The Oneida Creation Story
as told by Amos Christjohn
Editors Note: The Oneida Creation Story if told in whole could take multiple days from sun up to sun down. This version is considered a short telling of the story and leaves out many details.
Long Ago, before there was any land here there was water all over, the only things were the creatures that lived in the water and the birds that flew above the waters. Now, further above there was land which was called the Sky World and there were people living there, but these people had supernatural powers. In the middle of the land was a great tree which gave them their light. There were many different fruits on the tree, this is where their light came from, the fruits.
Now the rule was that no one could cut into the tree or a great punishment would be given to that person, whoever was caught harming the tree. Now there was this young couple and the young woman was to have a baby. This woman started to crave things and one of the things she craved was the roots and bark from the tree, so she asked her husband to go and gather this for her. He was afraid to get these because he would surely be punished. He waited for the people to go from the tree. As they all left he went over and started digging.
As he was digging, suddenly the ground caved in and it left a big hole in the ground by the tree. The man got very scared of what had happened, so he went back and told his wife what had happened and she asked if he got what she had wanted. He told her he did not because he got so scared. She got very mad and said she would get it herself.
As she got to the tree she saw the hole, she went over to get a closer look. As she was looking through she saw all the water down below. She did not know that her husband followed her. As she was looking through, she fell through the hole. As she was falling she tried to grasp hold of something so she would not fall. All she could get was some of the ground and roots of the tree. But she could not hold on and she fell through. As she fell through the birds and water animals saw a light through the hold that was made and they could see something falling. So the birds went up to see what it was and they noticed that it was a woman from the Sky World.
So they sent one of the birds back down to tell the water animals to see which one of them was able to support her upon their back. So they talked amongst one another to see who was able to support her. So they turned to the great turtle and she agreed. All the birds went up to bring the woman down safely on the turtles back.
As the woman fell she got very frightened and fainted. She never woke until she was on the turtles back. All she saw was water, all the birds and the water animals. She asked where she was and they told her that they saw the light shining through the hold.
So, she asked if they knew where there would be any mud or dirt so she could mix it with what she had grabbed as she fell. Some of the animals said they were not sure but there might be some at the bottom of the water.
First, the otter said he would go down and see if there was any, then he went underwater and was gone. Everyone waited patiently for the otter. Soon he came floating up to the top, but didn’t get any mud. So the loon said it would try and went underwater. Everyone waited patiently for the loon to come up and soon she came up she too did not have any. So the beaver said he would try and away he went. Soon he came up with none and felt very sad. The woman told him not to feel bad and that he had tried his best. So the muskrat said he would try and he went down. For a long time the muskrat was gone. They became worried and then the muskrat came floating to the top with a little bit of dirt in-between his claws. The woman took it and put it with the dirt she had and placed it upon the back of the turtle. It began to grow and grow and different things began to grow too.
Then the woman began to gather things, for she was getting ready to give birth to the child she was to have. As the time came, she gave birth to a girl and she was very happy. The woman and her daughter walked about the earth and she taught her daughter the different things that grew and what they were used for. As the days and years went by, the young girl grew to womanhood and she looked very beautiful. As she was walking about for from her mother there was a man that before her appeared. She became very terrified at seeing this man and she fainted.
As she came to, she noticed that there were two arrows on her stomach. One had a sharp point on it and the other a dull point. She took them home with her. As time went on she felt funny inside her and she told her mother of this man that she had seen and of the two arrows he had left behind. So the mother told her of what had happened to her and how they got to where they are at now.
As the days went by the young woman did not feel too good because there was a great commotion within her body. When she finally gave birth to her twins, the one called the right handed twin was born the way all children are born and the left handed twin came from his mothers armpit. This is what killed their mother. Right away the left handed twin spoke up and said it was the right handed twin that killed their mother. Then the right handed twin spoke up and explained to their grandmother what had happened. He told her that he and his brother were arguing about who was going to be born the way all children are born and his brother said he was going any way he wanted to and so therefore he come out of their mothers armpit and that is what killed her. It was the left handed twin that killed their mother. But, the grandmother did not believe him and took the side of the left handed twin and got very angry with the right handed twin. She told him to bury their mother. And so angrily he started to bury his mother. As he finished, there immediately grew corn, beans, squash and Indian tobacco. Then the twins went about their own ways.
The thing different about the two was that they had powers to create things and they would grow rapidly. As the right handed twin was walking about he was creating the grasses and different medicine plants and giving them names. The left handed twin wouldgo around and give poison to some of the plants and also distort some others. Now as the right handed twin was going around he was creating different plants that could be used as food and also different kinds of trees. Some were tall and straight, some big and wide and he gave them different uses. And his brother would go around changing the edible plants by making them smell awful. He would give the tall trees rough bark and the big ones small and stout with sharp thorns. Then the right handed twin started to create different animals, small ones and big ones. These animals would eat the plants to help them grow. Then the left handed twin came around and made the animals that would eat the other animals that his brother had created.
