Creation Stories

White Oak Savannas

The Indigenous peoples of today’s Livingston County occupied its hills and valleys, flatlands and river banks, for centuries before European explorers, missionaries, and military men arrived.  While archaeologists dispute the extent to which the Senecas and other people of today’s Iroquois League migrated into the region, or developed their culture locally (in situ), there is abundant evidence that Pre-Iroquoian and Iroquoian people have occupied the lands that now comprise the county for many, many centuries.  Indeed, many of the features that today define Livingston County, like its “oak savannas,” are likely the product of active Indigenous land use practices.  The roads that cut through and across the county today follow the paths of older trails and thoroughfares made use of by native peoples.  The imprint of Indigenous peoples on the land is deep and powerful, but little understood by many non-Indigenous New Yorkers. Indeed, throughout the county, archaeologists–professional and amateur alike, have for many decades unearthed the remains of the regions Indigenous history.  Arrowheads by the hundreds; flints, celts, and metal goods; and human remains, too. Residents of Avon remarked in the nineteenth century about the burial sites north of Canawaugus, or throughout what is today Caledonia. As one archaeologist noted long ago of the Livingston County town of Lima, the Seneca “burying ground was situated where the present Presbyterian church now stands,” and the “general locality had been occupied for a considerable period, the entire village of Lima showing evidence of this fact.”

Whatever the archaeologists might say, Haudenosaunee peoples–like the Senecas who for several centuries occupied the Genesee Valley– have their own explanations for their origins.  These stories–often described with some condescension as “creation myths”– made as much sense to the “People of the Longhouse,” and the Seneca “Keepers of the Western Door,” as the stories in the Book of Genesis do to Christians.

The Senecas’ creation story begins in a Sky World.  A man and a woman lived there, on opposite sides of a hearth. Every day, the woman crossed to the other side of the fire and combed the man’s hair.  Soon she became pregnant and gave birth to a daughter. The Haudenosaunee called her Sky Woman.  When she reached adulthood, her father’s spirit told her to visit the distant village of the man who would become her husband.  Like her mother before her, Sky Woman and her husband slept on opposite sides of the fire. When Sky Woman mysteriously became pregnant, her husband, filled with jealousy, uprooted a large tree and pushed her through the hole in the sky. 

Sky Woman fell. The animals of the air and water below saw her falling.  Ducks flew to catch her on their wings.  They carried her down and placed her on Turtle’s Back.  Muskrat succeeded in bringing mud from beneath the water which, when placed on Turtle’s back, became the earth.  On that world that grew on Turtle’s back, Sky Woman gave birth to a daughter.  There the little girl grew, and in time she became pregnant with twins by the spirit of Turtle.

The Good Twin, born first, was known by different names—Sky Grasper, or Tharonhiawagon.  He was followed into this world by his evil brother, Tawiskaron, who chose to kill his mother by emerging into this world through her side.  Tawiskaron convinced Sky Woman that it was Tharonhiawagon, and not he, who had slain their mother.

So Sky Woman banished the Good Twin, and cherished instead the killer of her daughter.  Tharonhiawagon, a selfless exile, worked to improve Iroquoia.  This he did during his years in the wilderness with the assistance of his father, the Turtle.  At every step, Tawiskaron and his spiteful mother undermined his work.  At last, the two twins fought and with the assistance of ritual, the Good Twin triumphed.  But he could not repair all the damage his brother and Sky Woman had done.  He could not make the rivers flow both ways at once, as he had intended.  With so many hardships and dangers facing his people, Tharonhiawagon taught them how to survive in this world, and showed them how to grow corn and the ceremonies and rituals necessary to keep the world in balance.  

The Genesee, and the many streams that poured into it, flowed northward, through a gentle countryside, but also through canyons and cataracts. Senecas knew this world well before Europeans arrived.  They gave names to the places that were meaningful to them: Chenussio, Nunda, Canawaugus, and many scores of others. The flats of the Genesee became Seneca farmlands, the high grounds nearby the location for their fortifications.

