As I get ready to take my kids to the local Pow Wow near my house, I though this would be a nice opportunity to make a post on the folktales passed down among the Algonquian people of Virginia and North Carolina. Because of colonialism, we have precious few that were even mentioned in the notes of the colonists, let alone any that were actually passed down through the generations.
This will be a long post, however, because our ancestors left us a breadcrumb trail of clues in the notes of those who observed them that strongly links our peoples to the larger Algonquian culture of storytelling that extended up the Atlantic coast. So, without further adieu, enjoy our ancestors gifts to us!
Kewasa and Koluscap: the Creation of the World
When the colonists saw Algonquian people in North Carolina and Virginia, they immediately began describing them in comparative terms to help European readers understand them. In describing religion, they drew immediate comparisons to Christianity, changing and molding Algonquian spiritual life to fit their own Judeo-Christian template of good and evil. And, in order to demonize the people and justify their own colonial efforts, they claimed that the Algonquians worshipped the devil.
The devil, they claimed, was Kewasa. Although they believed in a Great Good God who created the universe, it was Kewasa who must be daily worshipped or he would visit his wrath on the people. Kewasa represented the devil in European eyes, for he did not resemble the kindness they perceived in their own god.'
But, Kewasa was not evil, he was a culture hero. The Renapewak believed that he taught them everything about how to live, from how to hunt, make tools, even how to wear their hair. It all came from the instruction of Kewasa. Others noted about how their god often visited in the form of a Great Hare (a common northern Algonquian form of the deity Koluscap), and how it was he that would become angry if human beings preformed actions that put the world out of balance.
While most European writers told of the devil-like nature of Kewasa, one noted after an interview with the chief priest of the Powhatan Paramount Chiefdom, Uttomatomakin, that he was the author of all their good. One story from Algonquian people appears to link Kewasa with the Northern Algonquian Koluscap. Told by Iopassus, a Patawomek subchief, Kewasa saved humankind from being eaten by Cannibal Giants (Northern Algonquian: Windigos):
The chief of all the gods was a Great Hare, and he dwelt in a place toward the rising sun. The Great Hare thought how he wanted to people the earth. He made many different kinds of men and women, but he put them all into a very large bag. Some giants came to visit the Great Hare. When they discovered what was in the bag, they wanted to eat all the people for a fine feast. The Great Hare was so angry at these cannibals, that he drove the giants away from his house.The godlike Hare went about making the water and filling it with fish. He made the land and placed upon the land a great deer to feed from the land.
Now there were four lesser gods who were the four winds seated at each corner of the world. They were jealous of the deer sharing their land. They fashioned hunting poles which they used to kill the great deer. After they dressed the meat and had a delicious feast, they departed to their four corners. When the Great Hare saw what jealousy had caused, he took up the hairs of the slain deer and scattered them over the earth, chanting many powerful words and charms. Every tiny hair became a new deer. Then the Great Hare opened the bag which held the men and the women. He placed a man and a woman upon the earth in one country and a man and a woman in another country. And so the world became filled with many different kinds of people.
-William Strachey (1612)
This story is often thought to be representative of Ahone, the Algonquian Creator God. From Ahone all things were made by thought alone, and from Ahone all blessings flow indiscriminately. Ahone would be the personal name of the Great Spirit. The northern Algonquian Cree people call this spirit Ah-EE as a personal name, Kisemanito as the descriptive title of Great Spirit. In the northern tradition, Koluscap/Kewasa is known by many names, such as Nanabozho, Nanabush, Glooscap, among others, or Michibou when in the form of the hare. Kewasa is a demi-god responsible for the peopling of the world that Ahone created, and a guide for the right way to live; a teacher. Click here for comparative stories of Koluscap from the north and see the similarities to the Southern Algonquian version. Bear in mind that the story recorded above is severely paraphrased and likely mushed together multiple stories.
