneca. Another was Arthur C. Parker, a famous folklorist who wrote extensively
about Seneca myths and legends. More recently there was the late DuWayne “Duce”
Bowen who collected lore and late elder woman Twylah Hurd Nitsch whose
grandfather was one of the last Seneca Medicine People. I vaguely remember
meeting her briefly at a Seneca powwow many years ago. The Cayuga dwelled
around Cayuga Lake from Handsome Lake Lake Ontario to the Susquehanna River.
Their numbers are very small at a few thousand. Medicine Man Peter Mitten is
Cayuga. The Mohawk call themselves “People of the ” due to its availability in their
lands. The Peacemaker was considered to be Mohawk, though the Cayuga claim him
as well. Joseph Brant was a famous Mohawk and the Christianized woman Kateri
Tekakwitha (1656-1680). Many in these tribes were subjected to missionaries
quite early and Christian and western influence on their beliefs infiltrated so
much that it is difficult to tell the age and origins of many ideas. The
Jesuits recorded many of the old beliefs, being of service as ethnologists of
sorts. Moravian missionaries came and others were Swede, Dutch, French, and
English. There is even a legend of the “Lost Dauphin”, son of Louis XVI and
Marie Antionette being brought to northeast Flint and/or NY and raised in a
Mohawk community. Oddly, Mohawk are said to have no fear of heights and many
have taken to working on skyscrapers. The Pennsylvania
call themselves, “People of the Standing Stone”. The Oneida Oneida
sided with the colonists in the American Revolution and are said to have
brought 600 bushels of corn for Washington and
his troops at the winter in Valley Forge.
Polly Cooper was said to have aided them in how to use the corn and cared for
the troops. Chief Hanyerri was a famed
at the time and was said to have had a lifetime feud with Mohawk Joseph Brant.
Contemporary singer Joanne Shenandoah (possibly a descendent of Oneida Chief
Shenandoah) is Oneida .
Her songs and singing are very good. The Tuscarora were known as “Wearers of
the Woven Hemp Shirts” They came to NY from Oneida just after 1700 due to
encroachment from white settlers. They were an Iroquoian-speaking people as
were the Cherokee who broke off long-ago from the NY branches. Historian David
Cusick was a famous Tuscarora as were the medicine men Wallace “Mad Bear”
Anderson and Ted Williams who both taught author Michael Bastine. North Carolina
Many Iroquois today are Christians. This is due to missionaries but also to the conversion visions of the prophet
, half-brother of Chief Cornplanter.
His visions called for giving up alcohol and taking a Christianized approach to
life. Unfortunately, he was also an avid witchhunter and accuser of witchcraft
and this tradition continues among the Iroquois. As many of the stories show
there is fear of and strong belief in witchcraft and the alleged perpetrators
often do not get a fair chance. Some in the past were even brutally killed. Mary
Jemison’s autobiography notes several executions for witchcraft. Handsome Lake
The Iroquois had oral traditions but no writing. They were known as avid storytellers. Many of their stories, myths, and legends, were collected in the late 1800’s and beyond, which means Christian influence was likely long a part of them by then. The storytellers had three main types of stories: creation stories (mythic), animal tales (often whimsic), and forest tales (often involving the supernatural).
The life force of humans and of nature is called orenda. Negative energy is generally called otkon. Witches are thought to travel as “witch lights” called ga’hai. There are many stories of seeing these lights, especially in haunted places. These are considered to be the witch in astral form. Witches are said to shapeshift into animals as well.
