The Making Of A Shaman: A Telling Of The Iroquois Trail by Mary Hunter Austin

Story type: Literature


Down the Mound-Builder’s graded way the children ran looking for the Onondaga. Like all the trail in the Museum Country it covered a vast tract of country in a very little while, so that it was no time at all before they came out among high, pine-covered swells, that broke along the watercourses into knuckly granite headlands. From one of these, steady puffs of smoke arose, and a moment later they could make out the figure of an Indian turning his head from side to side as he searched the surrounding country with the look of eagles. They knew him at once, by the Medicine bundle at his belt and the slanting Iroquois feather, for their friend the Onondaga.

“I was looking for you by the lake shore trail,” he explained as Oliver and Dorcas Jane climbed up to him. “You must have come by the Musking-ham-Mahoning; it drops into the Trade Trail of the Iroquois yonder,”–he pointed south and east,–“the Great Trail, from the Mohican-ittuck to the House of Thunder.” He meant the Hudson River and the Falls of Niagara. “Even at our village, which was at the head of the lake here, we could hear the Young Thunders, shouting from behind the falls,” he told them.

A crooked lake lay below them like a splinter of broken glass between the headlands. From the far end of it the children could see smoke rising. “We used to signal our village from here when we went on the war-trail,” said the Onondaga; “we would cut our mark on a tree as we went out, and as we came back we added the war count. I was looking for an old score of mine to-day.”

“Had it anything to do with the Mound-Builders?” Dorcas wished to know. “He said you knew the end of that story.”

The Onondaga shook his head.

“That was a hundred years before my time, and is a Telling of the Lenni-Lenape. In the Red Score it is written, the Red Score of the Lenni-Lenape. When my home was in the village there, the Five Nations held all the country between the lakes and the Mohican-ittuck. But there were many small friendly tribes along the borders, Algonquian mostly.”

He squatted on his heels beside the fire and felt in his belt for the pipe and tobacco pouch without which no Telling proceeds properly.

“In my youth,” said the Onondaga, “I was very unhappy because I had no Vision. When my time came I walked in the forest and ate nothing, but the Mystery would not speak to me. Nine days I walked fasting, and then my father came to find me under a pine tree, with my eyes sunk in my head and my ribs like a basket. But because I was ashamed I told him my Mystery was something that could not be talked about, and so I told the Shaman.

“My father was pleased because he thought it meant that I was to be a very great Shaman myself, and the other boys envied me. But in my heart I was uneasy. I did not know what to make of my life because the Holder of the Heavens had not revealed himself to me. To one of my friends he had appeared as an eagle, which meant that he was to be a warrior, keen and victorious; and to another as a fox, so that he studied cunning; but without any vision I did not know what to make of myself. My heart was slack as a wetted bowstring. My father reproached me.

“‘The old women had smoke in their eyes,’ he said; ‘they told me I had a son, now I see it is a woman child.’

“My mother was kinder. ‘Tell me,’ she said, ‘what evil dream unknots the cords of your heart?’

“So at last I told her.

“My mother was a wise woman. ‘To a dog or a child,’ she said, ‘one speaks the first word on the lips, but before a great Shaman one considers carefully. What is a year of your life to the Holder of the Heavens? Go into the forest and wait until his message is ripe for you.’ She was a wise woman.

“So I put aside my bow and quiver, and with them all desire of meat and all thought of killing. With my tomahawk I cut a mark in that chestnut yonder and buried my weapon at the foot of it. I had my knife, my pipe, and my fire-stick. Also I felt happy and important because my mother had made me believe that the Holder of the Heavens thought well of me. I was giving him a year in which to tell me what to do with my life.

“I turned east, for, I said, from the east light comes. It was an old trail even in those days. It follows the watershed from the lake to Oneida, and clears the Mohawk Valley northward. It was the Moon of Tender Leaves when I set out, and by the time nuts began to ripen I had come to the lowest hills of the Adirondacks.

“Sometimes I met hunting-parties or women gathering berries, and bought corn and beans from them, but for the most part I lived on seeds and roots and wild apples.

