Flying Heads, Stone Giants and Legends: a historical account from Chief Elias Johnson

In 1881 Tuscarora Chief, Elias Johnson, put to paper some of the ancient knowledge of the Six Nations people for posterity as well as a permanent record of the pre-contact legends and medicine ceremonies of the traditional peoples.

Combining known facts, myths and spiritual insights — faithkeepers and elders told of far ancient times long before contact, which established them as a people and introduced knowledge of their surroundings, the understanding of their world. From that, to the wisdom of how to co-exist with nature as a partner and provider.

The following are two such legends as recorded by Chief Elias Johnson in his book, ‘Legends, Traditions and Laws of the Iroquois or Six Nations, and History of the Tuscarora Indians’.

Legend of the Flying Head

“Drum and rattle and enchantments were deemed more effective than arrows or clubs. One evening, after they had been plagued a long time with fearful visitations, the flying head came to the door of a lodge occupied by a single female and her dog. She was sitting composedly before the fire roasting acorns, which, as they became cooked, she deliberately took from the fire and ate. Amazement seized the flying head, who put out two huge black paws from under his streaming beard. Supposing the woman to be eating live coals he withdrew, and from that time he came no more among them.”

Stone Giants

“They were also invaded by a still more fearful enemy, the Ot-nea-yar-heh, or Stonish Giants. They were a powerful tribe from the wilderness, tall, fierce and hostile, and resistance to them was vain. They defeated and overwhelmed army which was sent out against them, and put the whole country in fear. These giants were not only of great strength, but they were cannibals, devouring men, women and children in their inroads.”

Medicine Legends

According to Chief Johnson, the ancient manner of administering medicines was to take a small wooden goblet and go to a running stream, dipping toward the way which the stream ran, fill the goblet and return, place it near the fire with some tobacco near it; a prayer is offered while tobacco is thrown upon the fire, that the words may ascend upon the smoke.

“The medicine is placed on a piece of skin near the goblet, being very finely pulverized, is taken up with a wooden spoon and dusted upon the water in three spots, in the form of a triangle.  The medicine man then looks at it critically, if it spreads over the surface of the water and whirls about, it is a sign that the invalid will be healed; if it sinks directly in the places where it was put, there is no hope, the sick person must die and the whole is thrown away.

Once in six months there is a great feast made, at the hunting season in fall and spring. On the night of the feast as soon as it is dark, all who are present assemble in one room, where no light or fire is allowed to burn, and placing the medicine near the covered embers, the tobacco by its side, they commence singing, which proclaims that the crows are coming to their feast, and also many other birds and various animals, the brains of whose species form part of their medicine. At the end of the song some one imitates the caw of a crow, the songs of the birds, the howls of the wolf, etc., as if the animals were present.

Three times in the course of the night they offer a prayer, while throwing tobacco on the smothered flames, asking that the people may be protected from all harm, and if they receive wounds that the medicine may be effectual in healing them.

At the commencement of the ceremonies the doors are locked, and no one is allowed to enter or leave the house while they continue; neither is any one allowed to sleep, as that would spoil the medicine. The feast begins just before the dawn of day. The master of ceremonies first takes a deer’s head, bites off a piece, imitates the cry of a crow and passes the head of the animal to another, who does the same, till all have tasted and imitated the peculiar note of some bird or animal.

As soon as it begins to be light the presiding officer takes a duck’s bill, and dipping it full of the medicine, gives it to each one present, who puts it in a bit of skin and wraps it in several coverings, keeps it carefully until the next semi-annual feast. The skin of a panther is preferred for the first envelope if it can be obtained.

Those who take part in the ceremonies are medicine men. Chiefs are allowed to be present; also, any who have been cured of any disease by the medicine.

When the medicine described in the second legend is used, the tune is sung which was heard at Its discovery, both at the ceremonies of the feast and the time of administering it. They seem to think the ceremonies effectual in making the medicinal qualities of the compound Imperishable. Each medicine man has a large quantity which he keeps in a bag, and in order not to exhaust the whole, now and then, adds pulverized com roots, squash vines, etc, and whenever it is administered several persons assemble and sing. Both kinds are considered especially useful in healing wounds received in war.

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