There are a few stories of secret witch meetings in the woods where everyone shapeshifts into animal form. These are strangely similar to medieval tales of European witches and like those the witches are usually depicted as evil-minded. Even the theology given resembles Christianity as the Great Spirit is known as the Good-Minded One and his counterpart is the Evil-Minded One. There is mention of the “witch bone” which refers to a “tiny, double-pointed, needlelike splinter with a hole in the middle” which may be threaded through with a hair from the witch. This bone was said to be somehow placed in the body of the victim, sometimes through food. It reminds me of similar stories among the African-American Gullah people on the Atlantic coast. A medicine person might retrieve such a bone from the victim though I suspect it is a placebo – the psychosomatic work of the shamanizer. There is a strong belief in the power of cursing and witches are those who divert orenda for selfish purposes. There are said to be witch bundles. These are sometimes bags but they can also be large kettles. There were said to be a number of these found buried in upstate
New York and one near “surrounded by a
ring of skeletons and filled with human skulls.” The sad and violent story of
Seneca John Jemison in the early 1800’s
is told. He was a son of Mary Jemison so part white. He is said to have
killed 2 of his brothers and himself was killed by two other Seneca during a
drinking bout. His killers were said to have taken their own lives after being
banished. Cornplanter and Buffalo even charged the
famed orator Red Jacket (Sagoyewata)
with witchery but he was acquitted. There are quite a few rather sad stories
given of blood feuds and so-called bad witches, their subsequent executions,
and hauntings where they dwelled and died. Handsome
Next we come to Medicine People, those in modern times most like the shaman of more ancient times. Shamans performed many functions: healer, musician, historian, teacher, artist, and mainly the knower of and interface with the animated spirits that typically encompass indigenous worldviews. Medicine people often work with trance. They are similar to the so-called witches except their medicine power is thought to aid the tribe and the people. By the time the Europeans encountered the Iroquois it is thought that the functions of the shaman had already been differentiated into different groups or societies. There were healers, keepers of songs and chants, and specialists who often worked on a case by case basis.
Next we are introduced to the Medicine Men Wallace “Mad Bear” Anderson and Ted Williams. Mad Bear (1927-1985) was a Tuscarora who became very influential in the Native American and indigenous peoples rights movements beginning in the 1960’s. He traveled extensively and appeared with famous people – MLK, Ted Kennedy, Castro, Bob Dylan, and his friend the Dalai Lama. Michael Bastine and Cherokee Medicine Woman Dhyani Ywahoo traveled with him to visit the Dalai Lama in 1980. Ted Williams was also trained in traditional Iroquois medicine. He was the son of famed healer Eleazar Williams. He noted three types of healing medicine: 1) Simple medicines that are physical cures like herbs; 2) Specially prepared medicines like decoctions gathered according to cycles and times; 3) spirit medicines, often used to ward off spirit influences – these are the types that people often seek from the Medicine People. As they often take on a form like Western psychics, they are also called ‘readers.’ In the code of
there is some info about properly
gathering herbs: one should approach with stealth and awareness like a hunter
on a hunt. Prayers, chants, and tobacco offerings also accompanied herb
gathering. The authors tell many stories involving Mad Bear and Ted Williams.
Mad Bear utilized a reading method of observing tobacco movements after
sprinkling it into a clear cup full of water. Herbal concoctions included
various ‘green goos’. One made by Cayuga shaman Peter Mitten was said to heal a
dying man when they snuck it into his IV bag. Stories abound of house
clearings, ghost removal, and dream healings. Mad Bear considered the mind the
strongest force in healing, with the remedies assisting and other things used
as mechanisms to help him focus. Handsome Lake
Next we come to the famed False Face Society, Iroquois healing group that stays behind masks, works as a group, and chooses those they heal. They are spiritual healers, always male, though the leader and keeper of the faces is female. They come, often unannounced, at night, with gourd and turtle-shell rattles, snorts, animal and bird calls, and clamor. The end of a healing was when they made a ‘puff of soot’. They collected tobacco and ate corn soup as payment. It is a secret society with identities kept hidden. Old Iroquois graves were found to have small bone and stone trinkets that resemble the masks – strongly suggesting that it is an old tradition. There are several origin-stories of the Faces, often related to the first Face – Headman as one of the Stone Giants. In one story he got a crooked nose when challenging the Great Spirit to a contest and ever since, the Faces are depicted with crooked noses. In another story, instead of the Stone Giants becoming spirit-healers, they are the enemies of humans, and the last of them helped a lost Seneca hunter by teaching him healing through dreams and visions. He was then guided to a basswood tree and carved the first face. The two classes of masks: Doctor (or Doorkeeper) Masks and the Common Faces could be attributed to these stories. The Doctor Masks originally had corn silk hair but this was changed to horse manes after European contact. Some are mythical beings, others gods of wind or disease. Ethnologist William Beauchamp thought that the source of the masks were the Great Flying Heads. These were terrifying heads that could fly and also change their size. There are a few other masked healing societies as well: the Husk Face Society, or Bushy Heads, work with water energy and the Company of Mystic Animals don animal masks and work with maintaining good relations with animals. Some of these societies may function like sacred clowns as well. There are unmasked healing societies as well. Two of these are the Little Water/Animal Society and the Pygmy/Dark Dance Society, the latter which does songs and dances in near or total darkness. One is said to be called to the False Faces by a dream or by a seer who recognizes something in him. Basswood is the main wood, being soft and easily carved but pine, poplar, and maple are also used. Elm is never used. The masks are made on the tree gradually. Even the details are done before it is removed and it is said that the tree does not die. This is perhaps part of the reason they are thought of as living beings. The masks are ‘fed’ corn soup during the midwinter ceremonies.