The formation of the earth on Turtle’s back was the first of two founding stories recited by the Iroquois.  The second involved the formation of the Iroquois League, the union of the Haudenosaunee Five Nations—Mohawks, Oneidas, Onondagas, Cayugas and Senecas, in the metaphorical longhouse that stretched from east to west across present-day New York State. The “western door” of that Longhouse could be found in today’s Livingston County. 

The story of the league’s formation focused upon a man named Hiawatha, left deranged by the grief caused when he lost his daughters in the endemic violence that lacerated Iroquoia.  “Feuds with other nations, feuds with brother nations, feuds with sister towns and feuds of families and of clans,” one telling of the “Deganawidah Epic” went, “made every warrior a stealthy man who liked to kill.”  Mourning and grieving, Hiawatha wandered into the woods where he encountered Deganawidah, the Peacemaker, a transcendent bearer of the Good News of Peace and Power.  The Peacemaker gave to Hiawatha strings of wampum, shell beads of great ritual significance, as he spoke the words of Condolence. The first dried Hiawatha’s weeping eyes. The second opened his ears to reason. The last opened his throat so that he could speak. Peace was more than the absence of war. It was a good mind, characterized by the Haudenosaunee concepts of peace, power, and righteousness.

As with the story of the creation of this world on Turtle’s back, the Deganawidah epic taught villagers the importance of maintaining balance, of alliance and exchange among the peoples of the Iroquois Longhouse.  The rituals of condolence became an Iroquois gospel, a message carried by Hiawatha and the Peacemaker to all the peoples of Iroquoia and beyond.  The pair traveled through the war-haunted lands of the Haudenosaunee.  They faced many challenges, but none greater than that posed by the Onondaga sorcerer Thadodaho, whose misshapen body and hair made of a tangle of writhing snakes symbolized the disorder of his mind.  If Hiawatha had been deranged by violence as a victim, and his grief had rendered him senseless, Thadodaho represented the opposite extreme.  His own violence and wickedness had damaged him. He was a killer and a sadist. Thadodaho resisted joining the League, but over time, Hiawatha restored him to reason and to a good mind. Hiawatha combed the snakes from his hair, and straightened out his crooked and deformed body.  Thadodaho became the Firekeeper of the metaphorical Iroquois longhouse, and his home at Onondaga, near present-day Syracuse, New York, became the ceremonial center of the Haudenosaunee. It remains so today.  

It is not possible to tell when the Five Nations came together.  Archaeologists have offered dates ranging from 1400 to sometime around 1600 AD.  Some Haudenosaunee people place the formation of the league in the ancient past, thousands of years ago. The process probably occurred gradually, according to archaeologist and Lima Town Historian Martha Sempowski, over generations, as the Five Nations consolidated, developing the rituals of condolence that brought peace to the Longhouse. The Senecas, the westernmost of the Five Nations and the last to join, archaeologists suspect may not have become the “Keepers of the Western Door” until sometime very early in the seventeenth century.

In the Longhouse the fifty sachems, or chiefs, of the League gathered together to discuss matters that affected the League as a whole.  The league sachems, appointed by the Haudenosaunee women who played so instrumental a role in community decision-making, became men of peace. At Onondaga, a Tree of Peace grew, with its roots extending in four directions.  Those who wished could follow the roots to Onondaga and join in the Great Peace.  With their weapons buried beneath the Tree of Peace, Hiawatha  and the Peacemaker taught, “hostilities shall not be seen or heard among you,” and peace “shall be preserved” among the Five Nations.

The Grand Council of the Haudenosaunee preserved the Great Peace that ended the constant warfare and grief that had damaged both Hiawatha and Thadodaho, through the rituals of condolence and through the exchange of gifts in the form of wampum. Its function was to preserve peace, power and righteousness, to maintain balance and order, and to preserve a good mind.

TO READ MORE:

Alfred, Taiaiake, Peace, Power, Righteousness: An Indigenous Manifesto, (Don Mills, ON: Oxford University Press, 1999).

Anderson, Chad. The Storied Landscape of Iroquoia: History, Context, and Memory in the Native Northeast, (Lincoln: University of Nebraska PRess, 2020).

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_______.  Aboriginal Occupation of New York, Bulletin of the New York State Museum, 32 (Volume 7, February 1900).

