Myths & Legends



Iroquois Why Legends

Why legends tells us how the world we experience came to be. This collection is compiled by Erminnie A. Smith, and published by the Smithsonian Institution, Bureau of Ethnology, in a publication entitled Myths of the Iroquois.

Erminnie A. Smith, née Erminnie Adele Platt (1836–1886) was a geologist and an anthropologist at the Smithsonian Institution’s Bureau of American Ethnology. She has been called the “first woman field ethnographer” and she was elected the first female member of the New York Academy of Sciences.

The why legends include:

+ Origin of the Human Race
+ Formation of the Turtle Clan
+ How Bear Lost his Tail
+ Origin of Medicine
+ Origin of Wampum
+ Origin of Tabacco
+ Origin of Bird Plumage
+ Why the Chipmunk has a Black Stripe on his Back
+ Origin of the Constellations
+ The Pole Star
— Orly


The Iroquois legend of an origin of the human race, which includes the creation of the spirits of good and evil, is undoubtedly of modern origin.

In the great past, deep water covered all the earth. The air was filled with birds, and great monsters were in possession of the waters, when a beautiful woman was seen by them falling from the sky. Then huge ducks gathered in council and resolved to meet this wonderful creature and break the force of her fall. So they arose, and, with pinion overlapping pinion, unitedly received the dusky burden. Then the monsters of the deep also gathered in council to decide which should hold this celestial being and protect her from the terrors of the water, but none was able except a giant tortoise, who volunteered to endure this lasting weight upon his back. There she was gently placed, while he, constantly increasing in size, soon became a large island. Twin boys were after a time brought forth by the woman—one the spirit of good, who made all good things, and caused the maize, fruit, and tobacco to grow; the other the spirit of evil, who created the weeds and all vermin. Ever the world was increasing in size, although occasional quakings were felt, caused by the efforts of the monster tortoise to stretch out, or by the contraction of his muscles.

After the lapse of ages from the time of his general creation Ta-rhuⁿ-hiă-wăh-kuⁿ, the Sky Holder, resolved upon a special creation of a race which should surpass all others in beauty, strength, and bravery; so from the bosom of the great island, where they had previously subsisted upon moles, Ta-rhuⁿ-hiă-wăh-kuⁿ brought out the six pairs, which were destined to become the greatest of all people.

The Tuscaroras tell us that the first pair were left near a great river, now called the Mohawk. The second family were directed to make their home by the side of a big stone. Their descendants have been termed the Oneidas. Another pair were left on a high hill, and have ever been called the Onondagas. Thus each pair was left with careful instructions in different parts of what is now known as the State of New York, except the Tuscaroras, who were taken up the Roanoke River into North Carolina, where Ta-rhuⁿ-hiă-wăh-kuⁿ also took up his abode, teaching them many useful arts before his departure. This, say they, accounts for the superiority of the Tuscaroras. But each of the six tribes will tell you that his own was the favored one with whom Sky Holder made his terrestrial home, while the Onondagas claim that their possession of the council fire prove them to have been the chosen people.

Later, as the numerous families became scattered over the State, some lived in localities where the bear was the principal game, and were called from that circumstance the clan of the Bear. Others lived where the beavers were trapped, and they were called the Beaver clan. For similar reasons the Snipe, Deer, Wolf, Tortoise, and Eel clans received their appellations.



The Turtle clan originated in a simple and straightforward fashion. There were in early times many tortoises of the kind familiarly known as mud turtles, inhabiting a small lake or pool. During a very hot summer this pool became dry. The turtles thereupon set out on their travels over the country to look for a new habitation. One of them, who was particularly fat, suffered a good deal from this unaccustomed exercise. After a time his shoulders became blistered under his shell from the effect of his exertions in walking, and he, finally, by an extraordinary effort, threw off his shell altogether. The process of transformation and development, thus commenced, went on, and in a short time this fat and lazy turtle became a man, who was the progenitor of the Turtle clan.



The following was recounted to me on the "Six Nations Reserve" in Canada, by Ka-an-er-wah, one of the few surviving grandchildren of Brant, the Mohawk, and might be termed a modern Indian story. It accounts for the tailless condition of the bear.

A cunning fox saw a wagon load of fish and resorted to the following ruse to obtain some of the coveted delicacy: Feigning to be dead, he laid himself in the road by which the fisherman must pass, who, thinking the skin of the fox worth preserving, tossed him into his wagon and drove on. After throwing out several fish, the fox slyly crawled out himself. Soon he met a wolf who was informed of his good luck, and advised to try the same experiment. The fisherman had, in the mean time, discovered the trick, and the wolf received a good thrashing instead of a fish dinner.

The fox next met a bear who was also anxious to procure some fish. "Well," replied the fox, "down at the river you will find an air-hole in the ice; just put your tail down into it as I did and you can draw out the fish as fast as you wish." The bear followed the directions carefully, but, the weather being cold, instead of securing a fish his tail was frozen off.