Next section is more about reservation politics and subsequent magic battles in the manner of the so-called “witch wars.” It also has to do with stories of curses, magic against encroachments like highway building and development, and magically combating injustice against the tribes. Also accounted are some of Mad Bear’s exploits – he was said to travel astrally in the form of a bear. There is mention of a custom described in the 1800’s from the Iroquoian Huron (Wyandot) people where they would every couple of years dig up the bones of ancestors, their families would dress and ornament them, and they would be fed bits of food at a feast. Then they would be re-buried with gifts. The authors note that this could be a powerful way to connect generations and a way to include ancestors in the present – though the rite was seen as fiendish and macabre by the Europeans who witnessed it. Much more recently there have disputes about how to handle native gravesites when they are accidentally discovered during development. National law calls for them to be identified and respectfully moved before work can resume. There have been disputes about how to handle them as there are several tribes involved and some are the graves of the war dead.
Next we come to power places which include sites associated with traditional stories, trade and pilgrimage routes, ceremonial areas, vision-quest sites, grave/ancestor lands, battlefields, petroglyph sites, and observation sites. This part is interesting since one may visit some of these places. A few places may never be seen – as both Cornplanter’s grave and village sites and
Handsome Lake’s vision site are now under the Allegheny
reservoir in northwest .
This is a result of the building of the Kinzua Dam in the 1960’s to combat
flooding downstream on the Pennsylvania , which the Seneca
call Oh-hi-yo, or beautiful river.
This caused a lot of problems at the time with magic and legends and possibly
psychic phenomena as mythical beings were said to live in the river. The Great
Falls of Alleghany
River Niagara is quite obviously a power
spot with ample ‘vision sites’. Native legend has it being formed when a
Thunder Being destroyed a titanic serpent. Nearby Goat Island was considered
the of lore by the Iroquois and so
was a great world navel site. The hiss-roar of the falls has apparently caused
people to leap that had no intentions of doing so. I remember back when we
lived in Turtle Island ,
reading about the Maid of the Mist legends of the falls. Other places are
Taughannock falls near Buffalo Cayuga Lake. I visited
there once at sunset. It was eerie yet wonderful, the falls being higher than
even Niagara Falls but with far less water.
is also mentioned where there is now a Spiritualist campus of sorts that has
been there for a long time but before this there were earthworks. Many other
power sites and their lore are explored.
Iroquois supernatural beings include the Stone Giants, the Flying Heads, Vampire Corpses, and Little People. It seems that all Iroquoian-speaking tribes, including the Wyandot and the Cherokee have variants on these four.
The Stone Giants were cannibal-trolls who in one story were driven off by the trickery of the hero Skunni Wundi. Some have associated the Stone Giants as armored visitors from
but this would be highly speculative. Pre-Iroquois flint points have been found
with carved representations of Stone Giants linking the giants with the beings
of the past. Like many giant myths, it was them who built and shaped the land.
There are many legends in Iroquois country about giant (8-10ft tall) corpses
being dug up. I have heard a few firsthand.