Bonaparte, Darren.  Creation and Confederation: The Living History of the Iroquois, (Akwesasne: Wampum Chronicles, 2006).

Ceci, Lynn. “Watchers of the Pleiades: Ethnoastronomy Among Native Cultivators in Northeastern North America,” Ethnohistory, 25 (Autumn 1978), 301-317.

Dennis, Matthew. Cultivating a Landscape of Peace: Iroquois-European Encounters in Seventeenth-Century America., (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1993).

Engelbrecht, William.  Iroquoia: The Development of a Native World, (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2003). 

________. “The Case of the Disappearing Iroquoians: Early Contact Period Superpower Politics,”  Northeast Anthropology, 50 (1995), 35-39.

________.  “Factors Maintaining Low Population Density among the  Prehistoric New York Iroquois.”  American Antiquity, 52 (January 1987), 13-27.

Fenton, William M. The Great Law and the Longhouse: A Political History of the Iroquois Confederacy, (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1998).

________. “The Lore of the Longhouse: Myth, Ritual and Red Power.” Anthropological Quarterly, 48 (July 1975), 131-147.

________. “This Island, the World on Turtle’s Back.: Journal of American Folklore, 75 (Oct-December 1962), 283-300.

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Hasenstab, Robert J. “Agriculture, Warfare, and Tribalization in the Iroquois Homeland of New York: A G.I.S. Analysis of Late Woodland Settlement,” Ph.D. diss., University of Massachusetts, 1990.

Hamell, George R. “The Iroquois and the World’s Rim: Speculations on Color, Culture and Contact,” American Indian Quarterly, 16 (Autumn 1992), 451-469.

 ________. “Mythical Realities and European Contact in the Northeast During the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries.” Man in the Northeast, 33 (Spring 1987), 63-87.

Hasenstab, Robert J. “Aboriginal Settlement Patterns in Late Woodland Upper New York State,” Journal of Middle Atlantic Archaeology, 12 (1996), 17-26.

 Jones, Eric E. “Iroquois Population History and Settlement Ecology, 1500-1700,” Ph.D dissertation, Pennsylvania State University, 2008.

Kerber, Jordan E., ed. Archaeology of the Iroquois: Selected Readings and Research Sources, (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2007).

Kuhn, Robert D. and Martha L. Sempowski. “A New Approach to Dating the League of the Iroquois,” American Antiquity, 66 (April 2001), 301-314.

Michelson, Gunther. “Iroquoian Terms for Wampum,” International Journal of American Linguistics, 57 (January 1991), 108-116.

Muller, Kathryn V. “Holding Hands with Wampum” Haudenosaunee Council Fires from the Great Law of Peace to Contemporary Relationships with the Canadian State,” Ph.D. diss., Queen’s University, 2008).

Otto, Paul. “`This is that which…they call Wampum:’ Europeans Coming to Terms with Native Shell Beads,” Early American Studies, XX (Winter 2017), 1-35.

Parmenter, Jon. “The Meaning of Kaswentha and the  Two Row Wampum Belt in Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) History: Can Indigenous Oral Tradition be Reconciled with the Documentary Record?” Journal of Early American History, 3 (Issue 1, 2013), 82- 109.

________.. The Edge of the Woods: Iroquoia, 1534-1701, (Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 2010).

Richter, Daniel K. Before the Revolution: America’s Ancient Pasts, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2011).

Seischab, Franz K. and David Orwig. “Catastrophic Disturbances in the Presettlement Forests of Western New York,” Bulletin of the Torrey Botanical Club 118 (2), 1991, 117-122.

Seischab, Franz K. “Presettlement Forests of the Phelps and Gorham Purchase in Western New York.” Bulletin of the Torrey Botanical Club, 117 (1), 1990: 27-38.

Vecsey, Christopher. “The Story and Structure of the Iroquois Confederacy,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion,54 (Spring 1986), 79-106.

Wallace, Paul A. W. The White Roots of Peace, (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press,  1946).

Warrick, Gary R. A Population History of the Huron-Petun, AD 500-1650, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008).Wonderley, Anthony. At the Font of the Marvelous: Exploring Oral Narrative and Mythic Imagery of the Iroquois and their Neighbors, (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2009).