Wednesday, February 12, 2014

The Iroquois (III): Creation Stories

Location:   New York State
Year:   The Beginning of Time

The Haudenosaunee Creation Story involves the descent of the Sky Woman from the Upper Realm to the Lower Realm, the creation of land in the midst of the sea, and the subsequent birth of humanity. 

From the details of the Creation Story, a listener can learn several things about the Iroquois: First, that the Haudenosaunee are meant to be the protectors of the world; second, that plants and animals are under mankind's dominion but also must be respected as mankind's helpers in the world; third, that women have a critical role in Haudenosaunee culture. 

Due to the structure of the Creation Story, the Iroquois reckon descent through the matrilineal line. A person's matrilineal clan  (Bear, Wolf, Deer, Turtle, Eel, Beaver, Snipe, Hawk and Heron) is fixed, and determines their property rights and social responsibilities. Members of the Mohawk Wolf Clan, for example, are relatives of members of the Seneca Wolf Clan, and cannot intermarry. Tribes are patrilineal and more liquid. A person can be adopted into a tribe, or marry within a tribe or out of it.

And while the traditional Iroquois social system decreed very specific gender roles for men and women that could not be altered, within those roles the sexes were equal under Haudenosaunee law.

There are at least three versions of the  Creation Story, each told somewhat differently. 


The wife of the Chief of the Sky World was called Sky Woman. 

One night, Sky Woman, who was expecting a baby, had a dream in which the Celestial Tree was uprooted. When she told her husband the dream he realized that it was a very powerful message and that the people of the Sky World needed to do everything they could to make it come to pass
Many of the young men in the Sky World tried with all their might to uproot the tree, but failed. Finally the Chief of the Sky World wrapped his arms around the tree and with one great effort he uprooted it. This left a great hole in the crust of the Sky World. Sky Woman leaned over to look into the hole, lost her balance and fell into the hole. As she slipped she was able to grasp a handful of seeds from the branches of the Celestial Tree. 
As Sky Woman fell, the birds and animals in the water below saw her and decided that she would need help so that she would not be harmed. Geese flew up and caught her between their wings and began to lower her down toward the water. The animals saw that Sky Woman was not like them and would not be able to survive in the water.

Each of the animals dove into the water trying to bring up earth from the bottom for Sky Woman to land on. Many animals tried and failed. When it seemed like all had tried and failed, tiny muskrat vowed to bring up earth or die trying. She went down, deep, deep, deep, until she was almost unconscious, but was able to reach out with one small paw and grasped some earth before floating back to the top. When muskrat appeared with the Earth, the Great Turtle said it could be placed on his back. When the tiny bit of earth was placed on Turtle's back, it began to grow larger and larger until it became the whole world.
The geese gently set Sky Woman on the earth and she opened her hands to let the seeds fall on the soil. From the seeds grew the trees and grass and life on Earth had begun.

In time, Sky Woman gave birth to a daughter, Tekawerahkwa, who grew to be a lovely young woman. A powerful being called West Wind fell in love with Tekawerahkwa and took her as his bride. In time she became pregnant with twin sons. Tekawerahkwa's sons were very different; one, named Flint, had skin as hard as flint and was argumentative and the other, named Heaven, was soft skinned and patient. 

Flint was impatient to be born and decided to use his sharp flint-like head to cut his way out of his mother's body. While his gentle brother was being born the natural way, Flint was forcing his way through his mother's armpit which killed her. 

When Sky Woman saw the lifeless body of her beautiful daughter she was terribly angry. She asked her grandsons who had done this awful thing. Flint lied and placed the blame on his good brother, Heaven.

Sky Woman believed him and banished Heaven. Fortunately, The Grandfather was watching Heaven and came to his aid. The Grandfather taught Heaven all he needed to know about surviving on the earth and set him to work making the land beautiful.
Sky Woman placed the head of her daughter in the night sky where she became Grandmother Moon and was given power over the waters. From her body grew our Three Sisters, corn, beans, and squash.

