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Creation, the Western New York Version (an 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.


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The Red Menace (A Thanksgiving & Election Sermon)


How America Was Discovered (According to Seneca Chief Handsome Lake)

A great queen had among her servants a young minister. Upon a certain occasion she requested him to dust some books that she had hidden in an old chest. Now when the young man reached the bottom of the chest he found a wonderful book which he opened and read. It told that the white men had killed the son of the Creator and it said, moreover, that he had promised to return in three days and then again forty but that he never did. All his followers then began to despair but some said, “He surely will come again some time.”

When the young preacher read this book he was worried because he had discovered that he had been deceived and that his Lord was not on earth and had not returned when he promised. So he went to some of the chief preachers and asked them about the matter and they answered that he had better seek the Lord himself and find if he were not on the earth now. So he prepared to find the Lord and the next day when he looked out into the river he saw a beautiful island and marveled that he had never noticed it before. As he continued to look he saw a castle built of gold in the midst of the island and he marveled that he had not seen the castle before. Then he thought that so beautiful a palace on so beautiful an isle must surely be the abode of the son of the Creator…

So the young man went boldly over [and] knocked. A handsome man welcomed him into a room and bade him be of ease. “I wanted you,” he said. “You are a bright young man… Listen to me, young man, and you will be rich. Across the ocean there is a great country of which you have never heard. The people there are virtuous; they have no evil habits or appetites but are honest and single-minded. A great reward is yours if you enter into my plans and carry them out. Here are five things. Carry them over to the people across the ocean and never shall you want for wealth, position or power. Take these cards, this money, this fiddle, this whiskey and this blood corruption and give them all to the people across the water. The cards will make them gamble away their goods and idle away their time, the money will make them dishonest and covetous, the fiddle will make them dance with women and their lower natures will command them, the whiskey will excite their minds to evil doing and turn their minds, and the blood corruption will eat their strength and rot their bones.”

The young man thought this a good bargain and promised to do as the man had commanded him. He left the palace and when he had stepped over the bridge it was gone, likewise the golden palace and also the island. Now he wondered if he had seen the Lord but he did not tell the great ministers of his bargain because they might try to forestall him. So he looked about and at length found Columbus to whom he told the whole story… Soon a great flock of ships came over the ocean and white men came swarming into the country bringing with them cards, money, fiddles, whiskey and blood corruption.

Now the man who had appeared in the gold palace was the devil and when afterward he saw what his words had done he said that he had made a great mistake and even he lamented that his evil had been so enormous. [Parker, Archur C Seneca Myths and Folktales (University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln 1989) p. 383-385]

The Red Menace

j. Snodgrass

November, 2016

Chief Handsome Lake’s story of “How America Was Discovered” is not what I read in school history books as a child, and neither of my school-aged children has reported hearing it in their history lessons. I found it in a book called Seneca Myths & Folk Tales, which is where I suppose it belongs – it’s got that mythical quality of a divinely commissioned quest accomplished with magical charms and a surprise ending: the wise old man turns out to be a trickster making mischief, and he is punished with eternal regret. Clearly this story should be classified as folk-tale and not history.

School History classes taught me a more sober and dignified version of how America was discovered. The intrepid captain Columbus overcoming the ignorance of old-world investors, opening vast new horizons of profit and proselytization. Then the persecuted Puritans, leaving England in search of religious freedom, landing in a wilderness of untamed forest and nomadic savages who played a strange game of attacking them, then throwing them them a big dinner-party, then attacking them some more for no reason. And though the Pilgrims tried their best to teach the savages how to be settled, intellectually enlightened, Christian farmers, reaping and sowing and storing food like the blessed raven, the natives refused the gifts of salvation and civilization, preferring to wander shirtlessly through the New England wilderness, hunting and foraging because they were too lazy to build real towns. Eventually the Settlers gave up on teaching the Indians how to self-govern and had to civilize them by force, providing them with land and law-courts and hospitals and Pottery-Barn. But the Indians were still lazy and drank all the time and opened Casinos to trick white men out of their hard-earned nickels.

