HOW THE IROQUOIS GIVE THANKS – Stories the Iroquois Tell Their Children by Mabel Powers

The Iroquois Red Children are a grateful people. The true Iroquois never rises after eating without saying, “Niaweh,” which means, “I am thankful.”

The Red Children never pick a flower without thinking how kind the Great Spirit has been, to cause the flowers to grow. They like flowers, and no matter how poor the Indian cabin, flowers are always to be found near.

When the Iroquois pick fruit, they give thanks to the Great Spirit. And always do they leave some, for the “little brothers of the wood.”

They do not try to pick every cherry or berry, or nut or apple, for themselves. Fruits grow for the birds and animals as well as for men, and the little brothers of the wood must not be forgotten. Some of everything that grows is left for them.

05 sap bucket
Sap Bucket

During the spring and summer, the Iroquois give several thanksgiving feasts. The first is early in the spring, at maple-sugar time. As soon as the sap begins to flow, the Maple Feast is called.

The Indians gather about a large maple tree. A fire is lighted near, upon which one of their number sprinkles tobacco. As the smoke rises, a prayer of thanksgiving is made to the Great Spirit, for causing the sweet waters of the maple to flow. Then the maple trees are thanked for their service to men, and protection is asked for the trees during the coming year.

When “the leaf of the dogwood is the size of a squirrel’s ear,” it is planting time. Then an Indian maid goes into the fields and scatters a few grains of corn, asking the aid of the Great Spirit for the harvest. The Indian always plants his seed with the growing moon, that it may grow with the moon.

Strawberry Feast

The next feast is the Strawberry Feast and Dance.

The strawberry is one of the best gifts of the Great Spirit to his children. So greatly is it prized that it is thought to grow on the Sky Road that leads to the Happy Hunting Ground. An Indian who has been very ill, near death, will say, “I almost ate strawberries.”

When the strawberry ripens, the Red Children are happy. They sing their praises to the Great Spirit and dance with joy. They remember the Little People who have helped to make the berries beautiful, and they have a song of praise and dance of thanks for them as well. Without the help of the Little People, the strawberries would not be so sweet and ripe.

At the time of the Harvest Moon comes the last feast of the summer. This thanksgiving feast lasts four days. The Indians not only give thanks for the ripening of the corn, but for every growing thing. Therefore this feast is longer than the others, since it takes some time to name all the good gifts of the Great Spirit to the Red Children, and to give thanks for them all.

There is a story[1] of the corn in which the Spirit of the Corn is a maiden, not a handsome young chief, as one of the stories claims. This Corn Maiden was one of three sisters, and was called Ona tah.

The three sister vegetables—the corn, the bean, and the squash—were called the Di o he ko, which means “those we live on,” since they are the life-giving vegetables.

These sisters lived together on a hill and were very happy. But one day Ona tah wandered away in search of dews for her kernels.

The Evil Spirit was watching. He seized Ona tah, the Spirit of the Corn, and sent one of his monsters to blight her fields. The killing winds swept over the hill, and the spirits of the squash and bean fled before them.

Ona tah was held for some time a prisoner in the darkness under the earth, by the Evil Spirit.

life-giving vegetables

At last a sun ray found her and guided her back to her lost hilltop. There she found that her sisters had fled. She was alone.

Then Ona tah made a vow to the sun that she would never again leave her fields. But she sighs for her lost sisters, and mourns the blight that came upon her beautiful fields. For since the time when Ona tah wandered away and left her fields, the corn has not grown so tall or so beautiful as once it did.

Original text from the book:
Stories the Iroquois Tell Their Children