CREATION, THE WESTERN NEW YORK VERSION
AN EXPLORATION OF THE IROQUOIS CREATION STORY
The Middle East must be nice this time of year. I mean, yeah, random bullets flying and nuclear tinkering and all, but I imagine the weather is really good. And when I’m out walking and it feels like the wind is going to rip my face off, maybe a desert climate with the occasional gunshot wouldn’t be that bad. As a matter of fact, in this Western New York winter I can’t even think about getting shot without thinking about how warm the bullet would be. A little ball of molten led or whatever, hot metal lodging in my skin…ah, heat… And I don’t personally want to die in a nuclear inferno, but when I’m out shoveling the sidewalk and the wind screeches in my ears, the idea of melting takes on a certain charm. Maybe this morning Middle-Eastern forecasters are saying “The weather is warm and sunny, scattered drizzles of hot bullets and a chance of atomic firestorm.” I don’t know – I can’t listen to Middle-Eastern weather-forecasts at home, because if I did I’d wake up the next morning and my wife would be gone, off to live in a dry, sunny desert wearing five layers of black. She hates the winter.
As a new year begins I can’t help thinking about the Middle East because I was raised on Middle-Eastern creation stories – in the Bible, creation begins at the meeting place of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, which would be in modern-day Iraq. And the people were naked and not ashamed, which clearly means it wasn’t snowing – if I was standing naked in ten-below-zero and the only woman on earth was squinting at me, trying to figure out what a “man” was I’d be plenty embarrassed. If the Biblical creation had taken place in Western New York the whole story would have been different – the people would have been wearing coats, pulling the wings off bisons (and that, children, is how the buffalo lost its wings) and asking, “Did Hell freeze over? Does that mean the Bills have won the Superbowl?” And God would be asking “Why did I make pizza grow on trees? For goodness sake, eat this fruit before you get scurvy!”
This is only conjecture – I don’t know that that story would have been like if it had taken place here.
But there is a creation story that takes place here, the story told and retold by the original inhabitants of Western New York, the Iroquois. When we hear the Iroquois creation story, we say “A woman fell from the sky with a handful of seeds, that’s just mythology.” Right – the talking snake is biology, and God cursing all babies for a piece of fruit stolen by Eve is theology but the woman falling from the sky is mythology.
The Iroquois creation story is not about decrees and crime and punishment. It begins with cooperation – a woman is falling from the sky and birds come around to help. A turtle offers her a place to stand and a muskrat dives down to bring her some dirt. And she falls in love with this place. Which, maybe the turtle didn’t expect – according to Iroquois legend it’s still down there below us. But it’s also a reminder – we’re not just standing on lifeless dirt, we are held up by the goodness of a creature. Guests on the back of a turtle. My children would love that, they would really understand it, and it would add a touch of charming wonder to their lives. I wish I could believe that I was living on the back of a friendly turtle. But then I would have to re-think my whole attitude toward automobiles and disposable diapers – “sorry, mister Turtle, but we’ve gotta put a little more salt on your shell so my tires can get a grip” – if I was a turtle’s guest I wouldn’t want to disrespect it like that.
In honor of this hospitable creature, the Iroquois actually refer to all of North America as “Turtle Island.” Which I think sounds a little funny. But then I have to wonder – what would a United Nations meeting be like if our country was announced as “Turtle Island”? It would make us sound friendlier. Like we didn’t take ourselves so seriously. “And now, a few words from the president of Turtle Island.” I like it. And we may have to change our national name in a few years anyway, nobody wants to hear the words “America” and “United States” these days – maybe we can call ourselves “Turtle Island” again.
The woman who fell from the sky receives a warm Western New York welcome. One minute she’s falling from the sky, the next she’s surrounded by new friends and they’re helping her find a home and move in. I remember when we moved to Buffalo, people were so excited – “You want to live here? Let me help you! So you won’t leave!” And the sky-woman doesn’t just sit around, and she didn’t come empty-handed – she’s brought gifts, seeds and creativity. She decorates the new land, she brings new life. The animals welcomed a vulnerable stranger, a refugee from another world, and she turns out to be a goddess, enhancing their lives in ways they never could have imagined before.
And as her last act she creates creatures, twin sons, who will continue the work of creation. She dies in childbirth. I don’t know how my children would feel about that part of the story. I was reading a childrens’ book adaptation of the story and they took that out, instead they had her ascend to the sky from whence she came. And I thought it ruined the whole thing, not because I have anything against this goddess, but because it meant skipping over my favorite part of the story. When she’s dying and asks her newborn sons to bury her, and she tells them that corn will rise up through the ground from her body.