“By the time I had been a month or two without killing, the smell of meat left me. Rabbits ran into my hands, and the mink, stealing along the edge of the marsh to look for frogs, did not start from me. Deer came at night to feed on the lily buds on the lake borders. They would come stealing among the alders and swim far out to soak their coats. When they had made themselves mosquito-proof, they would come back to the lily beds and I would swim among them stilly, steering by the red reflection of my camp-fire in their eyes. When my thought that was not the thought of killing touched them, they would snort a little and return to the munching of lilies, and the trout would rise in bubbly rings under my arms as I floated. But though I was a brother to all the Earth, the Holder of the Heavens would not speak to me.

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“Sometimes, when I had floated half the night between the hollow sky of stars and its hollow reflection, the Vision seemed to gather on the surface of the water. It would take shape and turn to the flash of a loon’s wet wing in the dawning, Or I would sit still in the woods until my thought was as a tree, and the squirrels would take me for a tree and run over me. Then there would come a strange stir, and the creeping of my flesh along my spine until the Forest seemed about to speak … and suddenly a twig would snap or a jay squawk, and I would be I again, and the tree a tree….

“It was the first quarter of the Moon of Falling Leaves,” said the Onondaga filling his pipe again and taking a fresh start on his story. “There was a feel in the air that comes before the snow, but I was very happy in my camp by a singing creek far up on the Adirondacks, and kept putting off moving the camp from day to day. And one evening when I came in from gathering acorns, I discovered that I had had a visitor. Mush of acorn meal which I had left in my pot had been eaten. That is right, of course, if the visitor is hungry; but this one had wiped out his tracks with a leafy bough, which looked like trickery.

“It came into my mind that it might have been one of the Gahonga, the spirits that dwell in rocks and rivers and make the season fruitful.”

“Oh!” cried Dorcas, “Indian fairies! Did you have those?”

“There are spirits in all things,” said the Onondaga gravely. “There are Odowas, who live in the underworld and keep back the evil airs that bring sickness. You can see the bare places under the pines where they have their dancing-places. And there are the Gandaiyah who loose wild things from the traps and bring dew on the strawberry blossoms. But all these are friendly to man. So I cooked another pot of food and lay down in my blanket. I sleep as light as a wild thing myself. In the middle of the night I was wakened by the sound of eating. Presently I heard something scrape the bottom of the pot, and though I was afraid, I could not bear to have man or spirit go from my camp hungry. So I spoke to the sound.

“‘There is food hanging in the tree,’ I said. I had hung it up to keep the ants from it. But as soon as I finished speaking I heard the Thing creeping away. In the morning I found it had left the track of one small torn moccasin and a strange misshapen lump. It came up from and disappeared into the creek, so I was sure it must have been a Gahonga. But that evening as I sat by my fire I was aware of it behind me. No, I heard nothing; I felt the thought of that creature touching my thought. Without looking round I said, ‘What is mine is yours, brother.’ Then I laid dry wood on the fire, and getting up I walked away without looking back. But when I was out of the circle of light I looked and I saw the Thing come out of the brush and warm its hands.

“Then I knew that it was human, so I dropped my blanket over it from behind and it lay without moving. I thought I had killed it, but when I lifted the blanket I saw that it was a girl, and she was all but dead with fright. She lay looking at me like a deer that I had shot, waiting for me to plunge in the knife. It is a shame to any man to have a girl look at him as that one looked at me. I made the sign of friendship and set food before her, and water in a cup of bark. Then I saw what had made the clumsy track; it was her foot which she had cut on the rocks and bound up with strips of bark. Also she was sick with fright and starvation.

“For two days she lay on my bed and ate what I gave her and looked at me as a trapped thing looks at the owner of the trap. I tried her with all the dialects I knew, and even with a few words I had picked up from a summer camp of Wabaniki. I had met them a week or two before at Owenunga, at the foot of the mountains.

“She put her hand over her mouth and looked sideways to find a way out of the trap.

“I was sorry for her, but she was a great nuisance. I was so busy getting food for her that I had no time to listen for the Holder of the Heavens, and besides, there was a thickening of the air, what we call the Breath of the Great Moose, which comes before a storm. If we did not wish to be snowed in, we had to get down out of the mountain, and on account of her injured foot we had to go slowly.