The Great Flying Heads were fearsome, with no bodies but bear-like arms, saucer eyes, huge jaws, tusk-like teeth, and long manes behind them. They may have originally been associated with a wind-god, whose Seneca name is Dagwanoenyent. Though often brutish there are also many stories of benevolent Flying Heads that would teach and aid lost or lonely hunters or aid wizards in magic battles. Iroquoian Medicine Masks may well have been inspired by the Flying Heads.
The Vampire, or Cannibal Corpse is another mythical being. The stories resemble the European versions, although the Native ones were more like re-animated corpses, or zombies, than suave and sexy ones.
The Super Snakes are another motif. Giant serpents are said to inhabit many of the lakes, large and small, and there are many stories pertaining to them. Some may transform and become seductive. The giant serpents of the Finger Lakes, at least Seneca and
are also associated with the ‘underwater drums’ which are thought to be some
sort of geological percussion. There is a legend of a giant horned serpent in Cayuga Lakes .
These great serpents, or dragons, also occur in Cherokee
lore. Lake Ontario
The Thunder Beings are sky gods who, as in many myths around the world, battle the giant serpents. The Seneca have a Thunder God called Heno. Thunder Beings, or their hybrid human fosterlings, often orphans, are said to hide in the clouds.
Another legendary beast is that of the Monster Bear. The Ice Age had Arctodus, the giant short-faced bear, which was at the top of the food chain in
America, so perhaps this is some sort of ancestral memory. At
nearly 9ft tall and able to run 40 mph, this was indeed a demon bear. This
demon bear is an important totem among the Iroquois and it is the focus of a
dance society. The general area has a decent sized black bear population.
Another being is High Hat, a Big Foot-like creature that wears a stove-pipe hat. There are many sightings and stories about High Hat. Another is the Legs, a night being which is just legs and a bit of torso, with perhaps an eye at the navel. There is a hint that they may be some sort of female sex demons. There is a Mischief Maker, known in Seneca as the trickster Shodisko, also called the Brother of Death. He shapeshifts and plays practical jokes but is considered a minor deity. Longnose is a being with appendages such as snouts, tubes, and tentacles. He is a bogie of dark woods and warning tales. The Giant Mosquito represents the power of mosquitos bundled into one fearsome big one. Apparently upstate
had more swamps in the past as most were drained in the 19th century
and so the mosquito population was probably bigger in the past. The Witch Hawk
is an untrustworthy raptor-spirit, unlike the Noble Cloud Eagle. There is the
gatherer of the evil parts of the soul (like many shamanistic myths, the
Iroquois had recognized several soul components). His name in Seneca is Dehohniot. He is said to travel the
Milky Way but when he comes to earth to fetch soul parts his form is composed
of a wolf’s head, a panther’s body, and a vulture’s wings and talons. At least
the wolf and vulture are scavengers. The Underground Buffalo is another form.
These great white underground buffalo were associated with the forces of primal
chaos. A whole tribe of the Iroquois Little People (much the like the faerie of
the New York British Isles) was devoted to guarding the
gates to keep the chaos-buffalo imprisoned. Another is a pair of odd dear, one
white and one striped. Perhaps it was a family of albinos as are sometimes
seen. Many legends are recounted of talking animals, shapeshifters, and
The Iroquois, like many other tribal groups, had animal clan totems. Everyone is either born into or adopted into a clan. The Wolf, Bear, and Turtle Clans are common to all Iroquois. The Mohawk and
have just these three. The Onondaga
have nine. Earth clans include bear, wolf, and deer. Water clans have beaver,
eel, and turtle. Air clans are snipe, hawk, and heron. Clan affiliation is
matrilineal. The Turtle Clan is the default clan which means that if clan
affiliation is unknown or someone is adopted in they become Turtle Clan people.
