Rebekah Tanner

Dr. Christine Braunberger

English 224-002W/HO American Literature II

Onondaga Community College,

Syracuse, New York

6 November 2012


Girl Standing in the Trees

Some families are complicated, with orphans or half-orphans in every long, overlapping generation of siblings and half-siblings as far back as anyone can remember. Such families often have secrets, which sometimes go to the grave before they get whispered to someone who is willing to listen, remember, and can pass them on. The secrets do not die. Every now and again, they get rediscovered, and the reason for the secret is no longer as important as the information it contains. I come from such a family.

During my childhood my mother worked long hours to support her five school-aged children and the job of baby-sitting fell to my eldest brother, Jorge. He was very studious and remarkably intelligent. I remember him as caregiver, disciplinarian, and storyteller. When I was 7 years old, he left for college returning home only briefly during breaks, until two years later, when his life ended. During the few years in which it seemed I had his undivided attention, he told me the most wonderful stories, one of which was about Sky-World Woman who he said was named Aataentsic; some years later I discovered a similar story had been narrated in the Wyandotte¹ language by Catherine Johnson in Oklahoma in May, 1912 (Barbeau Narratives 4 & 59 - 63). My recollection of Jorge's version is appended to this essay.

At about the time Jorge told me this story, I was outside one summer day, playing by myself. Something caught my attention. As I often did, I started on a walk and found myself near the harbor some distance south of our house. As I walked through a tunnel made by the trees, I sensed I was not alone. In the years since I have come to recognize my companions as the cloud of witnesses who are my ancestors. I felt light-headed, and had the sensation that I was watching myself, from above. I was a girl, standing in the trees.

* * *

In her work Land of the Three Miamis: A Traditional Narrative of the Iroquois in Ohio Barbara Alice Mann relates for her granddaughter the stories of the Four Epochs of Time as she understands them, from the perspective of a Western Seneca [Erie] woman of northwestern Ohio, writing at the beginning of the 21st century. Taken as whole, hers is an amazing tale of the legacy, endurance, resistance and survival of a People that history books and government rolls claim no longer exist. A People who have survived these last couple of hundred years, largely in secret, but who have “walked Turtle Island -- North America -- since the beginning" (15). Mann's work is thus in keeping with ideas expressed by Paula Gunn Allen in "Bringing Home the Fact" or Gerald Vizenor in Trickster Discourse where imagination is defined as "a concrete process of incorporating and perpetuating tradition, and its most important outlet is storytelling: articulating and sharing the values of the community" (Bailey). The material in this volume is more than can be covered in a brief exploration such as this; the focus here will be on the creation story from the First Epoch of time: “Sky Woman” (15 – 26).

As Mann begins telling her stories she explains several important things about Native American mythmaking:

Oral tradition has to do with breath, which is a Sky thing. The breath is an important form of Sky medicine. Anything to do with expelled breath (such as forming words) is a sacred act of creation, which must be carefully managed. Misinterpretations distort reality, causing dysfunctions. Thus, forcing traditions to be breath-medicine was a way to emphasize (and ensure) truthfulness… oral tradition exists for spiritual purposes....

[O]ral tradition… does not operate like Western scripture, in which many people claim there is but one "correct" version, so that any other version must be debased or wrong. Native tradition may contain three, four, five, or fifty different versions, and all are viewed as correct (11 - 12).


My brother Jorge's version, like Mann’s, is a product of an Ohio tradition, but unlike Mann, who is a Western Seneca, my family is Wyandotte¹. Although a time in American history came when the remnants of these two Peoples lived in the same region of northwestern Ohio, and probably intermarried to some degree (Mann 91); and although there has been historic confusion as to their remaining in Ohio following President Andrew Jackson's Removals of Eastern Peoples to west of the Mississippi River in the 1830's (Mann 106), she and I recognize ourselves as coming from two different, but related traditions with a shared cosmology.

Of this cosmology Anthony Wonderley, Historian, Oneida Indian Nation of New York states:

Iroquois stories of creation belong to a single mythic tradition extending into the distant past. Parts of the myth are recorded in some forty written versions spanning more than 350 years. This tradition – “one of the greatest intellectual display pieces of the New World” (Fenton 1962: 283) -- is probably the most completely documented view of world origin (cosmology) anywhere in North America (Creation 7).

Several versions of this creation-cycle are amalgamated by C. Marius Barbeau in in his Huron and Wyandot Mythology with an Appendix Containing Earlier Published Works (36 - 47). All versions of this mythic cycle contain the same four motifs, as described by Stith Thompson: the fall from sky [male and female creators] -- motif A 21.1, earth from turtle's back -- motif A 815, earth-diver --- motif A 812, and twins quarrel before birth -- motif T 575.1.3 (307, 488 & 499).

Wonderley summarizes the tale in this way:

A woman, falling from the sky and landing on Turtle's back, delivered a daughter, who, in turn, bore male sons. One named Flint perished in a fight with his brother. The surviving twin was a benevolent deity responsible for crops and game. In contrast, his grandmother (the woman from the sky) was considered a malefic god (Oneida xxiii).

