by Doug George-Kanentiio Akwesasne Mohawk
The long nights of winter are the time for storytelling among the Mohawks. During the planting, cultivation and harvest moons the people are too busy to trade stories and, it is said, that the plants and animal beings are also concerned with giving birth, nurturing and gathering food so it is best not to disrupt their duties with the telling of tales. But when the snows come and the people are huddled close to the longhouse fires it is time to tell how things came to be. Here is one story common to all Iroquois.
In Iroquois society, it is forbidden to use physical force of any kind against a child. There are very few children who are beyond the power of love; they all need affection and attention, patience and guidance. In extreme circumstances a mischievous child may be disciplined by the splashing of water upon their face to break their misbehavior and when that fails they are shunned.
In former times the Iroquois did apply force to control children. Spankings were common as was confinement and ridicule. It was a sad time as the people had forgotten their ancestral teachings that all children were blessings from the Creator and as such to be respected with the community having the duty of ensuring each child was cared for and to be treated with dignity. Instead, when a child did not do what an adult ordered they were condemned before they were struck. The adults kept most of the food to themselves and left only tattered remnants for the children to wear. The children were ragged, hungry and dirty.
At one time a group of seven children risked punishment by leaving the longhouses and finding their way to a secret meeting place deep in the woods. They found a small circular clearing and there they brought morsels of stolen food to share and spoke of the ill-treatment inflicted upon them by the adults. One of the children remembered a story he had heard about a distant place far in the nighttime sky.
This place, the child said, was where the Creator lived and where the ancestors of the Iroquois had come from long ago. The children thought about this as they made their way back to their homes; there must be a way to return to that sky home, perhaps to a place where they would not have to live in fear and where they would be truly loved. Perhaps there was a ceremony, a song, a prayer which could be done to show them the way. Over the next few weeks, they would risk harm by finding their way to the meeting place. They had heard that if they would put tobacco into a fire and send their words to the sky something would happen. They were risking much to meet together.
As time went on the punishments and cruelty grew worse. The seven children were desperate and felt they had no choice but to leave their homes and fell from the community. They knew running away over land would mean being caught and returned to even harsher treatment. One of them had the idea that if they followed the trail of smoke into the sky it would take them to the Creator. They decided that this would be done and so they gathered tobacco and set it to a small fire.
It was then that the adults discovered the children were missing and began to hunt for them. The children heard the adults approaching and began to pray as the smoke from the fire swirled upwards. They held hands and begin to sing, asking the Creator to come to their aid. They could hear the adults, their voices marked by anger and threats. It was then that something remarkable happened-the children began to rise from the ground. The more they sang the higher they went, slowly rising about the trees and then into the sky.
The adults saw the seven children and ran towards them, first to demand they come back and then pleading with them as they drifted farther away. Not all of the parents were bad, one mother, in particular, was known for her kindness and then she saw the youngest child, her son, she raised her arms and pleaded for him to come back. The boy looked toward the ground, now far away. He could not ignore the grief of his mother so he broke from the circle and fell back towards the earth, leaving a blazing trail in his wake.
The rest of the children continued on with their journey, holding fast, their arms clasped tightly together. As they began to fade into the sky the adults fell their to their knees, now weeping in the realization for what they had done; that the harm they had caused the children had meant they would be lost to them in this world. Once the children left this world completely the people gathered together and decided that they would never again harm any child lest the Creator take them back to the sky world.
The sky children did not completely abandon their families. They are to be seen in the night time, moving along a northern trail where, in the wintertime, they may be seen directly overhead. They are called the Seven Dancers and remind the Iroquois of their promises to always be kind to every child.
It is also the Seven Dancers cluster (known as the Pleiades)which determines when the most important of all Iroquois ceremonies, the Midwinter, are held. The spiritual guides of the nation, call Faithkeepers, will meet, look to the Seven Dancers, and five days after the first new moon following the winter’s solstice, the seven-day ceremony begins.
Those seven children also left another gift-it is said that whenever an Iroquois person dies their spirit follows the sky road set by the ancestors called Teiothahó:ken, the Forked Path or the Milky Way.