The Discovery of Fire - A Tradition
- according to the oral traditions of the Iroquois people
See Also: Tales of the Iroquois
As in the olden times, it is the Mohawk way that when a boy reaches the age of 14 winters (years), it is customary for him to make a journey, accompanied by his father, to some sacred place back up in the mountains. There, after receiving instructions from his father, the youth remains alone for at least four days. During these four or more days, the Mohawk boy performs a ceremony known as the Dream Fast.
This Dream Fast is very important to Mohawk youths. To be successful in the Dream Fast means that the youth is no longer a youth, but a man. During the fast, the Clan Spirit of the young Mohawk appears to him in a dream, and reveals to him the bird, animal or plant that is to be the Mohawk's guardian throughout his life. After the fast, he must secure something from the creature of his dream, and must wear it in his medicine bag.
The Mohawks have three clans, which are the Bear Clan, Turtle Clan, and Wolf Clan. Should the dreamer belong to the Turtle Clan, the Spirit of the Turtle appears to him in a dream, and shows him his future guardian. If the clan spirit does not appear to him during the fast, his father, who visits him daily, releases him, and he departs home, a failure. He does not have two chances. The dreamer can leave his fasting place after sunset for brief periods. He can drink water to quench his thirst. He is not allowed to eat any food.
Otsiera (oh-gee-A-rah) belonged to the Bear Clan, and was the son of a famous leader. He had many honors to his credit. No youth of the Mohawks was fleeter on foot than he. He led in the games, and was one of the best lacrosse players of his nation. He could shoot his arrow farther and straighter than any of his friends. He knew the forests and streams, and would always return from the hunt loaded down with deer meat, which he always divided with the needs of his people. He could imitate the calls of the Birds. They would come when he called, and would sit on his shoulders. He was the pride of his people.
The time for the Dream Fast of Otsiera had come. It was the Moon of Strawberries. Otsiera was eager to try the test of strength and endurance. High upon the mountain, on a huge ledge of rock, he built his lodge of young saplings. He covered it with the branches of the balsam to shelter it from the rains. He removed all of his clothing save his breech-cloth and moccasins. Appealing to his clan spirit, he entered the crude shelter.
Four suns had passed, and yet the young warrior had not been visited by the clan spirit. The fifth sun had dawned when his father appeared. He shook the lodge poles and called for Otsiera to come forth.
Otsiera, in a low and weak voice, begged his father to give him one more day. His father left, telling Otsiera that on the morrow he must return to his village.
That night, Otsiera looked down from his lodge on the mountain. In the distance, he heard low rumblings of thunder. As he listened, the thunder became louder and louder. Bright flashes of lightning lit up the heavens.
"Great Thunder Man, Ratiweras (Rah-dee-WAY-rahs)," prayed the youth, "Send my Clan Spirit to help me." He had no sooner spoken than a blinding flash of lightning lit the sky and a rumble of thunder shook the mountain top. Otsiera looked and beheld his Clan Spirit. A huge bear stood beside him in his lodge.
Suddenly, the Bear spoke: "This night, Otsiera, you shall have a power that will not only aid you, but will also aid all of the Onkwehonwe (Oon-gway-HOON-way), the Real People."
There was a blinding flash of Lightning and Otsiera awoke from his vision. He rubbed his eyes and looked for the Clan Spirit. The Bear was gone. The youth wondered what his guardian helper would be. He looked out from his lodge. The storm had not yet left the mountain. Suddenly, he heard a strange sound outside the lodge! It was a dreadful screeching sound such as he had never heard before. He wondered what kind of animal or bird made such a dreadful noise.
The sound ceased. Then, almost over his head, he saw the cause of the sound. The wind was causing two balsam trees to rub their branches against each other. As the wood rubbed, the friction caused the strange screeching sound. As Otsiera watched, he saw a strange thing happen. The strong wind, rushing up the mountain, caused the trees to bend and sway more rapidly. Where the two trees rubbed against each other, a thin string of smoke appeared. As the boy watched, the wood burst into flame.
Otsiera was at first frightened. He started to run. None of his people had ever seen fire so near, and it was feared. The boy remembered his Clan Spirit. "This must be what the Great Bear meant," though the boy.
That day, Otsiera took two pieces of dry balsam wood. He rubbed the wood together as he had seen the storm do the night before. He soon tired and was about to throw the wood away when he noticed a thin thread of smoke coming from the wood. He rubbed harder and roon a tiny spark appeared. By using some dry cedar bark and grass, he soon had a fire.
When his father and two chiefs came that noon, they found a happy Otsiera. He had a very powerful Helper, a strong Medicine, which afterwards was to help all of his people.
That was how Fire came to the Onkwehonwe, the Real People, of long ago.
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