In his work Huron-Wendat: The Heritage of the Circle Georges E. Sioui uses this myth to frame a discussion of the Wendat conception of morality. He summarizes the story of the irregular birth of Tawiskaron (Man of Flint) and the conflict with his brother Tsestah (Man of Fire) and concludes:

Historians have traditionally seen the twins as symbols of good and evil -- a kind of pagan distortion of the Christian God and Satan. Actually, Amerindians in general and Wendats and Iroquois in particular, have a sense of morality that differs completely from Christian tradition. Christian morality advocates and seeks an absolute good, while Amerindian morality sees absolute good and absolute evil as equally dangerous concepts for the human conscience (17).

Throughout the body of Mann's work, she demonstrates a deep understanding of balance as expressed in Iroquoian thought. Often, she articulates a gendered balance, which she recognizes as disrupted by the impacts of European contact. In speaking of the storyteller's art she says:

[M]en kept men's traditions and women kept women's traditions. In pre-contact times, this gendered form of transmission was vigilantly maintained, as disaster can result from ineptly mixing Earth (female) and Sky (male) medicine. However, with the disruptions that were forced on Native cultures.... it is common today for anyone, male or female, who knows the traditions to pass them along (11-12).

One of the literary techniques that Mann uses throughout Land of the Three Miamis is foreshadowing. In her “Sky Woman” narrative she expresses ideas that will become critically important to her purposes later in the book. By placing them within her telling of the creation-cycle, she establishes a continuity which goes beyond historical significance, to frame an extended story of perpetual creation and re-creation in the midst of cultural disruption, lending moral significance to the narrative.

Two instances of foreshadowing occur in the first segment of “Sky Woman”. First, when the reader is being acquainted with the family of Sky Woman, Mann writes of the girl’s parents' saying:

Every day, the little Sky Woman searched the forests, seeking out her father. All she knew was that he and her mother had courted once, her mother combing his hair every morning -- that is, she straightened out his thoughts, interpreting the meaning of his dreams (15).

The second follows shortly thereafter, once we have learned that her father's death was “the first ever known in the Sky World” and that the child's search for him has led her to climb "all the trees of Sky World in search of him, finally scaling Onodjia (the great yellow dogtooth tree which runs the entire height of Sky World), higher than she ever had gone before.” There, in the branches, she finds his corpse, and "after much meditation" was able to speak to him. “Day after day, she visited Onodjia until one night; she climbed down, carrying her father's death wampum" (15 - 16).

Both of these symbols, the combing out of tangled hair and the sharing of condolence wampum are central features of the Iroquois Peacemaker-cycle, the defining mythology of Iroquois governance established by the New York League of Haudenosaunee through which they came to believe they had the authority to claim other Native Nations as member and vassal states (Parker). This idea of an extended League of Peace may have had different outcomes had it not been for the Borg-like empire building of the seventeenth century which the Spanish, French, English and Iroquois all participated in. Mann has many purposes for her tellings; clarifying misconceptions from that period of enforced assimilation is certainly one of them.

Toward the end of the volume Mann has a detailed narrative regarding the Ohio Natives who refused to be removed west, obviously the tale she has been building toward, and one that she wants her granddaughter to understand. She says: "the people who did not go west resorted to the only ploy left to them: they hid in plain sight" (104) and "in reality, numerous traditional communities...still existed throughout the state (112). Mann explains that "people who hide for a living get secrecy built into their bones... Indeed, one of the strategies for hiding in plain sight was not to tell the children who they really were" (106).

For Barbara Alice Mann, as for me, the time for such secrecy is past. It is in finding new ways to express ancient cosmological truths that moral balance is re-created by 21st century mythmakers.  

Native identity does not come from paper. It comes from the land. This dirt you stand on is not ordinary dirt. The rocks are the bones of your ancestors, and the soil is their Earth spirit, journeying all the way home (Mann 112).


*      *      *


1. The Iroquoian Confederacy which was located north of the St. Lawrence River and Lake Ontario, east of Lake Huron to Lake Simcoe, at the time Europeans arrived in North America called themselves Wendat, and were called Huron by the French. After being dispersed from their homeland in 1649, those who migrated into what would become the U.S. lived around Detroit, Michigan and in Upper Sandusky, Ohio and came to be known as Wyandotte or Wyandot. In the 1830's most were "removed" to Kansas, then Oklahoma. Those who stayed in Canada in the 17th century now live on a small Reserve at Wendake, just north of Quebec City.


Works Cited

Bailey, Sharon M. "The Arbitrary Nature of the Story: Poking Fun at Oral and

Written Authority in Thomas King's Green Grass, Running Water." World Literature Today 73.1 (1999): 43. Web. Literature Resource Center. 13 Sept 2012.

Barbeau, C. Marius. Huron and Wyandot Mythology with an Appendix

Containing Earlier Published Works. Geological Survey Memoir 80: I, Anthropological Series 11. Ottawa: Department of Mines, Government Printing Bureau, 1915. Internet Archive. Web. 12 Sept 2012.