One marries outside the clan. Even marrying into a different tribe in the same
clan is sometimes discouraged. As a bonding among the tribes, for instance,
Turtle Clan Seneca would afilliate with the Turtle Clan of the Cayuga. As well
as tribal and family duties, there are clan duties. Hearing the talking animals
begins with listening to them. Michael Bastine says it began with the Canadian
geese. I have Chinese geese and they are very talkative, occasionally even
sounding like human voices from a distance. Dogs are also considered a bridge between
the human and animal worlds, between village and forest. Oneida
The Iroquois Little People have many stories about them. These tiny spirit-beings fare much in the old pre-colonial lore. As in other cultures, they are nature spirits, ancestral spirits, and they tend to interact with children. They are called Jo-ga-oh or the Jungies. There are said to be three nations of them: their Seneca names are the Ohdowas, Gahonga, and Gandayah. The Ondowas are the hunters. The hunters, or “People of the Underground Shadows” were said to be kindly. They are also the doorkeepers to the Underworld, especially guarding the Great White Buffalo of Chaos. The Pygmy Society of the Iroquois save their fingernails and leave them out or toss them over cliffs so that these little people can cook them into a broth which they wear to disguise their scent so that they can hunt those who escape from hell. The Gahonga are the Stone Throwers who live beside lakes and streams. They sometimes visit humans in dreams. They are appealed to in droughts. The people scoop out ‘dew-cups’ which are hollows along the banks of streams, dry them, and use them as charms to heal droughts and grow plants. They are the most ubiquitous of the Little People. The Gandayah are the Plant Growers. They live with the seeds in the ground in winter and entice them to sprout in spring. They visit as robins to bring good news and as owls to offer warnings. Thay animate the “three sisters”, squash, corn , and beans – the main summer food crops. Since any bug could be Gandayah it is generally discouraged that they be harmed. There is some suggestion that the Iroquois Little People were derived from those of the Europeans since the age of Iroquois folklore coming to print was from 1880-1925 but the authors assert that this lore is older. Tiny tools and weapons are often found in old burial sites and other Iroquoian tribes that broke off long ago, such as the Cherokee and Wyandot, also have similar traditions. The Little People of the Fruits and Grains are said to have made the rule that the tribes save their tales for winter nights, otherwise they might be distracted from their gardening work and the beasts might stop to listen, forgetting their purposes. There are some interesting stories of little people who travel in stone canoes. Fairies are sometimes healers and sometimes tricksters. There are fairy trees, often double-trunked oaks. One interesting result of mystical experiences is the bringing back of a dance or song to benefit the tribe. One is the Dark Dance. A boy saw tiny people shooting needle-sized arrows at a black squirrel. He killed it and presented it to them. They fed him with corn soup, intoxicating berry juice, and hallucinogenic pipe smoke. Here they taught him about the three nations of Jungies. They taught him a dance they said would bless his village. He returned after what he thought was a few days but the people said it was much longer. This dance is still performed but only the dancers know its movements as it is done in near total darkness.
The authors give several Iroquois ghost story motifs: The Offended Lovers – this is when lovers are separated by such actions as murder and rape, the Haunted Battlefield – the Trickster Raptor, the Spector Wife, the Old Chief’s Grave, the Lover’s Leap, and the Last of the Mohicans. Several stories of these are related.
The mysterious Spanish Hill is related. I used to drive by this frequently. It is an odd low hill, somewhat like a giant mound. It is a glacial moraine. It is private so one cannot go there. Many artifacts came from it. There are many legends about it. The Iroquoian Andaste tribe was said to dwell there, possibly aided in warfare by a couple of Spanish cannon as some legends have it. They fought off the Iroquois federation but eventually they were driven south and further massacred by colonialists. It is now considered haunted. Many other ghost stories are recounted included the several ghosts of Red Jacket and a section on haunted roads.
The Chief of the Blue Heron refers to the Tadodaho, the Firekeeper of the Onondaga. He is considered the chief of chiefs. One such one was Leon Shenandoah (1915-1996). This firekeeper chief traditionally wears the single feather of the Blue Heron, the only chief to do so.
was said to be both wise and
playful. He was also said to be forgiving. The Iroquois have some rather
fascinating dream traditions and Michael Bastine gives some of his own. He
recounts receiving dream teachings from Leon Shenandoah. Once he traveled in
dream to a place called the Land of the Elders – where one could be taught in
dreams – as a tribal medicine method. Leon
Well, this book was a nice survey of customs and stories, both old and new, a bit annoying at times, boring at others, but there is some interesting information and ideas conveyed.