The Folk-Lore Journal/Volume 6/Folk-Lore of the Seneca Indians of North America

The Folk-Lore Journal, Volume 6
Folk-Lore of the Seneca Indians of North America
937642The Folk-Lore Journal, Volume 6 — Folk-Lore of the Seneca Indians of North America


By John Wentworth Sanborn.

THE Seneca Indians relate to their children a great number of tales, weird, ingeniously constructed, and interwoven with which are the customs and manners of the tribe. These tales they do not, for superstitious considerations, tell when snakes are about. In the long winter evenings a story-teller, whom some family secures for the occasion—and he must be one of the regularly appointed story-tellers of the tribe—croons out the legendary lore to an interested company of old and young gathered for the evening. Each person pays tribute to the story-teller: one presenting an ear of corn, another an apple, a third a potatoe, until all have contributed. In return for making translations into the Seneca tongue of hymns and other matter, the writer was adopted into the tribe with imposing ceremony, and given the name of O-yo-ga-weh, signifying "Clear sky," and honoured by the Indian council with the narration, by the official story-teller, of the legends of the tribe. I subjoin one of the tales.

The Man who became a Bear.

A little boy lived in a bark-house with an old man who called the boy his nephew. The boy was a good hunter, and he kept the old man well supplied with bear's-meat.

Growing older, the boy wandered every day at a greater distance from the wigwam, and the old man said, "My nephew, do not go far to the north, it will not be safe." "What can uncle mean by that? Why didn't he tell me why I should not go that way? I will be careful, but I will go that way. I will know the reason."

So he started, not meaning to run into any danger, but only to learn why the old uncle cautioned him. He found all kinds of game in plenty, and was allured by the game to go a great distance. Suddenly he discovered what to him was very strange, the track of a great bear; so large and heavy was the bear that at every step his great weight pressed his foot deep down into the earth, and so fat was he that the footprints were filled with oil from the bear's leg. "I will follow this wonderful track," said the boy, "and kill this great bear."

The track appeared to be lately made, for the weeds which the bear trod down were slowly straightening themselves up again. He followed the track, forgetting, in his eagerness, all about the old man in the wigwam far away, and at length came to a bark-house which contained a large family, and among them quite a number of girls. He asked an old woman when the bear went by the house and on to the forest, and she replied, pointing to the youngest, "When that girl was a baby; but the animal is not a bear, it is a man."

"She is a foolish old woman. She does not know a bear from a man," said the nephew to himself. "I know it is a bear's track, and I will follow it."

In his journeying he reached another house, and saw an old man, and asked, "When did the great bear go past?" And the man answered, "That is the track of your own uncle who went past. He made the track to catch your attention. He will be glad to see you. I moved into this house when he made the track that I might have this oil to eat on my corn-bread."

"I know it is a bear's track and not a man's," muttered the boy to himself.

He continued to follow the great track, and in a few hours reached another house where the track seemed to end. Near the house there was a deep ravine, and not far off a lake.

Stopping at the door, he asked, "When did the great bear go past? I am after him, and am going to shoot him."

The man in the house said, "My nephew, you have at last come home and I am glad. I made that track when you were a little boy. I made it and filled it with oil to catch your mind and lead you home. That old man who told you not to go to the north stole you away from this house when you were twelve moons[1] old. I wanted to show you the way home, so I made the track. The old man will come for you, but he shall not have you. I will command my house to become a stone house, and he cannot hurt you."


The old man in the wilderness wondered what had become of the boy. He feared that his orders were disobeyed, and that the boy had found the track. So he started very early in the morning to look him up. He saw the boy's track near the track of the bear. "Yes, my nephew has surely found out why I told him not to go to the north; I will follow him. But first I will change into a grizzly bear, and he will see me and be afraid, and I can catch him." The old man accordingly turned into a bear and started on the run. Reaching the first bark-house he halted, and asked if the boy had gone past; he was told that he had. He hurried on, and inquired at the next house, and they told him that the boy had gone along. Soon he reached the house where the boy was. When the boy's own uncle saw the bear approaching, he said to his bark-house, "Let my house become a stone!" and it turned into one the shape of a mound, and there was a very small hole for an entrance. The uncle and nephew remained within.

The bear said, "You have my boy, and now let us decide by a fight who shall have him. You come out here and we will fight." "No, you come into the house if you want to fight," said the uncle, and the boy laughed.

The bear became very angry at this, and put his paw into the entrance and tried to open it wider, but he could not do it.

The uncle lighted a pine-knot and set fire to the bear's paw. The bear withdrew his paw and tried to brush off the fire with the other paw, but his fur was so oily that, instead of putting the fire out, he set fire to the other paw. He ran to the lake and plunged into it, but the lake was not water, it was oil, and he set it all afire, and was consumed in it.

The house became a bark-house again, and the uncle went to the lake and blew out the fire.

They lived together in happiness, fished, and trapped, and hunted, and had all good things in abundance.

  1. A "moon" is a month in Indian reckoning.