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Legends, Traditions, and Laws of the Iroquois, or Six Nations, and History of the Tuscarora Indians


On long winter evening the Indian hunters gatherd around their fireside, to listen to the historical traditions, legends of war and hunting, and fairy tales which had been handed down through their fathers and father’s fathers, with scarcely any variation for centuries, kindling the enthusiasm of the warrior and inspiring the little child some day to realize similar dreams, and hand his name down to posterity as the author of similar exploits.

They have superstitious fears of relating fables in summer: not until after snow comes will they relate of snakes, lest they should creep into their beds, or of evil genii, lest they in some way be revenged.

It is very difficult for a stranger to rightly understand the morals of their stories, though it is said by those who know them best, that to them the story was always an illustration of some moral or principle.

To strangers they offer all the rites of hospitality, but do not open their hearts. If you ask them they will tell you a story, but it will not be such a story as they tell when alone. They will fear your ridicule and suppress their humor and pathos: so thoroughly have they learned to distrust pale faces, that when they know that he who is present is a friend, they will still shrink from admitting him within the secret portals of their heart.

And when you have learned all that language can convey, there are still a thousand images, suggestions and associations recurring to the Indian, which can strike no chord in your heart. The myriad voices of nature are dumb to you, but to them they are full of life and power.


There once lived a man who was a great hunter. His generosity was the theme of praise in all the country, for he not only supplied his own family with food, but distributed game among his friends and neighbors, and even called the birds and animals of the forest to partake of his abundance. For this reason he received the appellation of “Protector of Birds and Animals.”

He lived a hunter’s life till war broke out between his own and some distant nation, and then he took the war path. He was as brave a warrior as he was a skillful hunter, and slew a great multitude of the enemy, till all were lying dead around him, except one, who was a mighty man of valor, and in an unguarded moment the hunter received a blow from his tomahawk on the head, which felled him to the earth; his enemy then took his scalp and fled.

Some of his own party saw what befell him, and supposing him dead left him on the field of battle; but a fox who had wandered this way immediately recognized his benefactor. Sorrowful indeed, was he to find him thus slain, and began to revolve in his mind some means of restoring him to life. “Perhaps,” said he, “some of my friends may know of a medicine by which his wounds may be healed, and he may live again.” So saying, he ran into the forest and uttered the “death lament,” which was the signal for all the animals to congregate. From far and near they came, till hundreds and thousands of every kind had assembled around the body of the hunter, eagerly inquiring what had happened. The fox explained he had accidentally came that way and found their friend stretched lifeless upon the earth. The animals drew near and examined him more closely, to be sure that life was extinct; they rolled him over and over on the ground and were satisfied that he was dead, there was not a single sign of life.

Then they held a grand council of which the bear was the speaker. When all were ready to listen, he asked if any one present was acquainted with any medicine which would restore the dead man to life. With great alacrity each one examined his medicine box, but finds nothing adapted to this purpose. Being defeated in their noble object of restoring their friend, all join in a mournful howl—a requiem for the dead. This attracted a singing bird, the oriole, who came quietly to learn the cause of the assembling of the great concourse and their profound lamentation. The bear made known the calamity which had befallen them, and as the birds would feel themselves equally afflicted, he requested the oriole to fly away and invite all the feathered tribes to come to the council and see if their united wisdom cannot devise a remedy that will restore their friend to life.

Soon were assembled all the birds of the air, even the great eagle of the Iroquois, which was seldom induced to appear upon the earth, hastens to pay her respects to the remains of the renowned and benevolent hunter. All being satisfied that he was really dead, the united council of birds and animals, which remained convened, decided that his scalp must be recovered, saying that any bird or animal who pleased might volunteer to go on this mission. The fox was the first to offer his services and departed full of hope that his zeal would be crowned with success. But after many days he returned, saying he could find no trace of man’s footsteps, not a chick or child belonged to any settlement The great love which they bore their friend prompted several others to go upon the same mission, and to the animals belonged the first right as they had first found him; but at length the birds were anxious to show their devotion and the pigeon hawk begged leave to make the first flight, as he was more swift of wing than any other and could visit the whole world in the shortest space of time. They had scarcely missed him when he returned: he said he had been over the entire earth and found it not. They did not consider his voyage satisfactory, as he had flown so swiftly that it was impossible for him to see anything distinctly by the way.

Next the white heron proposed that he be sent, because of being so slow of wing he could see every object as he passed. On his aerial voyage he discovered a plain covered with the vines of the wild bean, laden with the delicious fruit; it was too great a temptation for him to resist, and he descended to enjoy a feast. So gluttonously did he partake that he could not rise again from the earth, and the council after many days of anxious waiting, called for a substitute. Here the crow came forward and acknowledged his fitness for such, an office, as he was also slow of wing and was accustomed to hover settlements and discern them afar off, he would not be suspected of any particular design should he linger near the one that contained the scalp.

The warrior who possessed the coveted treasure knew the birds and animals were holding council on the field of battle to devise means to recover it, but when the crow drew near he was not alarmed. The smoke of the wigwams indicated a settlement and as the crow sailed lazily through the air at a great height above the roofs of the cabins, he espied the scalp which he knew must be the one he sought, stretched out to dry.

After various unsuccessful strategems, he was able to seize it, and flew away to exhibit his trophy to the council.

Now, they attempted to fit it to his head, but, being dry, it was impossible; so search was made to find something with which to moisten it, but in vain. Then slowly moved forward the great eagle, and bids them listen to his words.

