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as told by Elizabeth Doxstater, Mohawk storyteller
The Sky World
At the beginning of the time when people came to be on earth, there was a world high above from where we now stand. This land was so high that it was not visible from the earth. It is not known how long the Skyworld was there, nor how it got there. It has always been accepted that the Skyworld always was. Perhaps this is the start of how the Haudenosaunee showed respect for the teachings of the ancestors. Trusting perhaps mixed with some wonder but with no question, has been a long tradition.
In the Skyworld there stood a tree that grew at the very center of this celestial world. On this tree grew every fruit. The sky people were given permission to eat freely from the tree. They were also warned not bring harm to this tree which was a great source of nurturance for the people. They were also warned that they were not to touch the roots in case it would cause harm to the tree.
In the Skyworld lived a young chief and his wife. The chief’s wife was pregnant and as with many expectant women; she began to have strange cravings. She had cravings for certain kinds of plants, or certain kinds of meats. She sometimes insisted on very specific blends of plants for seasonings or teas. She often sent her husband on many journey’s to help fulfill her cravings.
Her husband was a humble person. He was rather kind and gentle and easily taken advantage of, especially by her. But he would go without argument or question and try with much difficulty to please his wife. His wife…on the other hand… was kinda grouchy!
One day she had a new craving, a very unique and unexplainable craving. She approached him with some hesitation but in the end she had no problem asking him, as he always did what she asked. You see she craved a drink made from the roots of the great tree.
She asked him some questions: Do you love me?... Will you always love me?... Do you think cravings are natural when carrying a child, …your child?... Would you still love me if I asked to go for another journey?...
Her husband, who loved her dearly, listened as she explained her particular dilemma. She told him of her nausea and how their unborn child was kicking, probably with the same craving. The husband did quietly hold much uncertainty in his heart. But she sent her husband anyway, to retrieve the roots in order to make the drink that she craved.
The husband was very concerned about her odd request. He knew that they were not to touch anything on the tree except for the fruit that it would bear. He walked with much hesitation. He considered all of the consequences that such actions could have on him, his wife, their unborn child and the people. He walked toward the tree, but become increasingly despondent regarding his wife’s request.
Sadly he decided that he could not fulfill her request, however he continued to walk. It is not known for sure if he continued to walk to the tree or if he wandered to another path to where his existence would forever remain unknown.
The woman waited a long time for her husband to return. She waited so long that she became impatient. She paced the lodge complaining that he wasn’t back yet. She continued to pace and complain. How could he take so long, even though I am carrying his child?
After what seemed like a very long time her impatience caused her to go looking for her husband. She searched all over the Skyworld for him. After searching for him for a very long time she finally decided to go to the great tree to retrieve the roots for herself.
She arrived at the tree. She decided that although her husband was supposed to go for the roots, he didn’t return, therefore she would have to make the drink herself. She approached the tree and examined the area, which would best suit her needs. Her pregnant state caused her to use much care when bending to gather the roots for her drink.
She knelt beside the tree digging for the roots, which she desired. She dug with her hands but in order to reach the trees roots, she had to pick some smaller plants, which were in her way. She held on to the small plants with one hand and continued to dig with the other. As she leaned over she heard a sound. Unsure of what she heard, she bent over further. As her curiosity grew, she leaned in even further. It seemed to be the same sound that water makes when running, like a river.
Throughout time storytellers have varied in what next happened. Some expressed that from her curiosity she leaned too far over she simply fell. Others say her husband, out of anger, snuck up on her and pushed her through a hole under where she was digging. Still other variations of the story say that another family member or another type of natural force, perhaps a wind caused her fall. It may have been an accident or it may have been an act of frustration from a family member, possibly even her husband, but within the next moments, she found herself passing through a hole at the base of the great tree.
Skywoman quickly tried to keep her balance and pull herself back up through the hole. As she struggled to find a grasp she was only able to pull more of the plants that grew around the base of the tree. She continued to fall, now completely through the hole. She fell deeper into the blackness of outer space. She continued to fall deeper into the blackness…and fall deeper …and fall deeper… and fall deeper…and fall…and fall …and fall…and …and…and…
She continued to fall further and further from the Skyworld. The blackness of outer space ever so slowly began to be farther and farther behind her…
…As she continued to tumble something else, also far, far off in the distance, (however this time in front of her) was starting to take form. The sky was no longer complete emptiness. Something was starting to appear. She was heading to something closer and closer and even closer. Skywoman tumbled and tumbled and tumbled toward a place that we now know as the earth.
She was very afraid; she didn’t know what was about to happen. She finally caught her breath enough and began to yell for help.
She continued to fall from the Skyworld and kept heading toward earth.