---. Huron-Wyandot Traditional Narratives in Translations and Native Texts.

National Museum of Canada Bulletin 165, Anthropological Series 47, 1960. Print.

Mann, Barbara Alice. Land of the Three Miamis: A Traditional Narrative of the

Iroquois in Ohio. Toledo: U of Toledo, Urban Affairs Center P, 2009. Print.

Parker, Arthur C. The Constitution of the Five Nations of the Iroquois Book of

the Great Law. Albany: New York State Museum Bulletin No. 184. April 1, 1916. Web. Fordam U: Modern History Sourcebook. 4 Nov 2012.

Sioui, Georges E. Huron - Wendat: The Heritage of the Circle, rev. ed. Jane

Brierley, trans. Vancouver: U of British Columbia P, 1999. Print

Thompson, Stith. The Folktale. NY: Dryden, 1946. Print

Wonderley, Anthony. "The Elm - Antone Creation Story in Comparative and

Historical Context." Demus Elm and Harvey Antone. The Oneida Creation Story, Floyd G. Lounsbury and Bryan Glick, trans. and ed. Lincoln: U of Nebraska Press, 2000, 7 -27. Print.

---. Oneida Iroquois Folklore, Myth and History: New York Oral Narratives from

the Notes of H. E. Allen and Others. Syracuse: Syracuse U P, 2004. Print.


The Story of Sky-World Woman

Jorge Marcus Tanner

In the time before time, this world was not as we know it today. Everywhere there was water, and all the animals who lived here, could live in a water-world. The place where the humans lived was above, in a sky world, much like we understand our world now. There were trees and food plants, families living in longhouses, and the sun shone in a bright sky. In those days people lived far longer than we do now, maybe forever. There was no illness or pain. People did not necessarily need speech to communicate; they spoke from mind to mind.

In the sky-world, there was a young woman who was especially intelligent, and very curious. She lived with her mother and her mother's relations. She was good at her chores, and was always trying to figure out ways to do things better, or make them easier to accomplish. In those days the fields which were cleared for the growing of corn were quite some distance away from the longhouses, and the walk was far. In order to make her work in the corn fields easier, one day the young woman pulled up the corn by its roots and carried it to the longhouse. When she arrived, everyone was angry at her, because the place where she had pulled the corn from had left a great hole in the bottom of sky-world. Being a curious young woman, she went to look. All she saw was darkness. She bent further, but still could see nothing. Finally, bending even further over the hole, she tumbled over and fell through the hole in the bottom of sky-world.

Down she fell. Down and down, tumbling and spiraling, down, down, down through the hole in the bottom of sky-world, through the dark. Spiraling. As she was nearing the water-world, here below, some birds looked up and saw her. They were Loons, and in order to break her fall, they came together and made a bridge of their wings, and caught her. But she weighed more than they could carry for a long time, so they called to Turtle and asked if a place for Sky-World Woman could be made upon her back. Turtle agreed, but knew that Sky-World Woman would need earth to live on. Turtle called a council of all the animals and said the woman needed some mud to be brought up from the bottom of the water which could be spread onto Turtle's back, to make a home for her.

First Deer tried, swift Deer, but she could not hold her breathe long enough, and drowned. Next Lynx tried, strong Lynx, and it was the same. Others tried, but they could not reach bottom, until finally, Frog, tiny Frog said she would try. Many laughed, but Frog was sure she could do it. She took a big, big breathe and made a long, long leap, and down, down, to the bottom of the deep water she went, and grabbed a bit of mud in her hand, and then she rose up -- she lost her breathe before she surfaced, and died. The other animals found the bit of earth she had gathered, and spread it on Turtle's back where it grew and grew and Sky-World Woman was comfortable on her new earth home.

In time, she gave birth to a daughter. Her daughter was conceived by the winds that had engulfed Sky-World Woman as she fell from sky-world. When the girl grew, she in turn gave birth to twin sons, but one son was impatient and instead of coming through the birth canal, he broke through her side, and she died. Sky-World Woman was growing old by now, and the responsibility of raising the boys fell to her. All the things that the boys did to create the familiar way we know the earth today are another story. As for Sky-World Woman, in time, she died. The place where the she was laid her to rest became fruitful, and from her body parts grew all the most important plants: the corn, beans and squash we call the three sisters, the healing lavender, the sacred tobacco, and the brilliant sunflower, like the ever shining sun of sky-world. In all that time, she had never outgrown her curiosity, and she wanted to know what was going on in her old home, so her head traveled into the sky and there she remains, sometimes looking to her earth children, sometimes turned to see what is taking place in sky-world.

This story tells us how our grandmother-moon, who we call Aataentsic (which means “Mature Flower”), shows her well lit face and then grows dark; why it is that Frog looks that way; and how it is that the Wendat came to make their triple helix beadwork, shaped like the spiral that the Loons saw when they looked up and saw Sky-World Woman as she tumbled out of her first home.

Recollection by Rebekah Tanner, 30 October 2012 from a story she heard c. 1964