Myths & Legends



Iroquois: The Charmed Suit

The story of the charmed suit is found in Myths of the Iroquois published by the Smithsonian Institution, Bureau of Ethnology, edited by Erminnie A. Smith.

The tale speaks of an impostor who sought to do magic, to win the maidens, only to be proven an imposter when the true hero is found.

The Iroquois are a historically powerful and important northeast Native American confederacy. They were known during the colonial years to the French as the “Iroquois League,” and later as the “Iroquois Confederacy,” and to the English as the “Five Nations” (before 1722), and later as the “Six Nations,” comprising the Mohawk, Onondaga, Oneida, Cayuga, Seneca, and Tuscarora peoples.
— Orly

An old man brought up his son very quietly in a solitary place. As he grew up, his father sent him daily into the woods and told him to listen and come home and tell what he had heard. So the boy sat on a log and waited to hear what might come. He heard a sound at last, "Ch-R-Ch," so he ran to tell the old man and then thought he would wait till he heard it again. The Ch-R-Ch was repeated, and he ran to his home and cried out, "I have heard it! I have heard it!" "Wait! wait!" said the old man, "till I get my pipe," and when he had lifted it he said, "Now, what did you hear?" "Oh," replied the lad, "I heard Ch-R-Ch; twice it was repeated." "That," said the father, "is not what I wanted you to hear; that was only a snow-bird."

So the boy went, morning after morning, and heard various sounds from snow-birds, wolves, owls, &c., but still never what the old man expected. One day whilst he was listening he heard quite a new sound and as the sun began to rise, it was like a voice singing. "That is strange," said he, "I never heard that before." The song was like this:

Srû-guă he.
Hă hûm weh
Hă hûm weh.

Which means:

I belong to the wolf clan.
I belong to the wolf clan.
I am going to marry him,
I am going to marry him.

It was a sweet woman's voice. So the boy listened and said to himself, "Surely this is the song." So he shouted for glee, and ran and fell near the door, he was so excited. "Now," he cried, "I bring the news"; but the father said, "Wait! wait! till I get my pipe." "Now," said he, as he smoked, "tell me." So the boy began. "As I listened," said he, "I heard a voice from the west, a woman's voice, so I turned and listened to it singing":


"Ah!" said the father, "that was what I was waiting for. The chief of a distant village sends his two daughters to see us. Run half way back and see if you can hear them again." So he went and heard again the same song.

Hă-hûm-weh, &c.

Iroquois "Eagle & False Masks"

Made by Same Voice

Nation:  Onondaga

Clan:  Wolf

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He returned at once and told his uncle. "Now," said the old man, "they are almost here. Sit down by the ashes." And he took the shovel and threw ashes all over the boy's bed and put on him his best feathers and astonished the boy very much by saying, "Do not look at the maidens when they come in; they come to see me, not you; hold your head down while they stay."

Then they heard the song:


The feathers were all on his head; still the old man repeated, "Now, keep still."

Soon the maidens arrived and the old man opened the door. The younger of the two carried a beautiful basket on her back; this she set down near the old man. The boy looked around a little, and his father called out, "Dirty boy; hold your head down." The visitors looked around and thought, "What a place! what a place!" "Sit down, sit down," said the old man to the visitors, but although they removed the blankets they stood still. So he smoked on quietly.

When they saw how dirty it was where the boy sat they began to go around and clear up, and as the evening passed the lad did not know what to do with himself. They fixed themselves a clean bed on the other side of the wigwam. They refused to sit by the old man, and when at last the boy went to sleep they lifted him out of his dirty bed, strewn with ashes, and put him into their clean bed.

In the morning the younger one admired him and said, "What a beautiful young man!" Then they said, "We had better cook something." So they cooked corn and rice, and the boy ate with them, and the old father smoked. After a while he said, "Good woman; can clean up, can cook, can make good wife." Then he let the boy look up. The younger visitor sang again:


So the old man smoked his pipe and the sisters went back to their people. Then the two lived quietly together, but the young man often thought of the beautiful maidens.

One day as they were conversing the old man said, "Now you have become a young man you must go." "Which way," asked he, and the uncle replied, "You must go where those young maidens are who are chief's daughters. You must have fine bows and arrows; here they are—try them before you go. They give luck in hunting." Then he looked where he kept all the fine things for the young warriors and dressed him up well with a swan stuffed. "Now," said he, "when you take this outside it will be on your head, but it will soon come back to life, and when that happens you must run in a circle and return, and you will see that many deer and bears will follow your track." So off he went. When he returned he said that so many bears and so many deer came out every time as he crossed the track and he shot them, and took the best out and sent them home to show them to the old man. And all the time the swan was alive and beautiful.