On the planet far below lived many forms of the winged creatures. They were busy with their everyday duties when they heard the cries coming from high above where they were flying. Although some storytellers firmly believe they were the winged brothers and sisters called the geese, others say the eagle or the hawk, in any case, the birds that lived during the time of creation, quickly agreed to help the being which was headed straight toward them. They flew up to where the woman was falling. They offered to bring her to the earth on their wings in order to save her life and break her fall.
When the birds arrived back on the earth with the strange guest on their backs, they soon realized that there would be a different concern. The entire earth would be an obstacle, as it was completely covered with water. If they let go of the woman, she would surely drown. They paused not knowing what to do. They asked all the other creatures for suggestions.
It was then that a giant sea turtle rose up out of the water. The sea turtle was majestic in form and presence. He sounded wise and his shell looked strong and sturdy for the woman to rest. The sea turtle offered his back to the woman. The turtle reminded them that he could stay afloat for along period of time. If the birds placed her on his back, she would be able to rest until they could figure out another plan for her.
All agreed and the woman was placed on the turtles back. It is taught that a plant grew from the exact spot where the Skywoman was placed, and this plant is still used in a powerful medicine to mend broken bones.
Soon the small sea animals surrounded the turtle. They were curious about the new being that was now on the earth. They decided that in order to make her stay more comfortable that she would benefit from having soil to stand on. They agreed to take turns diving into the sea to try to retrieve some soil. One by one the small creatures dove deep into the ocean. One by one their lifeless bodies rose to the surface. The muskrat was the last animal to try. He had been gone for a long time. Skywoman found herself waiting once again just as she had for her husband.
When the muskrat’s lifeless body rose to the surface of the water the woman saw that he had soil in his claws and his mouth. Because the muskrat and the other small water creatures sacrificed their lives for the woman, she promised to remember to honor them: those that worked so selflessly for the woman.
The woman took the soil from the lifeless muskrat. She placed the soil on the back of the turtle. She started to walk in a counter clockwise direction. As she walked she started to sing. Her song was a song to honour the life that she carried and the life beings that she had just met including; the water, the turtle, the animals and the birds. As she sang, she started to dance. Her dance was gentle. Her feet did not leave the ground but rather massaged the soil on the back of the great turtle. As she danced the soil stretched. After many verses of her song, the soil covered an area that was further than her eyes could see.
Sky woman took the plants that were ripped from near the roots of the great tree. She planted them in the soil and saw two plants grow from them. The strawberry plant continues to connect the earth people to the Skyworld by being the first plant to bear fruit in the spring. Then the people are reminded that the strawberry was the first fruit on Turtle Island. This is still celebrated through an annual thanksgiving ceremony to mark the beginning of a new cycle. When people die it is believed that they follow the scent of the strawberry along the Milky Way as they return to the land of the spirits.
The other plant, the tobacco plant’s leaves are burned when the people need to communicate with the Creator. This is still seen as an important ceremony for the people.
13 Moon Calendar
When Skywoman arrived on the earth, she had to wait for a long time. She waited for the sea creatures to return, she waited for the plants to grow and she waited for the birth of her child. Throughout her waiting she and the great turtle devised a manner to keep track of her time. Skywoman marked the turtle shell with 28 sections around the edge and 13 sections in the middle of the shell. Simple math shows that 13x28=364 and these markings on the turtle’s shell continue to be a reminder of the origin of Turtle Island and the annual roles of the people.
Skywoman promised the turtle that she would always remember to honor his life. She would be eternally grateful for his kindness and if possible would help to protect his descendants. The turtle’s shell has always been the traditional calendar of the Haudenosaunee.
The Sky Woman’s Daughter
Skywoman lived on Turtle Island and was able to provide for herself and soon adapted to her new home. After a length of time passed she gave birth to the daughter whom she carried in her womb from the Skyworld. The daughter and her mother lived on Turtle Island for many years.
As a child the Skywoman’s daughter kept busy with the small animals and learned the use of many plants. The daughter grew into a young woman. One night she had a dream. In her dream she was visited by a being, some say he was a Thunder Being, others say he was the spirit of one of the winds. Her visitor left two arrows on her chest. When she awoke she showed her mother the arrows, one straight and sharp and one crooked and blunt. The Skywoman explained this message was that her daughter would be giving birth to twins.
Throughout her pregnancy the twins quarreled, even though they were still inside of their mother. Their behavior led to much discomfort for the mother. After the normal length of time passed the daughter gave birth to the twin boys. The first son was born the natural way. The second boy was impatient and forced himself out through his mother’s armpit. This caused his mother’s death.
The Skywoman buried her daughter’s body in the soil. As she was the mother of the twins she would now be known as ‘Mother Earth’ and would continue to provide life for the people. From her grave grew the three plants, which became sustenance for the people. The women would be known as the sisters to these plants; corn, beans and squash.