The bear was very angry and proposed to fight a duel with the fox. The fox chose as his seconds a dog and a cat; the bear chose a hog, and awaited the fox at the appointed hour. As the latter was late in appearing the bear clambered into a tree to prospect, and reported that the fox was approaching with two men armed with guns. Thereupon the hog, greatly frightened, begged to be covered with leaves.

Having accomplished this, the bear returned to his post in the tree. The fox soon made his appearance, but instead of men his companions proved to be a dog and a lame cat. While awaiting in their turn, the cat, perceiving the slight motion of one of the uncovered ears of the hog, sprang upon it, whereupon the squeals of the invisible pig put the whole company to flight, and the bear never had the satisfaction of avenging the loss of his tail.



Chief Mt. Pleasant, one of the Bear clan, relates that once on a time a sickly old man, covered with sores, entered an Indian village where over each wigwam was placed the sign of the clan of its possessor; for instance, the beaver skin denoting the Beaver clan, the deer skin the Deer clan. At each of these wigwams the old man applied for food and a night's lodging, but his repulsive appearance rendered him an object of scorn, and the Wolf, the Tortoise, and the Heron had bidden the abject old man to pass on. At length, tired and weary, he arrived at a wigwam where a bear skin betokened the clanship of its owner. This he found inhabited by a kind-hearted woman who immediately refreshed him with food and spread out skins for his bed. Then she was instructed by the old man to go in search of certain herbs, which she prepared according to his directions, and through their efficacy he was soon healed. Then he commanded that she should treasure up this secret. A few days after, he sickened with a fever and again commanded a search for other herbs and was again healed. This being many times repeated he at last told his benefactress that his mission was accomplished, and that she was now endowed with all the secrets for curing disease in all its forms, and that before her wigwam should grow a hemlock tree whose branches should reach high into the air above all others, to signify that the Bear should take precedence of all other clans, and that she and her clan should increase and multiply.



A man while walking in a forest saw an unusually large bird covered with a heavily clustered coating of wampum. He immediately informed his people and chiefs, whereupon the head chief offered as a prize his beautiful daughter to one who would capture the bird, dead or alive, which apparently had come from another world. Whereupon the warriors, with bows and arrows, went to the "tree of promise," and as each lucky one barely hit the bird it would throw off a large quantity of the coveted coating, which, like the Lernæan hydra's heads, multiplied by being cropped. At last, when the warriors were despairing of success, a little boy from a neighboring tribe came to satisfy his curiosity by seeing the wonderful bird of which he had heard, but as his people were at war with this tribe he was not permitted by the warriors to try his skill at archery, and was even threatened with death. But the head chief said, "He is a mere boy; let him shoot on equal terms with you who are brave and fearless warriors." His decision being final, the boy, with unequaled skill, brought the coveted bird to the ground.

Having received the daughter of the head chief in marriage, he divided the oh-ko-äh between his own tribe and that into which he had married, and peace was declared between them. Then the boy husband decreed that wampum should be the price of peace and blood, which was adopted by all nations. Hence arose the custom of giving belts of wampum to satisfy violated honor, hospitality, or national privilege.



A boat filled with medicine men passed near a river bank, where a loud voice had proclaimed to all the inhabitants to remain indoors; but some, disobeying, died immediately. The next day the boat was sought for and found, containing a strange being at each end, both fast asleep. A loud voice was then heard saying that the destroying of these creatures would result in a great blessing to the Indian.

So they were decoyed into a neighboring council-house, where they were put to death and burned, and from their ashes rose the tobacco plant.



In the beginning the birds, having been created naked, remained hidden, being ashamed of their nakedness. But at last they assembled in a great council and petitioned the gods to give them some kind of covering. They were told that their coverings were all ready, but were a long way off, and they must either go or send for them. Accordingly, another council was held to induce some bird to go in search of the plumage, but each had some excuse for not going. At last a turkey-buzzard volunteered to go and bring the feathery uniforms. It being a long journey to the place whence he must bring them, he (who had been a clean bird heretofore) was obliged to eat carrion and filth of all kinds; hence his present nature. At length, directed by the gods, he found the coverings, and selfishly appropriated to himself the most beautifully colored one, but finding he could not fly in this, he continued trying them on until he selected his present suit, in which, although it is the least beautiful of any, he can so gracefully ride through the air. The good turkey-buzzard then returned, bearing the feathery garments, from which each bird chose his present colored suit.



Once upon a time the porcupine was appointed to be the leader of all the animals. Soon after his appointment he called them all together and presented the question, "Shall we have night all the time and darkness, or daylight with its sunshine?" This was a very important question, and a violent discussion arose, some wishing for daylight and the sun to rule, and others for continual night.

The chipmunk wished for night and day, weeks and months, and night to be separate from the days, so he began singing, "The light will come; we must have light," which he continued to repeat. Meanwhile the bear began singing, "Night is best; we must have darkness."