Then the right handed twin made different areas where the waters would flow. He made streams, rivers, springs, lakes and the big oceans. Some of the rivers he made, the water currents flow in both directions and the springs with sweet tasting water.
Then the left handed twin came by and made the rivers have rough and jagged rocks that caused the rivers to have very rough rapids. Some of the springs breathed poison and heat which made them smell very bad. As the right handed twin finished with the waters he want to the different birds and gave them beautiful colored feathers and songs that they could sing. Soon the left handed twin came and saw the birds, he changed some of the birds and the songs they sang. Later, the right handed twin went back to look at all the things that he had created. He noticed the other different things in his creations and knew he didn’t create those things. He looked at everything he made and saw the changes. This made him very angry. As soon as he finished checking the things out he set out to look for his brother. Soon he found him amusing himself by the ocean. The right handed twin spoke very sternly to his brother and told him that he had no right changing the things that he had created. Then the left handed twin replied to his brother and said that he wanted to create things too. He shouldn’t be the only one to be creating things. So the right handed twin said that it was time that they decided who would be the creator of all things on Turtle Island.
So they decided that they would challenge each other with a game of lacrosse. So the right handed twin made a big golden ball of sand and threw it in the east and said that this golden ball would be the one to start the game when it came up in the east and end the game when it went down in the west. So they agreed and went their own way to get ready for the game.
When the golden ball rose from the east they began the game and became rough with one another. When the ball set in the west the game stopped, but neither one won the game. So they said they would play the peach stone game when the golden ball came up from the east and end the game when the ball set in the west. When it rose from the east they began to play. It was going back and forth but when the ball set in the west, still no one had won. Then they said that they would think of something when the ball rose from the east. When it did rise the left handed twin said the only way that anyone was going to be creator of all things was that one of them would have to be killed. So they would have to fight with one another. They began to fight, but it was still even, no [one] was winning. They went to reach for something to kill the other with. The right handed twin reached for the deer antlers and the left handed twin reached for an old stick. As this happened, the right handed twin knocked his brother to the ground. He thought he had killed his brother. He made him a raft and set him on it and put him out to sea. Then the right handed twin was considered the creator of all things. He was called the Holder of the Sky. The left handed twin was called Flint because of his rigidness. The left handed twin was not killed, he survived and established a new land across the ocean and created his own things, the things he liked.
-Shukwaya>t$su is the name of the good twin in the Oneida language.
-Shakohlew@tha> is the name of the contraire twin in the Oneida language.
When people and lions collide, both suffer.Photograph by Brent Stirton
Lions are complicated creatures, magnificent at a distance yet fearsomely inconvenient to the rural peoples whose fate is to live among them. They are lords of the wild savanna but inimical to pastoralism and incompatible with farming. So it’s no wonder their fortunes have trended downward for as long as human civilization has been trending up.
There’s evidence across at least three continents of the lions’ glory days and their decline. Chauvet Cave, in southern France, filled with vivid Paleolithic paintings of wildlife, shows us that lions inhabited Europe along with humans 30 millennia ago; the Book of Daniel suggests that lions lurked at the outskirts of Babylon in the sixth century B.C.; and there are reports of lions surviving in Syria, Turkey, Iraq, and Iran until well into the 19th or 20th centuries. Africa alone, during this long ebb, remained the reliable heartland.
But that has changed too. New surveys and estimates suggest that the lion has disappeared from about 80 percent of its African range. No one knows how many lions survive today in Africa—as many as 35,000?—because wild lions are difficult to count. Experts agree, though, that just within recent decades the overall total has declined significantly. The causes are multiple—including habitat loss and fragmentation, poaching of lion prey for bush meat, poachers’ snares that catch lions instead, displacement of lion prey by livestock, disease, spearing or poisoning of lions in retaliation for livestock losses and attacks upon humans, ritual killing of lions (notably within the Maasai tradition), and unsustainable trophy hunting for lions, chiefly by affluent Americans.
The new assessments, compiled by scientists from Panthera (an international felid conservation group), Duke University, the National Geographic Society’s Big Cats Initiative, and elsewhere, indicate that African lions now live in nearly 70 distinct areas (view map), the largest and most secure of which can be considered strongholds. But the smallest contain only tiny populations, isolated, genetically limited, and lacking viability for the long term. In other words, the African lion inhabits an archipelago of insular refuges, and more than a few of those marooned populations may soon go extinct.
What can be done to stanch the losses and reverse the trend? Some experts say we should focus efforts on the strongholds, such as the Serengeti ecosystem (spanning Tanzania to Kenya), the Selous ecosystem (southeastern Tanzania), the Ruaha-Rungwa (western Tanzania), the Okavango-Hwange (Botswana into Zimbabwe), and the Greater Limpopo (at the shared corners of Mozambique, Zimbabwe, and South Africa, including Kruger National Park). Those five ecosystems alone account for roughly half of Africa’s lions, and each contains a genetically viable population. Craig Packer has offered a drastic suggestion for further protecting some strongholds: Fence them, or at least some of their margins. Investing conservation dollars in chain-link and posts, combined with adequate levels of patrolling and repair, he argues, is the best way to limit illegal entry into protected areas by herders, their livestock, and poachers, as well as reckless exit from those areas by lions.