Heaven made all the beauty on our earth—he created the rivers , the mountains, the trees. He taught the birds to sing and the water animals to dance. He made rainbows and soft rains.   

Flint watched his brother creating beauty and was envious. He set out to create the opposite of all the good his brother had made. He put dangerous rapids in the rivers, created destructive hurricanes and powerful tornadoes. When Heaven planted medicinal plants, Flint planted poisonous roots and deadly berries. 
One day, while Heaven was away creating more things of beauty, Flint stole all the animals and hid them in a big cave. When Heaven returned to find that all of his creatures were gone he was very sad. A tiny mouse told him what his brother had done, so Heaven went to the cave and caused the mountain to shake until it split so that the animals could emerge.  

Heaven was very angry with his brother and they fought. Flint used an arrow and Heaven used a deer antler as weapons. When Heaven struck Flint with the deer antler it caused flint chips to fall from his body. Their battle raged for many days and finally Heaven won. He banished Flint to live in caves beneath the earth where he waits to return to the surface. 


Long, long ago, where we are now, there was no land, just water and creatures of the water. But, up above, there was a place called the Sky World. Now, in The Sky World there were beings who were in some ways like human beings and in some ways they were different. The beings in Sky World had more powers than human beings have. For instance, they could make things happen just by thinking about it.

There was a tree growing in the center of Sky World. It was called the Tree of Life. On that tree grew many different kinds of fruit. Also, there were blossoms on that tree and those blossoms glowed. They lit up Sky World.

The beings in Sky World were told not to disturb that tree. But one day, a woman who was expecting a baby, asked for a drink of tea made from the roots of the Tree of Life. Her name was "Mature Flower." When her husband started to dig around near the bottom of the tree to get at the roots, the dirt caved in and some say that the tree fell down. This was terrible. Mature Flower went to see what had happened.

Some say that she lost her balance and fell into the hole. Some say that she knew she was destined to go through that hole and so she jumped. Some say that she was pushed. Nevertheless, she grabbed some seeds from the Tree of Life as she fell. Because she fell through the hole in the sky, many people refer to her as Sky Woman.

Down below, there was a flock of water birds flying through the air. Some say they were geese. Some say they were blue heron. Some say they were swans.

One of them looked and up and saw Sky Woman falling. He spoke to the other birds and they decided to make a great blanket with their bodies and catch her on their backs. They caught her. They tried to bring her back up to Sky World, but she was too heavy and so they lowered her to the water below. A giant turtle said that they could put her on his back. That’s what they did. That is the reason some people call this place where we live Turtle Island.

  Mature Flower thanked the creatures, but she said that she needed dirt in order to survive. One by one, the animals dove down to try to get dirt from under the water. Finally, some say it was the muskrat. Some say that it was the otter. But finally, one creature was successful in bringing a few grains of dirt to Mature Flower.

Mature Flower placed the dirt on the back of the turtle. She stood up. She sang and danced in a counter-clockwise direction and when she did that, the turtle’s shell grew and the grains of dirt multiplied. She dropped the seeds from the Tree of Life and they started to grow right away. When she finished dancing and singing, there was land and plant life as far as she could see.

Some time went by and Mature Flower gave birth to a baby girl. The baby girl grew up. She was told not to walk toward the west, but one day, the daughter started to walk toward the west. As soon as she did so, a wind started to blow from the west and a cloud started to move toward the daughter. The daughter saw the outline of a male-being in the cloud. The daughter fainted. When she woke up, she found two crossed arrows lying on top of her stomach. She had become the bride of the Spirit of the West Wind. That is who she had seen in the cloud and now she was going to give birth to twin boys.

The boys were very special. After all, their grandmother was Sky Woman and their father was the Spirit of the West Wind. The boys could talk to each other while they were growing inside their mother and they didn’t always agree with one another.

When it was time for them to be born, the right-handed twin was born in the usual way. However, the left-handed twin decided to push his way out through their mother’s armpit. That’s how he was born, but it killed their mother.