“I had it in mind to take her to the camp of the Wabaniki at Owenunga, but when she found out where we were going she tried to run away. After that I carried her, for the cut in her foot opened and bled.

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“She lay in my arms like a hurt fawn, but what could I do? There was a tent of cloud all across the Adirondack, and besides, it is not proper for a young girl to be alone in the woods with a strange man,” said the Onondaga, but he smiled to himself as he said it.

“It was supper-time when we came to Crooked Water. There was a smell of cooking, and the people gathering between the huts.

“There was peace between the Five Nations and the Wabaniki, so I walked boldly into the circle of summer huts and put the girl down, while I made the stranger’s sign for food and lodging. But while my hand was still in the air, there was a shout and a murmur and the women began snatching their children back. I could see them huddling together like buffalo cows when their calves are tender, and the men pushing to the front with caught-up weapons in their hands.

“I held up my own to show that they were weaponless.

“‘I want nothing but food and shelter for this poor girl,’ I said. I had let her go in order to make the sign language, for I had but a few words of their tongue. She crouched at my feet covering her face with her long hair. The people stood off without answering, and somebody raised a cry for Waba-mooin. It was tossed about from mouth to mouth until it reached the principal hut, and presently a man came swaggering out in the dress of a Medicine Man. He was older than I, but he was also fat, and for all his Shaman’s dress I was not frightened. I knew by the way the girl stopped crying that she both knew and feared him.

“The moment Waba-mooin saw her he turned black as a thunderhead. He scattered words as a man scatters seeds with his hand. I was too far to hear him, but the people broke out with a shower of sticks and stones. At that the girl sprang up and spread her arms between me and the people, crying something in her own tongue, but a stone struck her on the point of the shoulder. She would have dropped, but I caught her, I held her in my arms and looked across at the angry villagers and Waba-mooin. Suddenly power came upon me….

“It is something all Indian,” said the Onon-daga,–“something White Men do not understand. It is Magic Medicine, the power of the Shaman, the power of my thought meeting the evil thought of the Wabaniki and turning it back as a buffalo shield turns arrows. I gathered up the girl and walked away from that place slowly as becomes a Shaman. No more stones struck me; the arrow of Waba-mooin went past me and stuck in an oak. My power was upon me.

“I must have walked half the night, hearing the drums at Crooked Water scaring away evil influences. I would feel the girl warm and soft in my arms as a fawn, and then after a time she would seem to be a part of me. The trail found itself under my feet; I was not in the least wearied. The girl was asleep when I laid her down, but toward morning she woke, and the moment I looked in her eyes, I knew that whatever they had stoned her for at Owenunga, her eyes were friendly.

“‘M’toulin,’ she said, which is the word in her language for Shaman, ‘what will you do with me?’

“There was nothing I could do but take her to my mother as quickly as possible. There was a wilderness of hills to cross before we struck the trail through Mohawk Valley. That afternoon the snow began to fall in great dry flakes, thickening steadily. The girl walked when she could, but most of the time I carried her. I had the power of a Shaman, though the Holder of the Heavens had not yet spoken to me.

“We pushed to the top of the range before resting, and all night we could hear the click and crash of deer and moose going down before the snow. All the next day there was one old bull moose kept just ahead of us. We knew he was old because of his size and his being alone. Two or three times we passed other bulls with two or three cows and their calves of that season yarding among the young spruce, but the old bull kept on steadily down the mountain. His years had made him weather-wise. The third day the wind shifted the snow, and we saw him on the round crown of a hill below us, tracking.”

The Onondaga let his pipe go out while he explained the winter habits of moose.

“When the snow is too deep for yarding,” he said, “they look for the lower hills that have been burnt over, so that the growth is young and tender. When the snow is soft, after a thaw, they will track steadily back and forth until the hill is laced with paths. They will work as long as the thaw lasts, pushing the soft snow with their shoulders to release the young pine and the birches. Then, when the snow crusts, they can browse all along the paths for weeks, tunneling far under.

