Choosing from the four corners of our nation four stories is bound to be entirely too small a glance at the richness of Native American folklore. Even the wealth to be found in any one direction is like attempting to see one person from outer space. The best I can do is choose a specific nation, in the same way Canada refers to their first confederations of people as the First Nations. With Thanksgiving this weekend a few thoughts helped direct me to a story. While I don't like calling it "Turkey Day", Thanksgiving certainly has a large focus on food.
The holiday began in the East, so that felt like the appropriate direction for this week. Taking a quick look at that Wikipedia link I find, of course, a religious group like the Pilgrims were frequent in giving thanks, but this particular celebration was after their first harvest in their new home and it lasted three days! Not sure anybody other than grocery stores would be up to that nowadays. There were 90 Wampanoag and 53 Pilgrims at that feast which certainly included corn.
How much of that celebration do we really know correctly? We've probably heard that Squanto taught the Pilgrims how to farm with the native corn crop, but have we heard his name was really Tisquantum? Added to that I remember mentioning the idea of using aquarium water to fertilize while watering plants and that it was an idea dating back to that early corn crop. The ladies I told this had never heard of it! Nothing like a good fertilizing with fish poo!
|How Well The Corn Prospered. Squanto or Tisquantum demonstrating corn he had fertilized by planting with fish.|
When I tried to find any major collection of theWampanoag literature, I was puzzled to find only a few scattered tales. Looking at the Wikipedia article and the condensed information on Warpaths2peacepipes.com it shows their near extermination in the years when Native American folklore was being collected. Today they are gradually attempting to regain recognition, but a lack of cultural continuity, as opposed to assimilation, has slowed official federal and state recognition. For the sake of letting the Wampanoag speak, I would like to feature something not among those few online scattered tales. I haven't succeeded YET (maybe next year?) I'll try to prowl my more general collections as time permits.
In the meantime the major eastern grouping of five, eventually six, nations is the Iroquois Confederacy or the Haudenosaunee. There are many collections of their stories and some have been given here. Of the entire Confederacy, the Seneca stories are my favorites. You can attribute (or blame?) that on first meeting them in the children's anthology of Skunny Wundy: Seneca Indian Tales by Arthur C. Parker. Parker was of both Seneca (including the Seneca chief, Ely) and Scottish-English descent with an outstanding career combining archaeology, museums (he was Director of Rochester Museum of Arts and Sciences) and folklore. While Skunny Wundy is easily approached, I've chosen from his classic Seneca Myths & Folk Tales a story I think fits Thanksgiving and beyond.
CORN RAINS INTO EMPTY BARRELS.
At one time there was nothing to eat on all the earth. Nearly all the people had starved to death, and a few that remained gathered together on a high hill. They lived on boiled bark.
There was a certain young man who kept saying all the time, “It will be better after a while.” Nobody believed him because things were getting worse each day. His brother used to torture him with sharp stones and say harsh things to him. The young man, however, kept thinking that something would happen soon. After a while he heard footsteps, as if on a clean path. He listened for the span of a moon and then heard them running. He told the people but nobody believed him.
One morning while he sat in the doorway of his lodge with his head down on his knees, a young woman stood before him. He heard her breathe and looked up. She smiled and handed him a basket of bread. “My mother sent me to this lodge to find a young man,” she said. “My mother wants me to marry him.”
The people came out of the lodge and looked at the young woman and the young man’s mother asked from whence she had come. “I have come from the far south,” answered the girl. “There is plenty of food there.”
So the young man ate the bread and was married to the young woman from the south.
Then the young wife said, “My mother sent me to bring food to you. Let everybody take off the tops of their corn barrels and then enter the lodge and cover their faces.”
The sun had now come up and it was hot. The people did not like their faces covered, but soon they heard a sound like corn falling into their barrels. After a time the noise ceased and the young wife said, “It is finished now.”
Out into the shed went the people of the lodge and found the barrels full of shelled corn. Everybody ate and all were satisfied, except the younger brother, who threw his food into the fire and said he wanted game. Now the young wife had cooked the corn the young man threw away, and she was made sad by his action. So she said, “My husband, go to the river and get fish enough for the people.” But the younger brother said, “It is foolish to go to the river, for fish have deserted the river. There are none.” Nevertheless, the young husband went to the river and drew out enough fish for all the people. The younger brother was very angry.
The next day the husband went hunting and while he was absent the younger brother began to torment the young wife. “Your food is not good,” he said. “I cast your food away,” and again he threw food into the fire.
When the husband returned he found his wife crying and when he asked her what was troubling her she said, “Your younger brother has spoiled everything. He has rejected my food (speaking thereby the dissatisfaction of all the people). I shall now return to my home.”
The husband was very sad and begged her not to go, but his wife told him that her mother instructed her to return if she were abused. During the following night there was a sound of scraping in the corn barrels and in the morning when the women went for their corn it was all gone, and with it the bride had vanished.
After consultation the husband determined to search for his wife, and thus he set out on a long journey. At length he came to a region of great corn fields and after a while saw a high mound covered with corn plants. On this mound he found his wife and her mother. His wife showed him her body and it was burned and scarred. “This is what your brother did to me,” she said, “when he threw the corn into the fire. He would have killed me had I remained.”
After living in the south for several months the couple returned and found the people again starving. The young wife ordered them to open their corn barrels and hide their faces once again. They did so and shelled corn fell like rain into the barrels filling them to the top.
Then the young wife told the people that corn must never be wasted or thrown away for it is food and if destroyed will cause the crops to be poor and the corn to cease to yield.
This story and the practical aspect of fertilizing corn with fish is only a small part of the important Native American relationship with corn. Here among the Anishinaabeg I expected I had posted their story of how corn, or Mondaamin, came to become a major part of their diet. It doesn't seem to be here. Fortunately my live tellings in Jackson earlier this month did include it. There's always another story to tell!
I guess that bottomless well of stories, coupled with the provision of food, is certainly a reason to be thankful.
- There are many online resources for Public Domain stories, maybe none for folklore is as ambitious as fellow storyteller, Yoel Perez's database, Yashpeh, the International Folktales Collection. I have long recommended it and continue to do so. He has loaded Stith Thompson's Motif Index into his server as a database so you can search the whole 6 volumes for whatever word or expression you like by pressing one key. http://folkmasa.org/motiv/motif.htm
- You may have noticed I'm no
longer certain Dr. Perez has the largest database, although his
offering the Motif Index certainly qualifies for those of us seeking
specific types of stories. There's another site, FairyTalez
claiming to be the largest, with "over 2000 fairy tales,
folktales, and fables" and they are "fully optimized for
phones, tablets, and PCs", free and presented without ads.
Between those two sites, there is much for story-lovers, but as they say in infomercials, "Wait, there's more!"
- Zalka Csenge Virag - http://multicoloreddiary.blogspot.com doesn't give the actual stories, but her recommendations, working her way through each country on a continent, give excellent ideas for finding new books and stories to love and tell.
You're going to find many of the links on these sites have gone down, BUT go to the Internet Archive Wayback Machine to find some of these old links. Tim's site, for example, is so huge probably updating it would be a full-time job. In the case of Story-Lovers, it's great that Jackie Baldwin set it up to stay online as long as it did after she could no longer maintain it. Possibly searches maintained it. Unfortunately Storytell list member, Papa Joe is on both Tim Sheppard's site and Story-Lovers, but he no longer maintains his old Papa Joe's Traveling Storytelling Show website and his Library (something you want to see!) is now only on the Wayback Machine. It took some patience working back through claims of snapshots but finally in December of 2006 it appears!