Other experts strongly disagree. In fact, this fencing idea goes against three decades of conservation theory, which stresses the importance of connectedness among habitat patches. Packer knows that, and even he wouldn’t put a fence across any valuable route of wildlife dispersal or migration. But consider, for instance, the western boundary of the Serengeti ecosystem, where the Maswa Game Reserve meets the Sukuma agricultural lands beyond. If you fly over that area at low elevation, you’ll see the boundary as a stark edge, delineated by the slash of a red clay road. East of it lies the rolling green terrain of Maswa, covered with acacia woodlands and lush savanna, a virtual extension of Serengeti National Park. West of the road, in the Sukuma zone, you’ll look down on mile after mile of cotton fields, cornfields, teams of oxen plowing bare dirt, paddies, and brown-and-white cows standing in pens. A fence along that boundary, as Packer asserts, could do no harm and possibly some good. It may be a special case, but it’s enough to open a heated discussion.
Trophy hunting is also controversial. Does it contribute to population declines because of irresponsible overharvesting? Or does it effectively monetize the lion, bringing cash into local and national economies and providing an incentive for habitat protection and sustainable long-term management? The answer depends—on particulars of place, on which lions are targeted (old males or young ones), and on the integrity of management, both by the hunting operator and by the national wildlife agency. Certainly there are abuses—countries in which hunting concessions are granted corruptly, situations in which little or no hunting income reaches the local people who pay the real costs of living amid lions, concessions on which too many lions are killed. But in places such as Maswa Game Reserve—where hunts are scrupulously managed in cooperation with the Friedkin Conservation Fund, an organization that cares more about habitat protection than about revenue—the effect of a ban on hunting would be perverse.
Hunting of captive-bred lions released into fenced areas on private ranches, as now widely practiced in South Africa, raises a whole different set of questions. In a recent year 174 such lion-breeding ranches operated in the country, with a combined stock of more than 3,500 lions. Proponents argue that this industry may contribute to lion conservation by diverting trophy-hunt pressure from wild populations and by maintaining genetic diversity that could be needed later. Others fear it may undercut the economics of lion management in, say, Tanzania, by offering cheaper and easier ways to put a lion head on your rec-room wall.
And then there’s the matter of what happens to the rest of the lion. The export of lion bones from South Africa to Asia, where they are sold as an alternative to tiger bones, constitutes a dangerous trend that surely increases demand.
Bottom line: Lion conservation is an intricate enterprise that must now reach across borders, across oceans, and across disciplines to confront a global market in dreams of the wild.
But conservation begins at home, among people for whom the sublime and terrifying wildness of a lion is no dream. One set of such people are the Maasai who inhabit group ranches bordering Amboseli National Park, on the thornbush plains of southern Kenya. Since 2007 a program there called Lion Guardians has recruited Maasai warriors—young men for whom lion killing has traditionally been part of a rite of passage known as olamayio—to serve instead as lion protectors. These men, paid salaries, trained in radiotelemetry and GPS use, track lions on a daily basis and prevent lion attacks on livestock. The program, small but astute, seems to be succeeding: Lion killings have decreased, and the role of Lion Guardian is now prestigious within those communities.
I spent a day recently with a Lion Guardian named Kamunu, roughly 30 years old, serious and steady, whose dark face tapered to a narrow chin and whose eyes seemed permanently squinted against sentiment and delusion. He wore a beaded necklace, beaded earrings, and a red shuka wrapped around him; a Maasai dagger was sheathed on his belt at one side, a cell phone at the other. Kamunu had personally killed five lions, he told me, all for olamayio, but he didn’t intend to kill any more. He had learned that lions could be more valuable alive—in money from tourism, wages from Lion Guardians, and the food and education such cash could buy for a man’s family.
We walked a long circuit that very hot day, winding through acacia bush, crossing a dry riverbed, Kamunu following lion spoor in the dust and me following him. Probably we traipsed about 16 miles. In the morning we tracked a lone adult, recognizable to Kamunu from its big pug as a certain problematic male. When we met a long line of cows headed for water, their bells clanking, attended by several Maasai boys, Kamunu warned the boys to stay clear of that lion.
Around midday he picked up a different trail, very fresh, left by a female with two cubs. We saw her flattened day bed in the herbage beneath a bush. We traced her sinuous route into a grove of scrubby myrrh trees that grew thicker as we went. Kamunu moved quietly. Finally we stopped. I saw nothing but vegetation and dirt.
They’re very close, he explained. This is a good spot. No livestock nearby. We don’t want to push any closer. We don’t want to disturb them. No, we don’t, I agreed.
“We think they are safe here,” he told me. It’s more than can be said for many African lions, but at that moment, in that place, it was enough.