The Legends of the Iroquois


In the veins of the red man ran the wild poetry and imagination of the hunt, the chase, the battle, the capture, the dance, the forests, the valleys, the mountains, the streams, lakes and rivers, for a thousand generations; and yet they were without accomplishment in letters or arts. Is it, therefore, strange that they held in great reverence the traditions and legends common in their tribes—revered them as the early Christians revered the first copies of the sacred writings? These legends were told over again and again for unknown years.

The Legends of the Iroquois were transmitted from one to another, as the unwritten work of Freemasonry has been transmitted by frequent and careful repetition. They were not bandied about like ordinary stories, but, repeated with something of a religious or sacramental spirit, as though the tales imparted an especial virtue to those who learned them from reliable sources; were held as sacred as we hold the transactions of an honored secret society.

The Story of Oniata

MAIDEN more beautiful than had ever before been seen came into the house of a great chief and grew to womanhood by his fireside. All the tribes within a distance of many long journeys paid her homage, for, though her eyes were as dark as the depths of the pool in the rocks, her skin was as fair as that of the palefaces who came thousands of years afterwards, and her hair was borrowed from the rays of the sun.

The great chief was honored above all his people on account of his beautiful daughter, for she could work charms that drove away the evil spirits of sickness, and when her father went to battle or followed the chase he was ever successful, for he carried with him the maiden’s smiles to daze and blind his enemies, or to aid in his search for the hidden trail.

Her songs were so full of music that when she sang the wild birds were silent in the branches of the trees, and listened that they might catch the tones of her voice. When she laughed the waters in the mountain streams sought the deep pools and for very shame stopped their noisy clamor.

Her feet were so small and delicate that only the skins of fawns were used to make her moccasins. The snow that lay over the earth in winter was no whiter than her skin, and her cheeks were like the first coming of the sun on the mornings when the corn is ripe. Never before had the Indians seen one so beautiful, and the wise men whispered that she had been sent by the Great Spirit from the Happy Hunting-Grounds to teach the Indians what beauties awaited them when they had journeyed to their long home.

Over all the land spread the story of this wondrous maiden, like the tidings of a bountiful harvest or the boastings of a successful chase. From the villages far away came the young chiefs and warriors, and when they had looked upon this lily of the forest and heard the music of her voice they no longer had hearts for the hunt, but spent their days in trying to win approving glances from the dark eyes of Oniata, the daughter of Tiogaughwa.

They brought for her the most gorgeous and elaborate head-dresses of wampum, in which were woven the quills and feathers of the birds their cunning had been able to ensnare. They performed the most wonderful feats of agility and endurance, often vying with each other until even their rugged natures could not withstand the terrible self-imposed ordeals, and some sank exhausted or dying, while the more fortunate ones shouted cries of triumph and victory, loudly boasting of their own powers and strength.

Tiogaughwa, the father of Oniata, was filled with pride at the attention shown his daughter. His lodge was rich with presents of rare furs and strings of wampum that had been laid at her feet; the medicine of the wisest chiefs was freely placed at his disposal; he could have allied his tribe with the most powerful—for the greatest chiefs and the most renowned warriors sought to wed the beautiful Oniata.

But there came a change to these happy days of the old chief, Tiogaughwa. One day the chiefs and warriors were surprised to see the council-place filled with the women and maidens from all the country around. They deserted their lodges, left the fires to the care of the old men and children, and, without heeding the dark looks of their husbands, sons or brothers, took the places usually occupied by the wise men of the nation. When all were assembled, the wives of five of the principal chiefs were sent to ask Tiogaughwa and the chiefs and wise men to come to the council-fires.

When the chiefs and wise men were seated a silence fell on the assemblage. At last it was broken by the first faint notes of the mourning song of an Indian maiden for a lover who had been slain in battle. Others joined the chant and the weird chorus was caught up by the hundreds of women assembled, and filled the forests with notes of sorrow. The song ceased, but its last note had scarcely died away before another took its place.

The Indian wives commenced chanting the sorrowful story it was the custom of a deserted wife to sing in her lonely lodge when her husband had left her to join another more congenial to his fancy. When their complaint had ended, the women sat a long time with bowed heads. Finally the wife of one of the chiefs—a tall, lithe, beautiful young princess—stepped before the chiefs and sachems and said:

“We have come to the council-fires, oh! My brothers, that we might together tell the Great Spirit that the lovers of the Indian maidens are dead, and to ask him to meet them at the borders of the Happy Hunting-Grounds. We have come, too, oh! my brothers, to tell the Great Spirit that the bad spirits have caught the ears of our husbands and have told them tales that have led them from our lodges, and their wives and papooses are sick with hunger.”

“No longer is the smile of the dark maiden sought by the young braves. She plaits her hair with flowers and wampum and sits in the forests to await the coming of her mate; but the young braves come no more to woo her, nor can they be found on the track of the bear or the panther. They loll with the dogs in the shadow of Oniata’s wigwam and glare like the hard-wounded boar at the dark maidens who approach them. They are dead, and the hearts of the Indian maidens are full of sorrow.”