The Chowanoke Chief Thomas Hoyter was likely also referencing Kewasa/Koluscap when he spoke with a visitor on the reservation in the early 1700s. This missionary was astonished that Hoyter had knowledge of the Great Flood, which the missionary attributed to the biblical Noah's flood. Asked where he learned the story, Hoyter replied, "My father tell me, I tell my son." In all likelihood, he was not referencing Noah, but his own people's flood myth, in which Kewasa/Koluscap gathered all the animals and people on a giant raft to escape the floodwaters caused by an epic fight with the Great Horned Serpent. In this story, a muskrat gathered mud from the bottom of the waters and put it on a great turtle's back. This would become North America, and this is why we call it Turtle Island.
Further clues to the creation stories of the Southern Algonquians are found in the texts of the earliest English colony at Roanoke Island in the late 1500s. Thomas Hariot, a scientist hired to catalogue the natural state of the country, befriended the local priests and was able to learn about their idea of creation. Unfortunately he was brief in his comments, but they provide important information.
"They beleeue that there are many Gods which they call Mantóac, but of different sortes and degrees; one onely chiefe and great God, which hath bene from all eternitie. Who as they affirme when hee purposed to make the worlde, made first other goddes [such as Kewasa] of a principall order to bee as meanes and instruments to bee vsed in the creation and gouernment to follow; and after the Sunne, Moone, and Starres, as pettie goddes and the instruments of the other order more principall. First they say were made waters, out of which by the gods was made all diuersitie of creatures that are visible or inuisible.
For mankind they say a woman was made first, which by the woorking of one of the goddes, conceiued and brought foorth children: And in such sort they say they had their beginning. But how manie yeeres or ages haue passed since, they say they can make no relation, hauing no letters nor other such meanes as we to keepe recordes of the particularities of times past, but onelie tradition from father to sonne."
-Thomas Hariot (1585)
Manguahaian: The Great Bear in the Sky
When John Smith was captured by Opechancanough's hunting party in the early 1600s, they had the chance to converse on various subjects. Smith attempted to astound Opechancanough with his worldly knowledge of mathematics, science and astronomy. It was he, however, who was surprised by Opechancanough's knowledge of the stars. Pointing up to the night sky, Opechancanough told Smith of the Big Dipper constellation, which he referred to as the Great Bear, or Manguahaian. Smith goes no further than this as to the details of the story, but this is more than enough information to link this critical detail to the common story of the cosmic chase.
This story, very common among Algonquian and Iroquoian societies and told in various forms in other indigenous cultures, involves three hunters and their little dog who decide to go hunt a spiritually powerful bear. In their fervor of the chase, they did not realize that they were being led all the way into the sky. Still determined, they did not go back, and continued chasing the bear all year until autumn, when they finally caught the bear, slaying it. The blood of the bear is what colors the leaves of the trees in the autumn, and the snow of winter is the fat of the bear falling to the earth as the hunters cook the meat. Every spring the bear reawakens to begin the chase again. In the sky, you can see the bear in the four stars making up the rectangle of the Big Dipper, and the three trailing stars are the three hunters, with a faint star behind them as their hunting dog.
The Gift of Yaupon
In the year 1709, North Carolina surveyor John Lawson wrote a historically important book on the natural history and colonial history of North Carolina, along with notes of his travels and customs of the Indigenous people. It is good that he wrote the book when he did, because he was killed two years later at the opening of the Tuscarora War. He noted a local story from the Algonquian people who told them how they first obtained the Yaupon Holly tree as a gift from the Creator. Yaupon was the primary ingredient of Black Drink, a widespread and important elixir and purifying tea, used for pleasure, medicine and ceremony. Yaupon tea was so popular and important in indigenous life that when an anthropologist found a band of Mattamuskeet Indians at the turn of the 20th century, they were still collecting and preparing the Yaupon. Lawson says this of the Algonquian story:
"The Savages of Carolina have this Tea in Veneration, above all the Plants they are acquainted withal, and tell you, the Discovery thereof was by an infirm Indian, that labour'd under the Burden of many rugged Distempers, and could not be cured by all their Doctors; so, one day, he fell asleep, and dreamt, that if he took a Decoction of the Tree that grew at his Head, he would certainly be cured; upon which he awoke, and saw the Yaupon or Caffena--Tree, which was not there when he fell asleep. He follow'd the Direction of his Dream, and became perfectly well in a short time."