While the chipmunk was singing, the day began to dawn. Then the other party saw that the chipmunk was prevailing, and were very angry; and their leader, the bear, pursued the chipmunk, who managed to escape uninjured, the huge paw of the bear simply grazing his back as he entered his hole in a hollow tree, leaving its black imprint, which the chipmunk has ever since retained. But night and day have ever continued to alternate.



Iroquois tradition tells us that the sun and moon existed before the creation of the earth, but the stars had all been mortals or favored animals and birds.

Seven little Indian boys were once accustomed to bring at eve their corn and beans to a little mound, upon the top of which, after their feast, the sweetest of their singers would sit and sing for his mates who danced around the mound. On one occasion they resolved on a more sumptuous feast, and each was to contribute towards a savory soup. But the parents refused them the needed supplies, and they met for a feastless dance. Their heads and hearts grew lighter as they flew around the mound, until suddenly the whole company whirled off into the air. The inconsolable parents called in vain for them to return, but it was too late. Higher and higher they arose, whirling around their singer, until, transformed into bright stars, they took their places in the firmament, where, as the Pleiades, they are dancing still, the brightness of the singer having been dimmed, however, on account of his desire to return to earth.

A party of hunters were once in pursuit of a bear, when they were attacked by a monster stone giant, and all but three destroyed. The three together, with the bear, were carried by invisible spirits up into the sky, where the bear can still be seen, pursued by the first hunter with his bow, the second with the kettle, and the third, who, farther behind, is gathering sticks. Only in fall do the arrows of the hunters pierce the bear, when his dripping blood tinges the autumn foliage. Then for a time he is invisible, but afterwards reappears.

An old man, despised and rejected by his people, took his bundle and staff and went up into a high mountain, where he began singing the death chant. Those below, who were watching him, saw him slowly rise into the air, his chant ever growing fainter and fainter, until it finally ceased as he took his place in the heavens, where his stooping figure, staff, and bundle have ever since been visible, and are pointed out as Nă-gê-tci (the old man).

An old woman, gifted with the power of divination, was unhappy because she could not also foretell when the world would come to an end. For this she was transported to the moon, where to this day she is clearly to be seen weaving a forehead-strap. Once a month she stirs the boiling kettle of hominy before her, during which occupation the cat, ever by her side, unravels her net, and so she must continue until the end of time, for never until then will her work be finished.

As the pole star was ever the Indian's guide, so the northern lights were ever to him the indication of coming events. Were they white, frosty weather would follow; if yellow, disease and pestilence; while red predicted war and bloodshed: and a mottled sky in the springtime was ever the harbinger of a good corn season.



A large party of Indians, while moving in search of new hunting grounds, wandered on for many moons, finding but little game. At last they arrived at the banks of a great river, entirely unknown to them, where they had to stop, not having the material to build boats. Lost and nearly famished with hunger, the head chief was taken very ill, and it was decided to hold a council to devise means for returning to their old homes. During the dance, and while the tobacco was burning, a little being like a child came up, saying she was sent to be their guide. Accordingly they broke up their camp and started with her that night. Preceding them, with only a gi-wăh, or small war-club, she led them on until daylight and then commanded them to rest while she prepared their food. This they did, and when awakened by her they found a great feast in readiness for them. Then she bade them farewell, with the assurance of returning to them again in the evening.

True to her word, at evening she reappeared, bringing with her a skin jug, from which she poured out some liquid into a horn cup, and bade them each to taste of it. At first they feared to do so, but at last yielding they began to feel very strong. She then informed them that they had a long journey to make that night. Again they followed her, and in the early morn arrived at a great plain, where she bade them rest again for the day, with the exception of a few warriors who were to be shown where they could find plenty of game. Two of the warriors had accompanied her but a short distance when they encountered a herd of deer, of which she bade them kill all they wished in her absence, and then, again promising to return at night, she took leave of them. At night-fall she returned, saying her own chief would soon follow her to explain to them how they could reach their own homes in safety. In a short time he arrived, with a great number of his race, and immediately all held council together and informed the Indians that they were now in the territory of the pigmies, who would teach them a sign, already in the sky, which would be to them a sure guide whenever they were lost; and the pigmies pointed out the pole star and told them that in the north, where the sun never goes, while other stars moved about, this particular star should stand still, as the Indian's guide in his wanderings, and that they were then but to follow its light and they would soon return to their tribe, where they would find plenty of game, &c.

Then they thanked the good pigmies, and traveled every night until they arrived safely in their homes, where, when they had recounted all their adventures, the head chief called a meeting of all the tribes and said they ought to give this star a name. So they called it ti-yn-sõu-dă-go-êrr (the star which never moves), by which name it is called unto this day.




Related Reading


Wabanaki: The Boy who was called Thick-Head

Wabanaki: The Boy who was called Thick-Head

Cherokee: Origin of Game and Corn