They buried their mother and from her head grew corn, beans and squash. Those are the staple foods of the traditional Haudenosaunee diet. They are called The Three Sisters. From her heart grew sacred tobacco which is used when there is a desire to communicate with the Creator. From her feet grew the wild strawberry which is known as The Big Medicine.

Even in her death, the mother of the two boys was still making sure that they had what they needed to survive. She is called Mother Earth and to this day she still supports all of the people, animals and plants.

The twin boys grew up and went about the task of creating everything that is found in the natural world. They made rivers, flowers, animals and eventually they made the human beings.

The left-handed twin became the keeper of the night and the right-handed twin became the keeper of the day. When they were done making their creations, everything was in perfect balance.

When Mature Flower passed away, her head was flung into the night sky. She is still there. She is called Grandmother Moon. She reflects light at night. She helps the people keep track of time. She controls the rise and fall of the waters. She keeps company with the stars and the left-handed twin, the keeper of the night. She regulates the monthly cycles of all of the female life which guarantees that new life will be born. She is the leader of all the female life.

Eventually, the human beings were made. They are supposed to be the caretakers of the Earth. They are supposed to make sure that everything stays in balance.

However, the human beings keep forgetting what they are supposed to do. The human beings forget to take only what they need and to leave the rest for the future generations to experience and enjoy. The human beings are the ones who forget that everything in the natural world is connected and is part of the same web of life and so should be respected. 

It is hoped that all of the people of the world will someday remember and respect their original instructions and take good care of their Mother Earth.


In the beginning before the formation of the earth; the country above the sky was inhabited by Superior Beings, over whom the Great Spirit presided.

The daughter of the Great Spirit became pregnant by an illicit connection. In anger, the Great Spirit pulled up a great tree by the roots, and threw her through the hole thereby formed; but, to prevent her utter destruction, he previously ordered the Great Turtle, to get from the bottom of the waters, some slime on its back, and to wait on the surface of the water to receive her on it.

When she had fallen on the back of the Turtle, with the mud she found there, she began to form the earth, and by the time of her delivery had increased it to the extent of a little island. Her child was a daughter, and as she grew up the earth extended under their hands.

When the young woman had arrived at the age of discretion, the Spirits who roved about, in human forms, made proposals of marriage for the young woman: the mother always rejected their offers, until a middle aged man, of a dignified appearance, his bow in his hand, and his quiver on his back, paid his addresses. On being accepted, he entered the house, and seated himself on the bed of his intended spouse; the mother was in a bed on the other side of the fire. She observed that her son-in-law did not lie down all night; but taking two arrows out of his quiver, he put them by the side of his bride: at the dawn of day he took them up, and having replaced them in his quiver, he went out.

After some time, Sky Woman perceived her daughter to be pregnant, but could not discover where the father had gone, or who he was. At the time of delivery, the twins disputed which way they should go out of the womb; the wicked one said, let us go out of the side; but the other said, not so, lest we kill our mother; then the wicked one pretending to acquiesce, desired his brother to go out first: but as soon as he was delivered, the wicked one, in attempting to go out at her side, caused the death of his mother.

The twin brothers were nurtured and raised by their Grandmother; the eldest was named Teharonghyawago. The youngest was called Tawiskaron. They grew up, and with their bows and arrows, amused themselves throughout the island, which increased in extent, and they hunted various animals.

Tawiskaron was the most fortunate hunter, and enjoyed the favor of his Grandmother. 

Teharonghyawago was not so successful at hunting, and suffered from his brother’s and Grandmother's unkindnesses.

When Teharonghyawago was a youth, and roaming alone in a melancholy mood through the island, a human figure, of noble aspect, appearing to him, addressed him thus, 'My son, I have seen your distress, and heard your solitary lamentations; you are unhappy in the loss of a mother, in the unkindness of your Grandmother and brother. I now come to comfort you, I am your father, and will be your Protector; therefore take courage, and suffer not your spirit to sink. Take this (giving him an ear of maize [corn]) plant it, and attend it in the manner, I shall direct; it will yield you a certain support, independent of the hunt at the same time that it will render more palatable the foods which you may thereby obtain. I am the Great Turtle which supports the earth, on which you move. Your brother’s ill treatment will increase with his years; bear it with patience till the time appointed, before which you shall hear further.'