“We saw our bull the last afternoon as we came down from the cloud cap, and then the white blast cut us off and we had only his trail to follow. When we came to the hill we could still hear him thrashing about in his trails, so I drew down the boughs of a hemlock and made us a shelter and a fire. For two days more the storm held, with cold wind and driven snow. About the middle of the second day I heard a heavy breathing above our hut, and presently the head of the moose came through the hemlock thatch, and his eyes were the eyes of a brother. So I knew my thought was still good, and I made room for him in the warmth of the hut. He moved out once or twice to feed, and I crept after him to gather grass seeds and whatever could be found that the girl could eat. We had had nothing much since leaving the camp at Crooked Water.

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“And by and by with the hunger and anxiety about Nukewis, which was the name she said she should be called by, my thought was not good any more. I would look at the throat of the moose as he crowded under the hemlock and think how easily I could slit it with my knife and how good moose meat toasted on the coals would taste. I was glad when the storm cleared and left the world all white and trackless. I went out and prayed to the Holder of the Heavens that he would strengthen me in the keeping of my vow and also that he would not let the girl die.

“While I prayed a rabbit that had been huddling under the brush and the snow, came hopping into my trail; it hopped twice and died with the cold. I took it for a sign; but when I had cooked it and was feeding it to the girl she said:–

“‘Why do you not eat, M’toulin,’ for we had taught one another a few words of our own speech.

“‘I am not hungry,’ I told her.

“‘While I eat I can see that your throat is working with hunger,’ she insisted. And it was true I could have snatched the meat from her like a wolf, but because of my vow I would not.

“‘M’toulin, there is a knife at your belt; why have you not killed the moose to make meat for us?’

“‘Eight moons I have done no killing, seeking the Vision and the Voice,’ I told her. ‘It is more than my life to me.’

“When I had finished, she reached over with the last piece of rabbit and laid it on the fire. It was a sacrifice. As we watched the flame lick it up, all thought of killing went out of my head like the smoke of sacrifice, and my thought was good again.

“When the meat she had eaten had made her strong, Nukewis sat up and crossed her hands on her bosom.

“‘M’toulin,’ she said, ‘the evil that has come on you belongs to me. I will go away with it. I am a witch and bring evil on those who are kind to me.’

“‘Who says you are a witch?’

“‘All my village, and especially Waba-mooin. I brought sickness on the village, and on you hunger and the breaking of your vow.’

“‘I have seen Waba-mooin,’ I said. ‘I do not think too much of his opinions.’

“‘He is the Shaman of my village,’ said Nukewis. ‘My father was Shaman before him, a much greater Shaman than Waba-mooin will ever be. He wanted my father’s Medicine bundle which hung over the door to protect me; my father left it to me when he died. But afterward there was a sickness in the village, and Waba-mooin said it was because the powerful Medicine bundle was left in the hands of an ignorant girl. He said for the good of the village it ought to be taken away from me. But I thought it was because so many people came to my house with their sick, because of my Medicine bundle, and Waba-mooin missed their gifts. He said that if I was not willing to part with my father’s bundle, that he would marry me, but when I would not, then he said that I was a witch!’

“‘Where is the bundle now?’ I asked her.

“‘I hid it near our winter camp before we came into the mountains. But there was sickness in the mountains and Waba-mooin said that it also was my fault. So they drove me out with sticks and stones. That is why they would not take me back.’

“‘Then,’ I said, ‘when Waba-mooin goes back to the winter camp, he will find the Medicine bundle.’

“‘He will never find it,’ she said, ‘but he will be the only Shaman in the village and will have all the gifts. But listen, M’toulin, by now the people are back in their winter home. It is more than two days from here. If you go without me, they will give you food and shelter, but with me you will have only hard words and stones. Therefore, I leave you, M’toulin.’ She stood up, made a sign of farewell.

“‘You must show me the way to your village first,’ I insisted.

“I saw that she meant what she said, and because I was too weak to run after her, I pretended. I thought that would hold her.