-John Lawson (1709)
I am going to take a risk here. There are different philosophies when it comes to oral story telling. One is that they should be preserved exactly as heard from the previous generations and told in the same way. This, I agree, is the ideal. When it comes to an oral society, this is necessary. We have a problem with the stories recorded above, however. They were paraphrased, had meaning lost in translation, and were frankly made fun of by their European recorders. We cannot keep those stories exactly as they are because they are a mere skeleton of their former richness. Therefore, if we want to have our own storytelling traditions, we must find the Algonquian stories these brief notes refer to, listen to these stories from our sister nations, and reconstruct what is left our ours. For example, here is my own reconstruction of The Gift of Yaupon:
Many winters ago in the land that touches the rising sun, the Renape people lived in harmony with all that the Creator had given them. These were the days before the gifts of corn, beans and squash, and all that the people needed came from the mother earth. The women gathered delicious fruits, roots and herbs, while the men hunted and fished. All went well for the people, for they took only what they needed, letting the land renew itself.
One of the people, a mighty hunter and a great warrior, was named Nanamachaw. He was raised well by his uncles, and as a boy he respected all the animals of the forest, taking only what he needed, and thanking the spirits of those he had killed in the hunt with gifts of tobacco. The Mantoacs, beings of the spirit world, blessed him greatly with great strength and courage, so that he became the greatest warrior of his people.
But Nanamachaw was so great in his own eyes that he became prideful. He made great boasts to his people that he was the greatest of them all, that he could not be defeated in battle. He said, “I am Nanamachaw! The greatest warrior our people has ever seen! I am Nanamachaw! The greatest hunter any people has ever seen!” He even began challenging his fellow warriors to fight with him so he could humiliate them, and worst of all, began killing more animals than he needed for food without a thankful heart.
That winter, his mother, Quanacutuske, saw what her son was doing, and told him in a gentle voice, “Nanamachaw my son, you know that you are a mighty hunter and warrior, but what you have done is not good. You have shamed your brothers and upset the balance of the world by taking more than you need.” He was indignant, and brushed her aside. He went into the forest and in his anger killed an entire herd of deer, so many that he could not carry them all back, leaving their carcasses to rot in the woods. After eating only the best parts of the deer, he fell into a deep sleep.
The Mantoac spirits had seen all that he had done, killing many more animals than he needed, and shaming his people with a bad heart. They had given him great strength and prowess for the respect he had shown as a boy, but now had grown selfish, and so as he slept, they took away his strength.
He awoke from his sleep, and tried to get up, but stumbled. He hoisted himself to his feet with a great effort, and immediately began shivering with chills from a fever. Coming to water, he saw that his reflection was like that of a starved man, weak and feeble. Crying out, he cursed the Mantoacs for doing this to him, stumbling and crawling back to his town, where everyone was astonished to see him in this way.
Even though Nanamachaw had not treated his people well, they were of kind and forgiving hearts. Taking pity on him, the quiraquiros, medicine men, gathered around him, discussing among themselves the best way to treat him. Some tried tea from the Sassafras root, another tried a salve from the Milkweed stalk, and each attempted a different way to cure him of his sickness, but nothing worked; in fact, he had gotten worse. All the people danced around him by the fire that night, sending their prayers and smoke up to the Mantoacs, begging for mercy for their brother Nanamachaw, but all was in vain.
The next morning Quanacutuske came and told him, “Son, the medicine men were wrong to try and cure you with roots and herbs. Your sickness is not a kind that can get better by such things. Yours is a sickness of the heart, and to change it is a task only you can do. You must go back to where you had slain the whole herd of deer, ask forgiveness of their spirits and the Mantoacs. My son, we live in strength because we take only what we need, and do not live selfishly. Doing the things you have done does not make you stronger, but weaker.”