It’s my favorite part of the story because she chooses to stay. Here in Western New York, not to go back to the sky-world, but to continue to be a part of human life here. She doesn’t abandon her sons and wander off to paradise, she wants to keep feeding them, and all the children that will come after. She could have cursed them – one of her sons tore his way out of her body and killed her, she could have cursed all human life for all time. But she doesn’t. She forgives, and she becomes the food, the sacred bread of life. And the Iroquois would remember this story as they grew and harvested and ate their corn. The woman who was killed by her own child still wanted to feed him. That’s very powerful, and it’s very real. If one of my children killed me, I bet my dying words would be “don’t forget, there’s a can of chicken soup in the pantry, go warm it up, you look thin.”
After she dies, we see another form of creativity in the story. Male creativity. Twin sons, always competing with each other – a friendly one who makes little gentle animals, and a mean one who makes bigger, dangerous animals. That’s how guys do creativity – we can’t just sprout life out of our bodies, we need other guys to compete with. The mean twin makes winter, and the friendly twin rises to the challenge, creates spring. I sort of wish he would make spring right now – I feel like we’re stuck in a time of winter and meanness. But spring will come again, the friendly twin is always more powerful.
In the story, the mean twin one day announces that he should be ruler of all the land, and challenges his brother to a contest to see who can move a mountain. And he strains and struggles and huffs and puffs and blusters and tweets with all his might, but the mountain will not come at his command. Then he turns to his brother, the friendly twin, to see if he can do better. His brother says, “see for yourself” and when the mean twin turns around he hits his nose on the mountain, it’s come right there. Bumping his head on the mountain, it reveals his true face, twisted and distorted. And he pleads with his brother, afraid of being sent away from the beloved land, and they make a deal that he will provide humor and medicine. The one who wanted to be king instead becomes the first clown. And he keeps his word. It turns out, he’s not evil, he just needs to feel important, useful – the world needs some unpleasantness, even some meanness, but it cannot be the ruling force in a healthy world.
The friendly twin created man and woman from dust, saying “You shall enjoy yourselves upon the earth in order to multiply from generation to generation. And here are vegetables and herbs to sustain life from the fruits of the earth, which shall grow forever.” I like teaching this part to my college students, because they’re so accustomed to commandments that start with “Thou Shalt Not.” But here the creator gives three commandments: Thou shalt enjoy thyself. Thou thalt make babies. And thou shalt eat thy vegetables. I’m very good at two of these. Making babies, it turns out, is a breeze. Raising four of them is hard – maybe I was too good at following that commandment. And eating vegetables, I’m good at that too. But enjoying myself, that’s hard. My religious upbringing taught me that there’s something bad, something shameful, something wrong with being human. And even though now I get to make up my own mind about religion, I still can’t seem to escape a Middle-Eastern crime-and-punishment, shame-and-damnation view of human life. Why should Middle-Eastern stories be so pessimistic? The weather’s great! Maybe a warm dry desert climate is good for preserving ancient grudges and being a fundamentalist, because you don’t have these seasonal changes. Winter reminding us of how much we all need each other – in a blizzard, our need for warmth and relationships is more important than our alienation, our shared fragile humanity matters more than our differences.
The Native creation story from this area reminds me of what I love best about Western New York. A warm welcome for the stranger, even if the stranger is like no one you’ve ever met before. Cooperation and inginuity. Even some competition, which can be productive even if the other guy is a total jerk. …I don’t believe that as strongly as I used to, but in my milder moments I can still agree in principle. And this Native Story contains a deep love of this place, this land – I know if I died and someone offered me a choice between going off to the sky-world and staying here I’d want to stay in Western New York, and keep looking for ways to help my children.
Some of you out there might think that sounds naive – Western New York isn’t really like that. We don’t love this place, we’re stuck here, and we don’t welcome outsiders and we don’t cooperate. Well, if you think that, please, don’t say it in front of my wife because then she’ll pack up the children and move to Arizona and I’ll have to go too. And I don’t want to live in a desert. So do me a favor – if you think that Western New York is not a paradise where we welcome and cooperate, then make it a place like that. Because I want my children to love this land, and to appreciate this special place (even in winter!), as much as the Iroquois do. I was raised with a cultural belief that the holiest land in the world is off in some desert on the other side of the planet, but I have come to believe, personally, that the holy land is right here. That’s a Native American teaching I can believe in.