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Indigenous Stories

The Wampum Bird

Categories : Iroquois (Haudenosaunee) , Iroquois Stories

One legend tells how the Iroquois hero Hiawatha, while travelling through the territory of the Mohawks, came to the edge of a great lake. As he was wondering how to cross it, a huge flock of ducks descended on the lake and began to drink the water. When the birds rose up again, the lake was dry and its bed was covered with shells. From these shells Hiawatha made the first Wampum beads and used them to unite the tribes in peace.

According to another story, however, the first Wampum was not obtained so easily. An Iroquois girl had gone to gather cranberries in a marsh near her village, but there such a terrifying sight met her eyes that she dropped her basket and fled in panic. In the middle of the marsh squatted a huge bird, half the height of a tree, with fierce flashing eyes and a cruel, hooked beak. Its whole body was covered, not with feathers, but with purple and white shell beads.

The girl's tale caused great alarm in the village, for such a creature had never been seen before. The chief hurriedly called a council. All the wise men were summoned to find out what the monster was and what its presence meant.

The council deliberated long and hard. They prayed to the spirits of earth and sky and made offerings to enlist their aid. At last, the oldest shaman, the wisest of them all, rose to his feet to address them.

"Through my powers," he declared, "I have learned that the creature in the marsh is a Wampum bird. I have heard that, in the Sky Land far above us, such birds do exist, but this is the first ever seen in our world. It may be that we shall never see another. If we can obtain the Wampum which clothes its body, it will bring us much wealth and good fortune."

"Then let us not waste a moment!" cried the chief, "We must not let such a bird escape. I will call together my boldest warriors to kill it and bring the Wampum back to our village."

Led by the chief, the warriors set out for the marsh where they found the Wampum bird feeding among the cranberries. White Wampum covered its body, purple its wings. At a signal from the chief, the warriors rushed forward, shouting their battle cries and whirling their clubs.

The great bird seemed completely unafraid. It did not even attempt to fly away. Instead it turned to face them and, in spite of its ungainly appearance, it moved swiftly and fiercely, beating its wings and lunging with its beak and talons. So ferocious was its onslaught that the warriors fell back in disarray and retreated to the edge of the marsh.

The chief saw that the task of obtaining the Wampum would not be as easy as he had at first thought. Already several of the young men had been wounded in the attack and blood flowed from deep gashes inflicted by the bird's sharp claws. Her tried to rally his shaken warriors.

"Our clubs are no use to us here," he said, "since we cannot get close enough to strike. We must use our arrows instead. Do not be discouraged. Remember what riches the Wampum will bring." "Moreover," he went on, "I offer an additional prize, for whoever kills the Wampum bird shall have my daughter for his bride."

The chief's daughter was the most beautiful girl for many miles around and her hand was eagerly sought by all the young men of the tribe. Each now swore that he would be the one to defeat the Wampum bird and reached for his bow.

Arrows flew thick and fast through the air towards the Wampum bird. As the first arrow struck it, the bird rose to its full height and shook it off. As it did so, the Wampum showered from its body like hailstones and settled in great drifts around it. Yet, in an instant, new beads covered its body, as if nothing had happened.

Again and again the warriors drew their bows, but each time an arrow found its mark, the bird merely shook it off. With every movement, clusters of Wampum fell to the ground until the whole surface of the marsh was covered with shining white and purple beads. Yet still the bird was unconquered and still Wampum clothed its body.

The chief was in despair. It seemed that nothing could destroy the Wampum bird and his men were growing weary and dispirited. As they discussed what to do next, they saw a young man emerge from the woods bordering the marsh and come towards them.

The warriors fell silent at his approach, their faces hard with suspicion. Several tightened their fingers around the handles of their clubs, for they distrusted strangers. "Who are you and what brings you here?" the chief challenged the young man.

The stranger answered proudly, "I am a Delaware. My village lies not far from here, beyond the woods."

At his words, the warriors began to mutter among themselves. There had been disagreements and skirmishes between the Iroquois and the Delaware in the past and there were old scores to settle.

The young man paid no heed to their threats and went on, "News came to my village of this monster bird. I have come to see it for myself and to kill it if I can. Clearly, it is no simple target."

The Iroquois warriors grew angry. "Let us kill this impudent Delaware now!" shouted one. "He is an enemy and comes to mock us!" There was a roar of agreement from his fellows and they raised their clubs in readiness.

"Wait!" said the chief. "Let him try to shoot the bird. If he fails, we will show no mercy and kill him where he stands."

The young man fitted an arrow to his bowstring. None saw the arrow leave his bow and none saw it strike, but before their eyes, the Wampum bird, uttering a harsh, unearthly cry, fell to the ground and lay still.

For a moment the warriors stood as if turned to stone. Then they rushed to where the bird lay. It was dead, the arrow piercing its head between the eyes.

The Iroquois looked at the young man with awe and amazement. There were still those who wished to kill him, jealous that he should have succeeded where they had failed, but once more the chief intervened and he was carried back in triumph to the village.

The Wampum which had fallen from the body of the great bird was gathered up and carried back as well. There was so much of the precious material that even the largest lodge could not hold it all.

The chief was true to his word and he offered the young Delaware his daughter's hand in marriage as a reward for killing the Wampum bird. The young man was as handsome as the girl was beautiful and both were well satisfied with the arrangement.

Then the chief said to the young man, "Go, return to your village and bring all your people back for a great council. The Delaware have been our enemies, but henceforth they will be our friends."

At the council the Iroquois acknowledged the Delaware as their kinsmen and, to confirm the bond between them, they passed back and forth strings of Wampum taken from the body of the bird which the Delaware youth had killed. Ever afterwards the Iroquois and the Delaware lived side by side in peace and friendship and, from that time, no treaty was ever concluded without the passing of a Wampum belt.

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