Nanamachaw, finally seeing what he had done wrong, said, “Yes mother, your words are true. I have done wrong. I will never again treat my people with shame or take more than I need. I will do what you have said.” Unable to walk on his own, his mother helped him through the woods to where the slain deer herd still lay. The sight of the bodies of the deer filled his heart with pain and remorse, and he prayed for forgiveness from the spirits of the deer. All day long he called out to the Mantoacs until he fell asleep that night.
The Mantoacs heard his cries and knew that his heart had changed from bad to good. One of them came to him in his dream to tell him what he must do. Taking the form of a deer, the Mantoac said “Nanamachaw, great warrior of your people, you had a good heart as a boy, always respecting those around you, and taking only what you need, but now, as a man, you have had a bad heart, thinking only of yourself.” With great fear and shame, Nanamachaw replied, “Yes, Mantoac, what you say is true, my heart has gone from good to bad, and I have thought only of myself. Please make me better! I promise always to act in a good way towards my people and the land we live in!”
“Yes Nanamachaw,” said the Mantoac spirit, “We have held council concerning you, and believe your heart has changed from bad to good. You will be well again, for we have a gift that will help you and your people. When you awake, a new kind of tree you will find growing by your resting head. This tree is called Yaupon, and it is powerful medicine.” The Mantoac told him exactly how to make a tea from its leaves and twigs, and told him to take the medicine back his people and teach them as well.
Nanamachaw awoke to find a strange and beautiful new tree growing by his head, that hadn’t been there when he fell asleep. It was a small tree, with beautiful clusters of red berries that grew among its branches and leaves that stayed green in the wintertime. Knowing what he must do, he took the leaves and twigs, only the amount that he needed, and ground them down in a mortar that the Mantoac had provided for him. Making a fire, he roasted the ground leafs until they turned dark and smoky, laying them out in the sun to dry. When ready, he made himself a tea, as the Mantoac instructed.
Nanamachaw found the tea to be delicious, and felt the strength returning to his body with every sip. It was not long before he was completely cured, and he leapt for joy in the forest, “I am Nanamachaw! I am again a great hunter and warrior! But never again will I take more than I need, or treat my people with shame!” Running through the forest, he quickly came upon his town, where everyone was delighted to see him well and healthy. Quanacutuske came to him and said, “Something new has happened! When we awoke this morning, a new kind of tree we have never seen before has appeared, and they are growing everywhere!”
“Ah mother, this tree is a gift from the Mantoacs!” said Nanamachaw, “It was this tree that made me well. It is called Yaupon, and it is a powerful medicine!” Hearing this, the medicine men gathered to him, and he instructed them in its use, as was told to him by the Mantoacs. From that day on, Yaupon has been a tea drank daily by all the Renape people of the coast. It became so famous, that many people even from far inland where it did not grow came seeking it in trade, and so Yaupon made all the people prosper. Nanamachaw lived the rest of his days in harmony with his people and with the land he lived in. All the people respected him, and he became a great leader.
Telling the story in this way is a bit of a risk because we just don't know the way our ancestors told the original story. We have only the bones of it, from European perspective. But, in my opinion, they can and should be reconstructed and told once again. By finding related stories in sister nations, listening to them, and incorporating them into what our ancestors were able to leave for us, we can begin the process of the decolonialization of our culture.
The Chowanoke King and the Vengeance of Powhatan Town
Not all stories are about times immemorial or the cosmic beliefs of our ancestors. Often, they are the historic deeds of real people in real situations. One of my favorites was actually told by a Nottoway Chief (who described himself as an ally of the Chowanokes) to an English explorer he was guiding through the Carolina wilderness in what is now western Hertford and Northampton counties.