But this story of the enlightened Europeans trying and failing to civilize the savages is also a mythological folk-tale. We’ve softened the story. For the sake of the children, we tell ourselves. And to alleviate our guilt on Thanksgiving day, when the feeding frenzy ends, the last fork clinks on the last plate, the lively bustle of conversation shrivels and everybody gets that dead-frog look in their eyes because they’ve eaten too much and a putrid cloud of silence rises like a stink of old decay and everybody thinks it but nobody says it, “yeah, we killed them. (Ribbit.) We killed them.” We’ve softened the story and told ourselves we’re protecting the children, but really we’re protecting ourselves from the look in our childrens’ eyes when we tell them the truth. But the fairy-tales, pleasant fictions and lies we tell our children are not harmless. Lies are never harmless.


So I’ve decided this Thanksgiving I’m going to tell my children about the first time the settlers were fed by the Natives. Which, I’ve discovered in my research, was not turkey and pumpkins. Actually the first Thanksgiving was celebrated by English settlers, starving in an unfamiliar land, digging up fresh graves and eating Indian cadavers. But I’m not going to say “cadavers,” especially right after Thanksgiving dinner, instead I’m going to say “chief jerky.” It’s not necessarily as pretty as coloring-book the story of the first Thanksgiving, but it’s factual and gives a clearer sense of where the Native/Settler relationship was headed.

Then I’m going to tell them about when the Pilgrims started to meet some live natives, who took pity on these grave-digging Christian cannibals and decided to help them out. The first thing the natives noticed about the Pilgrims was that they smelled bad. Not just from their eating habits, but also because Puritans at the time believed it was both physically harmful and spiritually sinful to bathe. Where washing was concerned, they’d pretty much been baptized and that was it. The Natives tried to teach Pilgrims that they would be healthier and feel better if they occasionally took their clothes off and got in water. And thus the Pilgrims decided that the Natives were all damned and doomed, trying to corrupt them. But distrust of the Indians’ insidious and sinister cleanliness did not stop the Pilgrims from accepting the feast that was offered. The Natives were celebrating their annual harvest of corn, squash and beans. When I say “harvest” I don’t mean that they’d foraged them in a forest, but that they had painstakingly cultivated these crops over centuries of farming experimentation. The Natives in the Thanksgiving story are not nomadic savages – their foods prove it, they were sophisticated, settled agriculturalists.

From the Native perspective, it was the Europeans who were savage nomadic foragers, who had left their ancestral lands to wander the Earth a while and then wander off to their final destination in the sky. The word “Pilgrim” literally means someone on a journey, just passing through. As a native later said – we had no idea you intended to stay.

But this leaves us with more questions – if the Indians had fed the Settlers, why did they also attack them? Here we run into another mythological element in our story: who were the settlers, our immigrant forefathers? Presidential candidate Donald Trump spoke of immigration, saying “When Mexico sends its people [to the United States], they’re not sending their best. They’re sending people that have lots of problems… They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.” Actually this would also be a good description of the English settlers who came to make tobacco fortunes in the New World. Our American mythology tells us that they were good people, Puritan pilgrims seeking religious freedom, and some of them were. But then we have to wonder – how did these gentle pilgrims perpetrate all those atrocities against the Natives? The answer is that Pilgrims were only a small minority, maybe a fifth, of the colonists of the New World. Most of the people who came were pirates and profiteers, out to make a fortune by any means necessary (actually we could call them “rugged individuals” or “venture capitalists,” like the bloodthirsty pirates and profiteers of modern corporations).

And of course the radical fundamentalist Christian Puritans may have vowed to establish a perfect society in which religion dictated politics and law, but that doesn’t mean their hearts were always filled with Christian love – it was the marriage of religion and law that spawned the Salem witch-hunts in which bad dreams were accepted as hard evidence, nineteen people were hanged, a man was crushed to death and two dogs were executed (yes, they hanged two dogs as accomplices). Some people today say we need more Christians in the Supreme Court. I don’t know. Our pet dog is a total pagan, but I don’t think she should necessarily be hanged for it.

