ORAL TRADITIONS

Traditions, history lessons, and ways of behaving can all be taught by stories. Haudenosaunee honor those who speak and remember well. Artists also become storytellers.

Here, artist Joe Jacobs depicts the Stone Giant who lived in the rocks. Traditional enemies of the Haudenosaunee, the Stone Giants were much feared cannibals.  They lived in upstate New York before the Haudenosaunee, and they resisted being destroyed.  Like giants everywhere, they eventually were outwitted.  When they died, their bodies became stones.  That is why there are so many stones all around us.  These stones remind us of the Stone Giants.

 

Haudenosaunee have always been acknowledged as great orators. To speak eloquently, to be able to persuade, to be humorous, and to communicate well are considered great talents.  If a young person showed that he had a good memory, he would be trained to remember the history, treaties and other important events. At certain times, he would be asked to recite those historical accounts and/or speeches so that the people would remember and learn from the past.

 

The chiefs and their  helpers must be able to recite the ceremonial speeches that are passed down through the oral tradition from generation to generation. 

 

Another important part of the oral tradition is storytelling. Stories are told to teach, to influence behavior, to explain why things are the way they are in the natural world, and for pure enjoyment. Oral tradition is an important part of Iroquois culture. 

 

 

Stone Giant, 1978 soapstone by Joe Jacobs, Cayuga

HOW THE BEAR CLAN GOT MEDICINE

 

Long, long ago an old man wandered out of the forest and into a village.  He looked as though he had been walking for quite some time.  He appeared tired and hungry.  His clothes were torn and dirty.  There were holes in the bottom of his moccasins.  The old man approached the door of a Wolf Clan longhouse to ask for some food.  Sadly, he was told that there wasn’t enough food for him.  The old man walked to a Turtle Clan longhouse and was told the same thing.  He went to every longhouse in the village.  Each time, he was told that they were sorry but they didn’t have enough food for him.  Finally, he walked toward the door of the last longhouse.  There was a carving of a bear above the door.  It was a Bear Clan longhouse.  A woman came out of the longhouse and looked at the old man.  She could tell without even asking that he was tired, cold, hungry and thirsty.  Immediately, she invited the old man to come in and sit down by the fire in order to warm himself.  She gave him some water to drink and then she gave him the dinner that she had prepared for herself.  She could tell that he was hungrier than she.  He had probably gone without food for quite some time.  When he was done eating, she invited him to lie down and get some rest.  She covered him with a blanket and while he slept she sat down and made him a new pair of moccasins.  The next day, she gave him clean clothes to wear.  The old man thanked her, but before long he became quite ill.  The Bear Clan woman didn’t know what to do to help him.  In those days, the people didn’t know how to make medicine.  The old man told her to go to a certain place.  He described a particular plant and asked her to give thanks to the plant and bring it back.  Then, he told her how to make a medicine from the plant.  She followed his instructions, gave him the medicine and before long the old man recovered.  The following day, the old man became sick again, but with a different illness.  He told her to look for another plant.  He told her where to find it, what it looked like and how to prepare it.  After she did as he instructed, she gave him the new medicine and he became well again.  This happened many times.  The old man suffered from many illnesses.  He instructed the woman to look for various plants and prepare a different medicine for each disease.  He always got better.

 

Then, one day, the Bear Clan woman left to get some water.  When she returned, she saw that there was a bright light coming from her longhouse.  She was frightened.  Then, she saw a handsome young man all dressed in white buckskin come out of her house.   He told her not to be afraid because he was the Creator.  He had disguised himself as an old man to see who would extend hospitality and friendship to him.  He said that since it was a Bear Clan woman who took pity on him, he would give the Bear Clan a gift.  That gift was the knowledge of how to cure every illness that might befall the people.  She had learned well and now she was to teach the rest of the Bear Clan how to make medicine. 

 

A cloud surrounded the Creator and he rose into the sky and disappeared. That is how the Bear Clan received knowledge of how to make medicine.

THE STORY ROCK

 

Long, long ago there were no stories.  One day, a young boy was checking his rabbit snares.  He was trapping rabbits to help provide food and furs for his family.  He had quite a few rabbits and so tied them to his belt before starting for home.  On his way, he grew tired.  He decided to sit down to rest by a large stone.  As soon as he closed his eyes, he heard a voice that said, “Give me one of your rabbits.”  The boy opened his eyes, but no one was there.  He realized that the voice was coming from the stone.  He put one of his rabbits on top of the stone which then proceeded to tell him a wonderful story of how the birds got their feathers.  The next day the boy went back to the stone and gave it another gift.  The stone told him a different story.  Every day the boy visited the stone.  Every day he brought a gift.  Every day the stone told him a story until one day the stone said, “I have no more stories.  Now you are the keeper of the stories.”  The boy, who had visited the stone so many times that he was now an old man, returned to his village and told the children the stories.  Those children grew up and told their children.  One day I heard the stories and told you.  Now you are the keeper of the stories.  If they are not told, they will be forgotten.

LEGEND OF THE NO FACE DOLL

 

The Spirit of the Corn noticed that the people were working very hard in order to survive.  They were making and repairing their longhouses.  They were gathering berries, working in their gardens, sewing, cooking, mending, hunting and fishing.   They were always busy.  The Spirit of the Corn decided that she wanted to do something that would make the work of the people seem easier.  So, she took some of her own cornhusk and made it into a doll.  She gave that doll a beautiful face and the ability to walk around and talk.  She spoke to Cornhusk Doll and told her that she was to have a very special job.  Her job would be to go from village to village and entertain the children.   Cornhusk Doll would play games, sing songs and tell wonderful stories.  That would make the children smile and laugh.  When the adults heard the children laughing, they would remember why they were working so hard.  They were working hard so that their children would have a good life. That thought would make the adults happy and they wouldn’t mind working so hard.  Their work would seem easier.

 

Cornhusk Doll left right away to go to the first village.  When she got there, she played games, sang songs and told wonderful stories.  The children were so happy that they smiled and laughed.  When the adults heard their children laughing, they remembered why they were working so hard.  It was for the children and so their work seemed easier.  When it was time for Cornhusk Doll to leave, all of the people gathered around her to say “nia:wen” (thank you).  “And by the way, you are very beautiful.” they said to Cornhusk Doll.

 

Cornhusk Doll left to go to the next village.  On her way, she stopped by a river.  She looked into the water and saw her reflection.  “Oh!  The people were right.  I am very beautiful,” she said.  She stayed there for a long time, fixing her hair and admiring her pretty face.  She stayed so long that the children in the next village didn’t think she was going to come visit them.  They were sad and started to cry.

When the Spirit of the Corn heard children crying instead of laughing, she looked to see what was wrong.  “Cornhusk Doll, you have forgotten your responsibility.  You have forgotten about your job!” said the Spirit of the Corn.  “I’m so sorry,” said Cornhusk Doll.  “I promise I won’t forget again.” 

 

Sadly, Cornhusk Doll forgot about her responsibility again and again.  The Spirit of the Corn kept reminding Cornhusk Doll that her job was to make the children happy.  But, every time Cornhusk Doll came to a river, she would stop to look at her beautiful face.  She would forget about the children and the children would cry.  Finally, the Spirit of the Corn took away Cornhusk Doll’s face.   From that time until today, the Haudenosaunee do not give their cornhusk dolls faces.  The No Face Cornhusk Dolls remind us that we should take care of ourselves.  We should comb our hair, wash our faces and wear clean clothes.  But we should also remember to fulfill our responsibilities toward others.

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