“My wings are never furled; night and day, for years and hundreds of years, the dews of heaven have been collected upon my back, as I sat in my nest above the clouds. Perhaps these waters may have a virtue no earthly fountain can possess, we will see.”

Then she plucked a feather from her wing and dipped it in the dewey elixir, which was then applied to the shriveled scalp, and lo! it became pliable and fresh as if just removed. Now it would fit, but there must be a healing power to cause the flesh to unite, and again to awaken life.

All were anxious to do something in the great work, therefore all went forth to bring rare leaves, flowers, barks, the flesh of animals and the brain of birds, to form a healing mixture. When they returned it was prepared, and having been moisted with the dew, was applied to the scalp, and instantly adhered to it and became firm. This caused the hunter to sit up; he looked around in astonishment upon his numerous friends, unable to divine the meaning of so strange an assemblage.

Then they bade him stand upon his feet and told him how he was found dead upon the plain and how great was the lamentation of all those who had so long experienced his kindness, and the efforts they had made to restore him to life. They then gave him the compound which had been the means of restoring him to life, saying, “it was the gift of the Great Spirit to man. He alone had directed them in the affairs of the council, had brought the eagle to furnish the heavenly moisture, and gave them wisdom in making the preparation, that they might furnish to man a medicine which should be effectual for every wound.”

When they had finished the animals departed to their forest haunts, the eagle soared again to his eyrie, and the birds of the air flew away to their nests in the tall trees, all happy and rejoicing that they had accomplished this great good.

The hunter returned to his home and spread abroad the news of the miracle and the knowledge of the wonderful medicine, which is used to this day among the Iroquois by those who are the favorites of the Great Spirit.

NO. 2.

An Indian hunter went forth to hunt, and as he wandered through the forest he heard a strain of beautiful music far off among the trees. He listened, but could not tell whence it came; he knew it could not be by any human voice, or from any instrument he had ever heard. As it came near it ceased. The next evening he went forth again, but he heard no music, and again, but in van.

Then came the Great Spirit to him in a dream and told him to fast, wash himself till he was purified, then he might go forth and would hear again the music. So he purified himself and went again among the dark trees of the forest, and soon his ear caught the sweet strains, as he drew near they became more beautiful; he listened till he learned them and could make the same sweet sound, then he knew that it was a plant with a tall green stem and long tapering leaves. He took his knife and cut the stalk, but ere he had scarcely finished, it healed and was the same as before; he cut it again, and again it healed. Then he knew it would heal diseases, he took it home, dried it by the fire, pulverized it, and applied a few particles of it to a dangerous wound; no sooner had it touched the wound than it was healed. Thus the Great Spirit taught the Indian the nature of medicinal plants, and directed him where they were to be found, when and how used.


The two above are the legends concerning the principal medicines used among the Iroquois. The ancient manner of administering them, was to take a small wooden goblet and go to a running stream, dipping toward the way which the stream ran, fill the goblet and return, place it near the fire with some tobacco near it; a prayer is offered while tobacco is thrown upon the fire, that the words may ascend upon the smoke.

The medicine is placed on a piece of skin near the goblet, being very finely pulverized, is taken up with a wooden spoon and dusted upon the water in three spots, in the form of a triangle, thus—

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The medicine man then looks at it critically, if it spreads over the surface of the water and whirls about, it is a sign that the invalid will be healed; if it sinks directly in the places where it was put, there is no hope, the sick person must die and the whole is thrown away.

Once in six months there is a great feast made, at the hunting season in fall and spring. On the night of the feast as soon as it is dark, all who are present assemble in one room, where no light or fire is allowed to burn, and placing the medicine near the covered embers, the tobacco by its side, they commence singing, which proclaims that the crows are coming to their feast, and also many other birds and various animals, the brains of whose species form part of their medicine. At the end of the song some one imitates the caw of a crow, the songs of the birds, the howls of the wolf, etc., as if the animals were present.

Three times in the course of the night they offer a prayer, while throwing tobacco on the smothered flames, asking that the people may be protected from all harm, and if they receive wounds that the medicine may be effectual in healing them.

At the commencement of the ceremonies the doors are locked, and no one is allowed to enter or leave the house while they continue; neither is any one allowed to sleep, as that would spoil the medicine. The feast begins just before the dawn of day. The master of ceremonies first takes a deer’s head, bites off a piece, imitates the cry of a crow and passes the head of the animal to another, who does the same, till all have tasted and imitated the peculiar note of some bird or animal.

As soon as it begins to be light the presiding officer takes a duck’s bill, and dipping it full of the medicine, gives it to each one present, who puts it in a bit of skin and wraps it in several coverings, keeps it carefully until the next semi-annual feast. The skin of a panther is preferred for the first envelope if it can be obtained.

Those who take part in the ceremonies are medicine men. Chiefs are allowed to be present; also, any who have been cured of any disease by the medicine.

Without the building the young people gather for merriment, and the fragments of the feast are given to them when it is finished.

When the medicine described in the second legend is used, the tune is sung which was heard at its discovery, both at the ceremonies of the feast and the time of administering it.

They seem to think the ceremonies effectual in making the medicinal qualities of the compound imperishable. Each medicine man has a large quantity which he keeps in a bag, and in order not to exhaust the whole, now and then, adds pulverized corn roots, squash vines, etc., and whenever it is administered several persons assemble and sing. Both kinds are considered especially useful in healing wounds received in war.

In reading the first legend there will be seen very humorous allusions to the habits of the pigeon, heron and crow, and there is a curious invention inspiring faith in the means used in healing. I have seen many who affirmed that they had tested the wonderful powers of each.

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