But the wacko fundamentalist Puritans were always a minority (and hopefully, always will be). When we think of the majority of settlers, people who got chased or kicked out of England and decided to settle peacefully with their idyllic plantations full of happy slaves farming harmless tobacco, we can also forget that tobacco was immediately declared illegal in parts of Europe, Asia and the Middle East. Our settler forefathers were the equivalent of modern South American drug-kingpins. Bad hombres. Oh, and it turns out tobacco is more dangerous than heroin. England was not sending its best. It was sending criminals and drug-dealers, and a few of them, maybe, were good people.

We’re hearing now about immigrant criminals and rapists and I imagine the Native Americans would agree. But I wonder – If Indians elect Donald Trump, will they then force him to deport himself? As a dangerous immigrant?


In school we hear about the Settlers’ attempts (and failures) to civilize the natives. Actually while European guns, germs, cockroaches and rodents were spreading through the New World, New World ideas began spreading through the Old World. Rumors of an Eden-like paradise in which there were no kings, courts or jails, where government was of the people, by the people and for the people. Letters from Amerigo Vespucci circulated through Europe with rumors of noble savages who governed themselves without kings or money – one avid reader was Thomas More, who incorporated elements of this into his 1516 book Utopia, which then spread the ideas even further.

Thomas Hobbes heard a great deal about “primitive” native Americans, but had never been to America to see one. Nonetheless, he wrote at length in his Leviathan about the dangers and privations of life without kings: “During the time men live without a common power to keep them all in awe [it is] every man, against every man…. There is no law…no arts; no letters; no society…and the life of man [is] solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.” Actually when I think of someone with “no arts, no letters, nasty, brutish and short,” I’m more likely to think of rednecks than redskins.

We are taught that Democracy was a white man’s invention, coming from Athens to Rome to Europe to America, as if Democracy was Sleeping Beauty for fifteen hundred years, waiting for a kiss from Thomas Jefferson. It’s true that “Democracy” is a Greek word, and that for a couple centuries Athens did experiment with a government in which citizens could vote – but “citizens” never made up more than 20% of the Athenian population (the other 80% being landless peasants and slaves), and most of these Athenian “citizens” were women and boys who could not vote. (The US Constitution did a little better, giving almost 25% of “We The People” the right to vote) Rome was a republic, briefly ruled by wealthy senators who acted on behalf of wealthy people, but the European inheritors of Romanism, the Spaniards, French, English Etcetera were neither Republics nor Democracies, they were strict monarchies. The colonizers of the New World had never seen Democracy. Until they witnssed it among the Natives.

Here in Western New York it was the elder women of the Iroquois who nominated Sachems, leaders, who then had to be approved by the tribal members. The grandmothers would choose hard workers who could lead by example and respect (and if the leader then became a bully, they could revoke his authority and give it to someone else). And he would then represent his tribe in the grand council of the Iroquois League which was like the modern United Nations except that people weren’t allowed to interrupt each other (I guess it was like the Model United Nations they do in high schools)

Benjamin Franklin, inventor of bifocals, inventor of electricity, legendary inventor of the phrase “a penny saved is a penny earned” is also generally credited with inventing American representative government. But Franklin himself did not take credit for it. As the official printing-press operator of Pennsylvania he was responsible for type-setting and publishing transcripts of Indian treaty negotiations, which included Indian speeches on Native government. Curious, Franklin became Pennsylvania’s Indian commissioner so he could learn about Indian diplomacy firsthand.

As the Iroquois grew tired of having to negotiate separately with thirteen different colonial governments, a Chief named Canassatego spoke up at an Indian-British assembly in 1744 to say “We heartily recommend Union and a Good Agreement between you our Brethren… Our wise Forefathers established Union and Amity between the [Iroquois] Nations; this has made us formidable, this has given us great weight and Authority with our Neighboring Nations. We are a powerful confederacy, and, by your observing the same Methods our wise Forefathers have taken, you will acquire fresh Strength and Power; therefore, whatever befalls you, never fall out with one another.” The symbol of the Iroquois Confederacy was an eagle clutching five arrows (one arrow can be easily broken, but five arrows together are harder to break), which was adopted and adapted as our National Seal.