After saying this, and directing him how to plant the corn, the Great Turtle disappeared. Teharonghyawago planted the corn, and returned home. When its verdant sprouts began to flourish above the ground, he spent his time in clearing from all growth of grass and weeds, which might smother it or retard its advancement while yet in its tender state, before it had acquired sufficient grandeur to shade the ground.

He now discovered that his wicked brother caught the timid deer, the stately elk with branching horns, and all the harmless inhabitants of the forest, and imprisoned them in an extensive cave, for his own particular use, depriving mortals from having the benefit of them that was originally intended by the Great Spirit. Teharonghyawago discovered the direction the brother took in conducting these animals captive to the cave; but never could trace him quite to the spot, as he eluded his sight with more than common dexterity!

Teharonghyawago endeavored to conceal himself on the path that led to the cave, so that he might follow his brother imperceptibly, but he found impossible to hide himself from the penetrating gaze of sharp-eyed Tawiskaron.

At length he observed, that although his brother saw with extraordinary acuteness every surrounding object, Tawiskaron never raised his eyes to look up at the sky.

Teharonghyawago then climbed a lofty tree, which grew near to where he thought the place of confinement was situated: in the meantime, his brother passed, searching with his eyes the thickest recesses of the forest, but never casting a glance above.

Teharonghyawago then saw Tawiskaron take a straight course, and when he was out of sight, Teharonghyawago descended, and came to the cave. Finding there an innumerable number of animals confined, he set them free, and returned home.

It was not long before Tawiskaron, visiting the cave, discovered that all his captives had been liberated: he knew this to be an act of his brother, but dissembling his anger, he meditated revenge, at some future period.

Teharonghyawago labored to people the earth with inhabitants, and to found villages in happy situations, extending the comforts of men. Tawiskaron was equally active in destroying the works his brother had done; and in accumulating every evil in his power on the heads of ill fated mortals.

Teharonghyawago saw, with regret, his brother persevere in every wickedness; but waited with patience the result of what his father had told him.

At one time, being in conversation with his brother, Tawiskaron said ‘Brother, what do you think there is on earth, with which you might be killed?’ Teharonghyawago replied, ‘I know of nothing that could affect my life, unless it be the foam of the billows of the Lake or the downy topped reed. What do you think would take your life?'

Tawiskaron answered, 'Nothing except horn or flint.' Here their discourse ended.

Teharonghyawago returning from hunting, heard a voice singing a plaintive air: he listened and heard it name his Mother, who was killed by Tawiskaron; he immediately hastened towards the spot from whence the voice proceeded, crying, ‘Who is that, who dares to name my deceased mother in my hearing?’

When he came there, he saw the track of a fawn, which he pursued, without overtaking it, till the autumn, when it dropped its first horns; these he took up, and fixed upon the forked branches of a tree.

He continued the pursuit of the fawn for seven years; and every autumn, when its horns fell, he picked them up, and placed them as he had done the first. At last, he overtook the deer, now grown to be a stately buck: it begged its life, and said, ‘Spare me, and I will give you information that may be great service to you.’ When he had promised it its life, it spoke as follows, ‘It was to give you the necessary information that I have been subjected to your pursuit, and that which I shall now tell you was the intended reward of your perseverance and clemency. Your brother, in coming into the world, caused the death of your Mother; if he was then wicked in his infancy, his malice has grown with his stature; he now premeditates evil against you; be therefore on your guard: as soon as he assaults you, exert yourself, and you will overcome him.’

He returned home; and not long after this adventure, was attacked by his brother. They fought; the one made use of the horn and flint stone which he had provided: the other sought for the seafoam and the reed, which made little impression on the body of Teharonghyawago. They fought a long time, over the whole of Turtle Island, until at last Tawiskaron fell under the conquering hand of his brother.

According to the varied tones of their voices in the different places through which they passed during the contest, the people, who afterwards sprung up there, spoke different languages.

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