“We should have set out that moment, but a strange lightness came in my head. I do not know just what happened. I think the storm must have begun again early in the afternoon. There was a great roaring as of wind and the girl bending over me, wavering and growing thin like smoke. Twice I saw the great head of the moose thrust among the hemlock boughs, and heard Nukewis urging and calling me. She lifted my hands and clasped them round the antlers of the moose; I could feel his warm breath…. He threw up his head, drawing me from my bed, wonderfully light upon my feet. We seemed to move through the storm. I could feel the hairy shoulder of the moose and across his antlers Nukewis calling me. I felt myself carried along like a thin bubble of life in the storm that poured down from the Adirondack like Niagara. At last I slipped into darkness.

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“I do not know how long this lasted, but presently I was aware of a light that began to grow and spread around me. It came from the face of the moose, and when I looked up out of my darkness it changed to the face of a great kind man. He had on the headdress of a chief priest, the tall headdress of eagle plumes and antlers. I had hold of one of them, and his arm was around and under me. But I knew very well who held me.

“‘You have appeared to me at last,’ I said to him.

“‘I have appeared, my son.’ His voice was kind as the sound of summer waters.

“‘I looked for you long, O Taryenya-wagon!’

“‘You looked for me among your little brothers of the wild,’ he said, ‘and for you the Vision was among men, my son.’

“‘How, among men?’

“‘What you did for that poor girl when you put your good thought between her and harm. That you must do for men.’

“‘I am to be a Shaman, then?’ I thought of my father.

“‘According to a man’s power,’ said the Holder of the Heavens,–‘as my power comes upon him….’”

The Onondaga puffed silently for a while on his pipe.

Dorcas Jane fidgeted. “But I don’t understand,” she said at last; “just what was it that happened?”

“It was my Mystery,” said the Onondaga; “my Vision that came to me out of the fasting and the sacrifice. You see, there had been very little food since leaving Crooked Water, and Nukewis–“

“You gave it all to her.” Dorcas nodded. “But still I don’t understand?”

“The moose had begun to travel down the mountain and like a good brother he came back for me. Nukewis lifted me up and bound me to his antlers, holding me from the other side, but I was too weak to notice.

“We must have traveled that way for hours through the storm until we reached the tall woods below the limit of the snow. When I came to myself, I was lying on a bed of fern in a bright morning and Nukewis was cooking quail which she had snared with a slip noose made of her hair. I ate–I could eat now that I had had my Vision–and grew strong. All the upper mountain was white like a tent of deerskin, but where we were there was only thin ice on the edges of the streams.

“We stayed there for one moon. I wished to get my strength back, and besides, we wished to get married, Nukewis and I.”

“But how could you, without any party?” Dorcas wished to know. She had never seen anybody get married, but she knew it was always spoken of as a Wedding Party.

“We had the party four months later when we got back to my own village,” explained the Onondaga. “For that time I built a hut, and when I had led her across the door, as our custom was, I scattered seeds upon her–seeds of the pine tree. Then we sat in our places on either side the fire, and she made me cake of acorn meal, and we made a vow as we ate it that we would love one another always.

“We were very happy. I hunted and fished, and the old moose fed in our meadow. Nukewis used to gather armfuls of grass for him. When we went back to my wife’s village he trotted along in the trail behind us like a dog. Nukewis wished to go back after her father’s Medicine bag, and being a woman she did not wish to go to my mother without her dower. There were many handsome skins and baskets in her father’s hut which had been given to him when he was Medicine Man. She felt sure Waba-mooin would not have touched them. And as for me, I was young enough to want Waba-mooin to see that I was also a Shaman.

“We stole into Nukewis’s hut in the dark, and when it was morning a light snow was over the ground to cover our tracks, and there was our smoke going up and the great moose standing at our door chewing his cud and over the door the Medicine bag of Nukewis’s father. How the neighbors were astonished! They ran for Waba-mooin, and when I saw him coming in all his Shaman’s finery, I put on the old Medicine Man’s shirt and his pipe and went out to smoke with him as one Shaman with another.”