“The wives cover their heads with wolf skins and tell the Great Spirit that their husbands have deserted them. Day after day they have kept the lodge fires burning, but the hunters come not to sit in the light and tell the stories of the chase. The feeble old men and boys have tried to follow the hunt that they might provide the women with food. The papooses have sickened and died, and the death-song has been raised many times. But the warriors come not. They have forgotten their homes, as they lie in their camps near the lodge of the white lily, where they are held in sleep by the smiles of the Oniata.”

“Have the dark maidens lost their beauty, that their glances can never again bring life to the hearts  of the young braves? Have the dark wives refused to do the bidding of their husbands that they should be deserted like sick and wounded dogs fallen in the chase?

“My brothers, Waunopeta, the wife of Torwauquanda, has spoken, and her sisters have told her to say that if they no longer please the hearts of the red men they ask to be sent on the long journey to the Happy Hunting-Grounds.”

As Waunopeta ceased speaking and took her place among the crouching forms of the women, there was a movement on the outer edge of the circle, and in an instant Oniata stood in the centre of the council-place.

There was an exclamation of interest as this vision of wonderful beauty burst upon them. Many had never seen her, and they were almost blinded by a loveliness that was previous to that time unknown to the race. She was clothed in the richest of skins, and her hair fell like a cloud of sun-kissed mist over her beautiful shoulders. Her cheeks burned with tints that betrayed her common ancestry with her dark sisters whom she had unwittingly troubled.

“Oniata is here!” she cried, as she looked around at the dark faces before her, with eyes like those of the hunted fawn. “Oniata is here to say that she has not asked for the smiles of the young braves.

The Story of Oniata, daughter of Tiogaughwa - A Legend of the Iroquois
The Story of Oniata, daughter of Tiogaughwa – A Legend of the Iroquois, by William W. Canfield.

They came around her wigwam and drove away the dream-god with their cries and love-songs; but she covered her ears with the skins of the beaver and would not listen to them. When Oniata went forth to the forest they appeared before her like the thunder clouds, and she went back to her wigwam and could not look at her father, the sun.

The warriors came to the lodge of the white lily and with shouts and cries told the Oniata that their wives and children should be the white lily’s slaves if she would look out of her lodge upon them. But the Oniata called the women of her wigwam about her and they laughed in the faces of the warriors.

Oniata loves her sisters, but they are angry at the white lily and ask that she be sent away to the long home where she shall be seen no more by the braves and warriors. She will go from the home of the red men and her dark sisters—far away beyond the mountains and the great lakes—and the braves will return to life for the dark maidens and seek them with love-songs in the forests, while the warriors will once more go to their wigwams where their wives and papooses await them. But her people will remember the Oniata, for she will kiss the flowers in the forests as she goes.

“My sisters, the Oniata, daughter of the sun and the great chief Tiogaughwa, has spoken.”

She waved her hand, and the circle of listening men and women parted that she might walk through. The chief, Torwauquanda, started forward to follow her, but the dark princess, Waunopeta, stood in his pathway, and he knew by the looks of the menacing faces about him that the white lily would go alone.

Tiogaughwa rose as his daughter moved rapidly away, and said: “Oniata has spoken well. She will go in peace. The scalp-lock of the warrior that follows her will hang in Tiogaughwa’s wigwam.”

The old chief turned and folded his arms over his breast, watching with pathetic love the fast disappearing form of his daughter.

Out into the forest went the Oniata—the loved of the sunshine, the dream of the Indian—and the solemn council sat in silence as the beautiful vision faded forever from their view.

Far away from her people she wandered, never stopping to look back toward the home she had loved. The sun warmed her pathway for many days, and at night the sister of the sun smiled through the branches of the trees and lighted the forest so the Oniata would not miss her lodge-fire as she slept.

When she rested beside the clear streams she caught to her bosom the blossoms that covered the banks and breathed into their faces the love she had borne for her dark sisters and her home. The fragrance of her love filled their hearts and from that time they have freely given their love to others, as Oniata bade them when she pressed them to her lips and kissed them in her loneliness.

When the clouds came and the rain fell, Oniata was sheltered by the thick branches of the trees, and when the rain had ceased she pulled the branches down, and pressing her cheeks against them, thanked them for their kindness. The trees learned gentleness from the maiden, and their blossoms have ever since spread their grateful perfume on the air.

Many moons passed. The dark maidens were again wooed by the young braves, and the wives of the warriors were happy in the return of their husbands. The winter came and cast its white cloud over the land, and the frosts locked the rivers in prison houses of ice. But Oniata came not to the home of her people.

The great Tiogaughwa mourned his daughter in his lonely wigwam, and his heart sang her death-song as he sat before the fire-place, in which no fire was lighted, and bowed his head in mournful silence.

The warm winds came again, and the young men and maidens were once more filling the forests with their love-songs, while with laughter they chanted the praises of their mates. Tiogaughwa saw all this, but his heart was heavy and he had no words for the council-fire, no strength for the chase.

He left his people and walked away in the path that had been taken by Oniata. Wherever he went the wild flowers raised their heads and told him they had been kissed by Oniata, and the great Tiogaughwa fell down beside them and caught the fragrance of her breath.

When the dew and the rain were upon them he could see once more the beauty of her eyes, and the gentle songs of the soft winds through the trees that had sheltered Oniata and had felt the loving touch of her caresses, told the great Tiogaughwa that the light of his wigwam awaited his coming in the long home.