This is a related story that is sometimes told, especially now that physical appearance is emphasized so much. The corn plant, which was most striking, was used to make a beautiful cornhusk doll. This doll travelled to many villages. She played with the children and kept them entertained. Many people would comment on her beauty. Soon the doll forgot about her duties and spent long hours by the creeks and streams admiring her reflection. The cornhusk doll would be given the duty to remind the people to remain humble and not to become obsessed with appearance, as true beauty is found in commitment to responsibilities. Soon her face was removed. The cornhusk doll continues to remain faceless. Later the corn husk doll was also used as a medicine for the lonely. Before the time of photographs, people who left home on hunting expeditions would pack a small doll resembling a loved one in order to ward off loneliness.
The plants from the Skyworld grew from the grave of the Sky woman’s daughter; the strawberry, which is shaped like a heart, and tobacco, which symbolizes a good path in life, and communication with the Creator, grew as well.
The twins grew into strong young men, however their quarreling continued. They often argued and fought and the Skywoman, who was now their Grandmother would step in to mediate through arguments. She was able to tell them apart when working or playing because of their individual traits.
She named them ‘Holder of the Heavens” and “Mischievous One.” She favored the better natured of the twins, she believed that the better natured was the twin who was born the natural way, and that his brother caused her daughter’s death. She mistakenly named them the opposite of their behaviors. Some storytellers say that during a dream, the twins actually transformed into each other, which caused her more confusion. It is also told that we are to remember this and remember to be non-judgemental, as we do not know how our lives will change in the future. If we judge others differences too harshly, we could become just like those whom we criticize.
The boys continued to grow and quarrel and the Grandmother continued to try to be fair to both of the boys. When they were full-grown they were in a very heated debate. The Grandmother stepped in between the boys while they were in their rage. Their emotional state was beyond any type of intervention. Their rage was escalated to the point that any reasoning was completely beyond their (then) current state of mind. In their rage they accidentally killed her, ripping her head from her body. Her head was thrown and traveled far, returning into the sky and remained among the stars, even to this day.
It is understood that the twins’ grandmother was now the moon and would forever be the grandmother to all. She is responsible for deciding when babies are born and because of her bloodshed, visiting women 13 times a year, every 28 days to ensure new life, patterned after the turtles shell.
The Haudenosaunee have always understood the connection between the lunar moons and lifecycles like the planting season. Grandmother moon is female and she controls the waters on the earth, from the tides of the ocean to the water that protects an unborn baby during pregnancy.
You might also remember that Grandmother moon was the original Skywoman. She promised the Giant Sea Turtle that when she could, she would help him. In certain parts of the world, sea turtles lay their eggs deep in the sandy beaches. This happens the night before Grandmother Moon appears in full, or what others call a ‘full moon.’
After the turtles lay their eggs they return to the ocean. The full moon appears and as a result, the tides rise. The tides wash away the trails in the sand, left by the turtles. In the morning scavenger birds are obstructed in their ability to freely hunt for turtle eggs, now protected by the high tides. In the teachings it is understood that the Grandmother Moon watches over the turtles’ unborn, in order to protect them. She continues to fulfill her promise to the original turtle that offered himself as her home.
The twins, now without any guidance, continued to live on Turtle Island. They were given many jobs. First they were given the job of creating and naming plants and the animals. The twins made different plants. The better natured twin would make a plant or bush full with berries or fruit that would be beneficial to the people. His brother would put thorns on it or place other plants in the way that would be harmful to the people. Whatever the good natured twin would do, his brother would scheme some way of altering it.
The better natured twin created the deer, a life source for the people especially helpful during the cold months when your body needs heavier foods that are slower to digest. His brother created the natural predators of the deer, so that the humans would need to develop skills to feed themselves, their families and villages. The better natured twin retaliated by giving the deer antlers as a form of protection and also as a tool. The antlers would help the deer to perfect his skills at maneuvering through the woods in order to navigate through difficult terrain, especially during the winter when weather conditions are unpredictable. Later in history the Haudenosaunee remembered the significance of the deer antlers and the selflessness that was to be the temperament of the deer.
This is a related story that is sometimes told: The people needed to conserve the life forms to ensure there would be enough food. They were given a way to show the right time to hunt. Three celestial hunters would hunt a bear. They would chase the bear across the summer sky. In the fall, they will kill the bear and his blood will drip down turning the leaves red. This is when the men know it is time to hunt.
To balance the female role of Grandmother Moon, the good natured twin created the sun. The sun would be a leader and walk across the sky to provide guidance, warmth and structure just as an older brother should. For this reason the sun is known as our eldest brother. Because the sun is male, the men take their role and responsibilities from him. Men are responsible for providing that sacred fire for their family to be warm and to gather to learn their teachings and values; the fire is used for councils to discuss, deny or ratify decisions for the people: the fire also provides a place where meals are cooked and nurturance provided.