The Onondaga laughed to himself, remembering. “It was funny to see him try to go through with it, but there was nothing else for him to do. I ought to have punished him a little for what he did to Nukewis, but my heart was too full of happiness and my Mystery. And perhaps it was punishment enough to have me staying there in the village with all the folk bringing me presents and neglecting Waba-mooin. I think he was glad when we set out for my own village in the Moon of the Sap Running.

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“I knew my mother would be waiting for me, and besides, I wished my son to be born an Onondaga.”

“And what became of the old moose?”

“Somewhere on the trail home we lost him. Perhaps he heard his own tribe calling…and perhaps… He was the Holder of the Heavens to me, and from that time neither I nor my wife ate any moose meat. That is how it is when the Holder of the Heavens shows Himself to his children. But when I came by the tree where I had cut the first score of my search for Him, I cut a picture of the great moose, with my wife and I on either side of him.”

The Onondaga pointed with his feathered pipe to a wide-boled chestnut a rod or two down the slope. “It was that I was looking for to-day,” he said. “If you look you will find it.”

And continuing to point with the long feathered stem of his pipe, the children rose quietly hand in hand and went to look.




The Red Score of the Lenni-Lenape was a picture writing made in red chalk on birch bark, telling how the tribe came down out of Shinaki and drove out the Tallegewi in a hundred years’ war. Several imperfect copies of it are still in existence and one nearly perfect interpretation made for the English colonists. It was in the nature of short-hand memoranda of the most interesting items of their tribal history, but unless Oliver and Dorcas Jane meet somebody in the Museum country who knew the Tellings that went with the Red Score, it is unlikely we shall ever know just what did happen.

Any early map of the Ohio Valley, or any good automobile map of the country south and east of the Great Lakes, will give the Muskingham-Mahoning Trail, which was much used by the first white settlers in that country. The same is true of the old Iroquois Trade Trail, as it is still a well-traveled country road through the heart of New York State. Muskingham means “Elk’s Eye,” and referred to the clear brown color of the water. Mahoning means “Salt Lick,” or, more literally, “There a Lick.”

Mohican-ittuck, the old name for the Hudson River, means the river of the Mohicans, whose hunting-grounds were along its upper reaches.

Niagara probably means something in connection with the river at that point, the narrows, or the neck. According to the old spelling it should have been pronounced Nee-ae-gaer’-ae, but it isn’t.

Adirondack means “Bark-Eaters,” a local name for the tribe that once lived there and in seasons of scarcity ate the inner bark of the birch tree.

Algonquian is a name for one of the great tribal groups, several members of which occupied the New England country at the beginning of our history. The name probably means “Place of the Fish-Spearing,” in reference to the prow of the canoe, which was occupied by the man with the fish spear. The Eastern Algonquians were all canoers.

Wabaniki means “Eastlanders,” people living toward the East.

The American Indians, like all other people in the world, believed in supernatural beings of many sorts, spirits of woods and rocks, Underwater People and an Underworld. They had stories of ghosts and flying heads and giants. Most of the tribes believed in animals that, when they were alone, laid off their animal skins and thought and behaved as men. Some of them thought of the moon and stars as other worlds like ours, inhabited by people like us who occasionally came to earth and took away with them mortals whom they loved. In the various tribal legends can be found the elements of almost every sort of European fairy tale.

Shaman is not an Indian word at all, but has been generally adopted as a term of respect to indicate men or women who became wise in the things of the spirit. Sometimes a knowledge of healing herbs was included in the Shaman’s education, and often he gave advice on personal matters. But the chief business of the Shaman was to keep man reconciled with the spirit world, to persuade it to be on his side, or to prevent the spirits from doing him harm. A Shaman was not a priest, nor was he elected to office, and in some tribes he did not even go to war, but stayed at home to protect the women and children. Any one could be a Shaman who thought himself equal to it and could persuade people to believe in him.

Taryenya-wagon was the Great Spirit of the Five Nations, who was also called “Holder of the Heavens.”

Indian children always belong to the mother’s side of the house. The only way in which the Shaman’s son could be born an Onondaga was for the mother to be adopted into the tribe before the son was born. Adoptions were very common, orphans, prisoners of war, and even white people being made members of the tribe in this way.

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