Manataka American Indian Council

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Rainbows, Thunder Beings and the Origins of Humans
ęby Doug George-Kanentiio

The origin of the rainbow in Iroquois cosmology is explained in the "Iroquois Creation Story"  by the late John Mohawk-Satsisowah of the Seneca Nation.  Mohawk edited a manuscript compiled by the Onondaga-Seneca Chief John Arthur Gibson and the Tuscarora ethnologist JNB Hewitt in 1899 and self published the completed work in 2005. In his edition Mohawk writes:

"Our story holds that we have much that we should be happy about, and evidence of this great good fortune is the manifestation of the gifts of nature.  But even these gifts of nature are part of a grander scheme. These are ultimately the gifts of the beings of the Sky World, those who conceived of and created that which we experience as nature. We are now able to see evidence of this great good fortune which positions us in a special relationship to that which is called nature. We are now urged to do more than give gratitude. We, as human beings are urged to join in the sacred act."

Mohawk points out that the most sacred of Iroquois rituals, the sacred acts, come directly from the Sky World, as do plants such as tobacco, strawberries, corn and beans. When the people sing and dance they do so in acknowledgement of their celestial origins and to create, in part, the Sky World on earth. Legends, which not only tell compelling stories but give vivid descriptions of the Sky World and the beginning of human life as a gift from the inhabitants of that realm, are as sacred and vital as all other ceremonial acts. Legends give a sense of place, belonging and explanation while doing so as entertainment and formal education using distinctly aboriginal learning techniques.  We come to know nature and our place within the interlocking cycles of life through story, music, dance and ritual.

The "Iroquois Creation Story" reveals that Skywoman (Mature Flower-Iotsitsien) was brought to this world on a Fire Dragon (comet) which passed near a water covered earth which was carefully selected for her presence as the best place to create a breathing and living form which would be similar in appearance to the Sky World dwellers.  Mature Flower was pregnant when she came to earth and gave birth to a daughter (Gusts of Wind-Tekarawerahkwa) who married Turtle.  From there the epic follows a course well known to all Iroquois who have paid attention to the storytellers. There are the twins, Hadowi, the demise of Tekarawerahkwa, the creation of the moon from her body and the formation of the earth, animals, plants, water and air life.

With regards to humans Orikwaseh (Sapling), the good twin,takes earth and molds it into beings with which he is familiar. When his brother Tawiskeron (Ice Skin) asks him what he is doing Orikwaseh responds:

" I tell you that the earth is alive! Now you must understand that I took earth and from it I created all these things that live. I made all the things I have planted and I have finished the job of creating living bodies of all the plants and that is why they live and it is also why they, individually, will die and become earth again. The same is true of animals."

Orikwaseh continues:
"This earth I have in my hand is really alive, and so is the whole earth and the bodies I make from it will continue to live." Then he made the flesh of the human being. At that time he took a portion of his own life and put it into the body of the human being, and a portion of his own blood and enclosed it in the throat of the human being. Now he placed his breath in the human and the human being came to life and arose and stood before him. "Now you may see all that I have created here; I have placed you on the earth so you can beautify it by cultivating it."

His brother Tawiskaron tries to imitate his brother but instead of humans can only make frogs, monkeys, apes, wolves and bears.

As time went along the humans also began to disagree, and fight and kill each other. The Thunder Beings who watch were angered by the actions of the humans and caused a great bang followed by days of heavy rain. The people were fearful that they would be drowned but the rains stopped and they saw a rainbow (Ohniioh) for the first time. They were told that Orikwaseh had returned and found that the humans were of two minds and were in conflict. He pointed to the sky and said that the sky was also divided and there was discord there reflecting the way humans were on earth. He said such was his power that all of nature would see the divided colours. He warned that at one time the sky colors would come from the east, stretch across the earth into the west through the middle of the sky and at that time the world as humans know it would end. Yet the Thunders Beings were entrusted with bringing the rain to cleanse the land and renew life and the earth would receive life; to remind people of this blessing rainbows would appear.

So the humans were entrusted with caring for the earth and upholding the sacred rituals given to them by Orikwaseh. Our duties are to follow the directions of the celestial  beings and when it is our time to return the body to the earth and ascend back to the Sky World. Those who decide to ignore these instructions will follow one of the rainbow colours away from the Sky World. By their own choice their journey will be in another direction away from the place of light.