The old man exclaimed at his luck as he told his tale. "You have done well," said his uncle. "We must save all the meat. Now, hold yourself ready to go to-morrow. I warn you there are dangers in your path. There is a stream that you must cross. There stands a man and he will try to kill you. He will call out to you that he has a couple of wild cats and will say, 'My friend, come, help me kill these.' Pay no attention; go right on along, or you will be in danger and never get to the town." The nephew promised to obey, and his uncle brought out a curious thing, made of colored string and elk hair of deep red, about a foot long. "I shall keep this by me," said he, "and so long as you are doing well it will hang as it is; but if you are in danger it will come down itself almost to the ground, and if it does reach the ground you will die." "I will be careful," said the young man, and so he started with his directions, following his uncle's advice. He had almost reached his destination when he heard a noise, and there in his path stood a man while he watched two animals going up a tree, and he tried in vain to make them come down. As the young man approached him he said, "Please help me, if you can; but kill one of these animals; it will be a good thing. Do help me." So he begged, and the young man thought it could do no harm, so he took out his arrow and said, "Don't be in a hurry." Then the old man handed him the arrows and asked him, "Where are you going?" and he told him; and the stranger said, "Stop all night with me; that is a long way you are going; go on to-morrow."

Now the uncle at home was watching the signal. He saw it go down almost to the ground, and he cried out in his alarm, "Oh! oh! my nephew is in danger, he will get into trouble with that old man." But the young man listened to the persuasions of the tempter and agreed to remain with him all night, and the old man made up a fire and began to tell stories as they sat beside it till the youth fell asleep. Before they sat down he had gathered together some sharp prickly bark, pretending it gave a good light, and as the young man slept he said to himself, "Now, I can fix him." So he took some of the sharp-pointed bark and placed it on him; so he writhed in agony. Then he took off the young man's handsome clothes and dressed him up instead in his own old rags, dirty and rotten. "I shall keep these things," said he; "they are mine," and forthwith he started off to the chief's house where the beautiful women were, and he had the young man's pipe and his spotted deer skin, and the handsome bag made out of it, with little birds to light the pipe. When he reached the chief's cabin he went in and the younger sister was there. She was so disappointed when she saw him, she said, "This cannot be the young man." But her elder sister said: "Yes, it is he. He has the fine clothes and the deer skin, and the deer-skin bag, and the little birds to light his pipe." But still the younger sister was disappointed, and then the people heard that the young man they expected had come from the east and many came to see him and watched all his movements. At length he got his pipe, which, when it was filled, the two little birds were expected to light, but they would not for a stranger, so he said it was because there were people all around, and he must be alone. The older sister believed him. Then he told her, too: "When I spit it makes wampum, so spread out a deer skin and save my spittle." So he spat many times and she did as he said and saved it up, but it never became wampum, although he did it every night. Each day he went hunting, but he killed only things not good to eat, and made the older sister, who became his wife, cook them. The younger one, however, would never go near him. Even when he commanded the little spotted deer-skin bag to stand up she observed that it did not obey him.

One day she went out to the fields to husk corn, and as she finished her task she observed a man near a fire in the field. She drew near. He was fast asleep. She gazed at his face and recognized the beautiful young man, but how greatly changed! She stood for a while looking at him till he awakened. "Who are you?" she asked; "whence do you come? where are you going?" "I come," said he, "from the far east; I came only last evening." And he related his story, and told how nicely he had been started by his uncle, until she was quite satisfied of the truth of his story. She did not tell him she was the daughter of the chief whom he sought, but she went home and fetched food for him. She laid meat and drink before him, and while he ate she returned to her task of husking corn. Then she went home. The old fellow meanwhile had asked often, "Where is the young sister? Why does she never come to see me, or sit near whilst I smoke my pipe? May be she has found for herself a sickly man out in the field."

At last the younger sister told the young man who she was, and that the old man that had robbed him was in the chief's cabin and had all his fine things; and the young man felt better, and said, "I want my things back. I will make a dream. Go and tell the chief, your father, that I have dreamed a dream and all the people must come to hear it, and I will tell how all the things the old man has are mine, and then the birds will obey, and all the things will come alive again."

Then the old chief listened to the entreaties of his youngest daughter, and called a great council and the young man told his story in the form of a dream, and when he spoke of the birds they came and filled his pipe, and the swan skin when placed upon his head also came to life, and his spittle became wampum. So the chief knew he was the rightful owner of the clothes and they were returned to him, and the impostor was obliged to resume his old rags. The young man was then married to the faithful maiden, and returned to his home in safety, where he became in time a noted chief.




Related Reading

Zuni: Poshaiankia and the Prey Gods

Sioux: The Faithful Lovers