The people are to remember the roles of our Grandmother Moon, who represents the power of water and Eldest Brother the Sun who represents the power of fire. We see that they have remained distinct in their role and duties. One doesn’t try to become the other, nor interfere with the others’ duties. The people are warned of the consequences of such actions. Women and men are to remember that this balance is to be reflected throughout life and during their marital life, remain distinct in strength to ensure balance. Water can overpower the strength of a fire and likewise, fire can overpower the power of water however balance is essential especially in the home.
The good natured twin did keep a promise made by their Grandmother. She had promised to honor the life forms that helped her along her journey. He remembered the Great Tree of Life in the Skyworld and devised a manner in which this would be honored. He created an interdependent relationship between humans and trees. They are connected and therefore equal. Trees need what humans exhale and humans need what trees exhale. Trees continue to be a life source for the people who now lived on the earth providing breathe, food and (for the Haudenosaunee) maple sap, a staple of the traditional diet.
Both twins would create people but only one was able to breathe life into them, the better natured twin. He did oblige his brother and would breathe life into the people whom he had created. They used a variety of natural things to make people, causing some difference in their appearance and their nature. The people lived together for a while. Because of their behaviors the people could not get along, so the island was divided, ultimately separating the people across the whole earth. (Pangaea?) This was to last until they (the people) would be able to get along.
It is not known for sure at which point in time the clans were introduced. It is known that they existed before the message of the great peace came to the people. The story is like this. As time passed, death caused the people of Turtle Island to spend much time grieving. When death came to a village, everyone would grieve. There was no distinction made between the mourners and those who would help. It was decided that the people would reflect the natural world. The matrilineal clan system was devised to help maintain healthiness by avoiding inborn illness caused by a child’s parents being related. The eldest women from each dwelling would be sent to observe either an air, land or water creature. These would become the symbols of the clan system. Children would be born into one of several clans, following their mother’s line. Laws forbidding inter-marriage into one’s own clan were introduced and are still abided. As well, grieving families would now be able to turn to the people of the other clans to help during times of bereavement. This system remained in place and is still followed to this day. There are 9 Haudenosaunee clans; three water animals-beaver, eel, turtle, three land animals-bear, deer, wolf, three winged –hawk, heron, snipe.
The twins continued to fight. It was decided that they would compete to finally resolve who would rule their home. They played various games including the bowl game, lacrosse, and dice and even wrestling. All of their matches resulted in a tie.
Because their challenges were taking so much of their energy, they would have to negotiate an end to their difficulty. The better natured twin then took a deer antler and struck his brother, causing an imbalance in power. He could now tell his brother how the day would be split.
It was decided that the day would be split in half. The better natured twin would rule the day and be with the Eldest Brother while his brother would rule at night and be able to be with his Grandmother again.
One day the Good Natured twin met a ‘being’ created by his brother. This ‘being’ would be boastful and would cause much sickness and bring disease to the people. The ‘being’ bragged about his power and challenged the Good Natured twin to a contest. They would see who could move the mountain that was on the horizon. The ‘being’ danced and moved about frantically, this was his attempt to move the great mountain. The earth shook, and trembled. The Good Natured twin witnessed the mountain move about the length of an small arrowhead.
The ‘being’ laughed and teased his opponent. He shouted about how powerful he was. He then invited the twin to take his turn. As the ‘being’ was about to move away, to allow room for the twin to work, he turned away suddenly and hit his face on the side of the mountain breaking his nose. The twin had moved the mountain, directly behind the ‘being’ without making a sound or movement.
The ‘being’ was now humbled at the great power of the Good Natured twin. The twin also was impressed by the power of the ‘broken-nose being.’ He allowed the ‘being’ to exonerate himself for creating illness. He would now play an important role as a healer and protector of the people. The people would be instructed to pay for the services of the powerful broken-nose ‘being’ and other members of this healing/medicine society with tobacco and food. People would be instructed to carve a likeness of the ‘being ‘from the trunk of a live tree and this healing society would continue with the Haudenosaunee from that day until the present.
At this time the good natured twin also announced that he would from then on be known as ‘Shonkwaya’tiso’ (the one who made our bodies). It should be noted that this was and is significant. This name does not translate into the ‘one who created the universe.’ It does indicate how this story related directly to the worldview of the Haudenosaunee specifically. In other words the ‘Iroquois Creation Story” did and does not attempt to explain the creation of the whole universe. This might indicate an innate understanding of humility and respect for the greater unknown.
It is believed by some that in the wintertime, Pleiades the star constellation, shows the exact place where the Great Tree of Life stood and the place from where the Skywoman fell from the Skyworld. After the 13th moon of the year, Pleiades can be seen up from ‘where the smoke rises’ in the middle of the longhouse and has been seen every year since the time of creation.