After we had passed over this River we travelled some
twenty miles further upon a pyny barren Champion Land to
Hocomawananck River, South, and by West: some twelve
miles from Brewsters River we came unto a path running crosse
some twenty yards on each side unto two remarkeable Trees ;
at this path our Appamattuck Guide made a stop, and cleared
the Westerly end of the path with his foote, being demanded
the meaning of it, he shewed an unwillingnesse to relate it,
sighing very much : Whereupon we made a stop untill Oyeocker
our other Guide came up, and then our Appamattuck Guide
journied on ; but Oyeocker at his comming up cleared the other
end of the path, and prepared himselfe in a most serious man-
ner to require our attentions, and told us that many yeares
since their late great Emperour Appachancano came thither
to make a War upon the Tuskarood, in revenge of three of
his men killed, and one wounded, who escaped, and brought
him word of the other three murthered by the Hocomaw-
ananck Indians for lucre of the Roanoake they brought with
them to trade for Otter skins. There accompanyed Appa-
chancano severall petty Kings that were under him, amongst
which there was one King of a Towne called Pawhatan y
which had long time harboured a grudge against the King
of Chawan, about a yong woman that the King of Chawan
had detayned of the King of Pawhatan : Now it hapned that
the King of Chawan was invited by the King of Pawhatan
to this place under pretence to present him with a Guift of
some great vallew, and there they met accordingly, and the
King of Pawhatan went to salute and embrace the King of
Chawan, and stroaking of him after their usuall manner, he
whipt a bow string about the King of Chawans neck , and
strangled him ; and how that in memoriall of this, the path is
continued unto this day, and the friends of the Pawhatans
when they passe that way, cleanse the Westerly end of the
path, and the friends of the Chawans the other. And some two
miles from this path we came unto an Indian Grave upon the
East side of the path : Upon which Grave there lay a great
heape of sticks covered with greene boughs, we demanded the
reason of it, Oyeocker told us, that there lay a great man of
the Chawans that dyed in the same quarrell, and in honour of
his memory they continue greene boughs over his Grave to
this day ; and ever when they goe forth to Warre they relate
his, and other valorous, loyall Acts, to their yong men, to
animate them to doe the like when occasion requires
It is apparent how much the Chowanoke people and the surrounding nations valued the great leaders of times past, and continued to tell their tales to their youth. The same can, and should, be done today. The history of the Chowanoke and the surrounding nations is full of the stories of incredible people, such as Menatonon and Skiko, the King and his son who were forced between a rock and a hard place by Ralph Lane, the madman leader of the Roanoke Colony. Or Roncommock, the Chowanoke priest from the early 1700s who, while playing a flute, could literally walk on water according to witnesses. Even beyond the reservation period, there are heroes like Parker Robbins, who took a stand against the Confederacy by enlisting as a non-commissioned officer in the Union Army, and afterwards became a businessman, inventor and among the first people of color to become a state representative.
These people, the great leaders of the past, have lessons to teach us, but besides that, are all part of the fabric of who we are today. It is because of them that we are here at all. What would have happened if the Chowanoke had not risen up in the Chowan River War of 1676? Would they have been assigned a reservation? Would it have lasted as long as it did? What if the Chowanoke leaders had not come forward and recorded their names in the English courts? We would not even have the proof that we were Chowanoke outside our family oral histories. What if Nan Robbins and her children had not purchased private property before the close of the reservation? Would there have been an "Indian Town" community? What would our families and communities look like today if they hadn't? Represented in this blog post are just a few of the stories that survived, in some form, in the English colonial records. I am sure more can be found. Our old storytelling traditions have been wiped out by the colonial process, but they can be resurrected. The decisions our ancestors made brought us here. And the decisions we make will bring our descendants to their own place. Will they tell our stories?
Lars Adams is a North Carolina Native American descendant, researcher, and author. He is winner of the Smithwick Magazine and Newspaper Article Award, founder of the Chowanoke Descendants Community, and author of Breaking the House of Pamunkey: The Last Powhatan War and the Fall of an American Indian Empire, as well as many other journal and book contributions.