Keywords: Origin of the Iroquois Nation iroquois nation six nations Iroquois legend american indian oral histories origin myth folklore five nations Tuscaroras Mohawks Oneidas Onondagas Cayugas New York Indians spirits of the sky world Pennsylvania indians southeastern Canada tribes oral creation story indigenous peoples myths legends
About 1390, today’s State of New York became the stronghold of five powerful Indian tribes.
They were later joined by another great tribe, the Tuscaroras from the south. Eventually the Iroquois, Mohawks, Oneidas, Onondagas, and Cayugas joined together to form the great Iroquois Nation.
In 1715, the Tuscaroras were accepted into the Iroquois Nation.
The Five Nations
Long, long ago, one of the Spirits of the Sky World came down and looked at the earth. As he travelled over it, he found it beautiful, and so he created people to live on it.
Before returning to the sky, he gave them names, called the people all together, and spoke his parting words:
“To the Mohawks, I give corn,” he said.
“To the patient Oneidas, I give the nuts and the fruit of many trees.”
“To the industrious Senecas, I give beans.”
“To the friendly Cayugas, I give the roots of plants to be eaten.”
“To the wise and eloquent Onondagas, I give grapes and squashes to eat and tobacco to smoke at the camp fires.”
Many other things he told the new people. Then he wrapped himself in a bright cloud and went like a swift arrow to the Sun. There his return caused his Brother Sky Spirits to rejoice.
The Six Nations
Long, long ago, in the great past, there were no people on the earth. All of it was covered by deep water. Birds, flying, filled the air, and many huge monsters possessed the waters.
One day the birds saw a beautiful woman falling from the sky. Immediately the huge ducks held a council.
“How can we prevent her from falling into the water?” they asked.
After some discussion, they decided to spread out their wings and thus break the force of her fall. Each duck spread out its wings until it touched the wings of other ducks. So the beautiful woman reached them safely.
Then the monsters of the deep held a council, to decide how they could protect the beautiful being from the terror of the waters.
One after another, the monsters decided that they were not able to protect her, that only Giant Tortoise was big enough to bear her weight.
He volunteered, and she was gently placed upon his back. Giant Tortoise magically increased in size and soon became a large island.
After a time, the Celestial Woman gave birth to twin boys. One of them was the Spirit of Good. He made all the good things on the earth and caused the corn, the fruits, and the tobacco to grow.
The other twin was the Spirit of Evil. He created the weeds and also the worms and the bugs and all the other creatures that do evil to the good animals and birds.
All the time, Giant Tortoise continued to stretch himself. And so the world became larger and larger. Sometimes Giant Tortoise moved himself in such a way as to make the earth quake.
After many, many years had passed by, the Sky-Holder, whom Indians called Ta-rhu-hia-wah-ku, decided to create some people. He wanted them to surpass all others in beauty, strength, and bravery.
So from the bosom of the island where they had been living on moles, the Sky-Holder brought forth six pairs of people.
The first pair were left near a great river, now called the Mohawk. So they are called the Mohawk Indians.
The second pair were told to move their home beside a large stone. Their descendants have been called the Oneidas.
Many of them lived on the south side of Oneida Lake and others in the valleys of Oneida Creek.
A third pair were left on a high hill and have always been called the Onondagas.
The fourth pair became the parents of the Cayugas, and the fifth pair the parents of the Senecas. Both were placed in some part of what is now known as the State of New York. But the Tuscaroras were taken up the Roanoke River into what is now known as North Carolina.
There the Sky-Holder made his home while he taught these people and their descendants many useful arts and crafts.
The Tuscaroras claim that his presence with them made them superior to the other Iroquois nations.
But each of the other five will tell you, “Ours was the favoured tribe with whom Sky- Holder made his home while he was on the earth.”
The Onondagas say, “We have the council fire. That means that we are the chosen people.”
As the years passed by, the numerous Iroquois families became scattered over the state, and also in what is now Pennsylvania, the Middle West and southeastern Canada.
Some lived in areas where bear was their principal game. So these people were called the Bear Clan. Others lived where beavers were plentiful. So they were called the Beaver Clan. For similar reasons, the Deer, Wolf, Snipe and Tortoise clans received their names.