After taking notes on Canassatego’s speech, Benjamin Franklin wrote “It would be a very strange thing if Six Nations of ignorant savages should be capable of forming a scheme for such a union, and be able to execute it in such a manner than it has [lasted] ages…and yet a like union should be impracticable for ten or a dozen English colonies.” (1754)

In 1777, a curious young intellectual named Thomas Paine served as a secretary at meetings between colonials and Iroquois leaders. Finding that peace and prosperity were possible without kings (and nearly impossible with them) he was inspired to write his book Common Sense. After the American Revolution he brought his good news of kingless peace to France. And the rest, as they say, is history. But even as the French decapitated their kings Paine was still disappointed, writing “The fact is, that the condition of millions in every country in Europe, is far worse than if they had been born before civilization began, or had been born among the Indians of North America at the present day.”

Thomas Jefferson studied Iroquois culture and we can still see its influence in his “Notes on the State of Virginia.” Of course there were bound to be some amendments to the Iroquois code. Among the Iroquois, only women could claim land, and only women could vote. Among the Colonists it was very much the opposite. Imagine the outcome, in this current election, if only women had the right to vote. Fascinating.

But votes for women, which the Iroquois had for centuries before the United States granted it, was not the biggest difference. The American Founders differentiated most sharply with Iroquois culture on the topic of private property (we must remember here that our “enlightened” forefathers believed even human beings could be property). Though the Constitution bears certainly unmistakable characteristics of Indian democracy, it is still built around the Holy Trinity of Americanism: “Life, Liberty and Property” – and when in doubt, “Money Talks.” And quickly America’s political debt to the Natives was forgotten like so many broken treaties.

A century after the drafting of the US Constitution, another European intellectual took up the study of Iroquois community organization and adapted it to the circumstances of industrializing Europeans. His name was Karl Marx, creator of Socialism, who admired Iroquois Communalism and the sharing of resources without private property or oppressive government control. He spent the last years of his life compiling notes to propose the Iroquois League as a model for Europeans to emulate, and his findings were assembled after his death by his cowriter Friedrich Engels. Ironically, the “Red Menace” of Socialism that was so greatly feared in America was actually a Native American system – not some Specter seeking to infiltrate and invade America from Russia, but a locally grown egalitarian political system looking to come home. Thomas Jefferson and Karl Marx were, in a way, twins at the common intellectual nipple of Iroquois community structure. But like all sets of siblings the systems they proposed are defined by their differences instead of their similarities. Why did Socialism turn into Communism and fail? Again, because of property. Removing property from private hands meant that it had to be accumulated and held by the state, but Socialist states then became very private about “public” property, and like dragons in a Tolkien Novel, the Socialist governments all caught the sickness of gold, which corrupted them into Communist monsters. As one Iroquois chieftain put it, “Both superpowers took our ideas, but neither got them right.”


We still cling to the myth of our forefathers trying and failing to civilize the Natives, even while knowing that it was the Settlers who robbed the Indians of their land (and by extension, they culture). The forced devolution is our great national tragedy. And the darkly comical irony at the end is that really it was natives who tried and failed to civilize us. But it’s not too late, every day we immigrants have a chance to acknowledge that we still have much to learn from the real Americans.

I keep hearing that our country is tearing itself apart. In this current election one party will win and another will lose, but the problem will not go away because this election is not the cause of our nation’s deep divisions, it is only a symptom of how divided we are. We are still a nation very much in need of Chief Canassatego’s advice from 1744, “We heartily recommend Union and a Good Agreement between you our Brethren. Never disagree, but preserve a strict Friendship for one another… Our wise Forefathers established Union [and] by your observing the same Methods our wise Forefathers have taken, you will acquire fresh Strength and Power; therefore, whatever befalls you, never fall out with one another.”

I believe that we can still learn from the Natives, the real architects of Democracy. And that maybe then, finally, we can really Discover America.


Weatherford, Jack – Indian Givers (How the Indians of the Americas Transformed the World)

Wright, Ronald – Stolen Continents

Parker, Arthur – Seneca Myths & Folk Tales

Daniel Quinn – The Invisibility of Success

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