My family and I have just returned from a week at Piseco Lake, in the Adirondacks, where my paternal relatives have lived and/or vacationed for generations. We stayed in my grandmother’s house, on the lip of a lake where she once washed and wrung her sheets before laundry machines existed. It was a week of water and fire, with fireworks exploding above the black sheen of the lake, and marshmallows toasted over campfires as we listened to lapping waves.
My family members like to think of ourselves as native to the Adirondacks, but of course, no white person is native to the Adirondacks. When my dad was a kid, he dislodged Indian arrowheads from bark and dirt with his pocket knife. History is also lodged in the words we use. Piseco is a Native American word for fish. Adirondacks is an Anglicized version of a Mohawk word that means “They Eat Bark.” The Mohawk Indians, a nomadic tribe that used the Adirondacks as fishing and hunting grounds, named their neighbors, the Algonquin Indians, ratirontaks, for their practice of sucking on bark when food was scarce. This pejorative word was applied to and misappropriated by white settlers. Eventually it evolved into the name for the mountain range.
During this week of campfires, I thought a Mohawk story about how mankind obtained fire would raise my kids’ awareness about the original people of the Adirondacks, and educate them about a way of life in which it took more than a match or lighter to ignite a flame. I found the story of How Fire Came to the Six Nations on the website First People. The (by-no-means-authentic) version of the story I told my children at our campfire is heavily based on this account, with a layer of personal interpretation that’s the natural result, and perhaps the point, of retelling. It went something like this:
Long before your cousins hunted in these hills or your great-grandfather fished on the lake, a tribe of Mohawk Indians came here each year to hunt, fish and gather blueberries, to feed their families with the bounty of this wild place.
There was a boy, almost a man, named Three Arrows in that tribe. The sun shone in his heart: he smiled as his arrows flew straight and true. His father was the chief of the Mohawks, and he recognized something powerful and unbreakable in his son. He knew it was time for his son to commune with the animal spirits, the tribe’s protectors, and to find his place amongst the members of the tribe. He told his son that he must go into the forest and fast, eat nothing and see no-one, until the Great Thunderbird sent him a vision to help his tribe.
His father warned that if he did not see a vision by the setting of the sixth sun, he would have to return to the village. Three Arrows was excited about his journey into the wild of dreams. He brought nothing but water, and the moccasins and loincloth he wore on his body. For many nights, starving and alone in the woods, his dreamed of nothing but black emptiness and he worried he would have to go home in defeat. On the fifth morning, he found a cave that smelled of bear, the totem of his tribe. This was strong medicine. He prayed to Great Thunderbird to send him a vision, and suddenly lightening lit up the sky outside of the cave and he saw the silhouette of a huge bear. The bear told him a great mystery would be revealed to him that night.
The dream-bear disappeared just as a huge lightening bolt that resembled a blazing arrow lit the sky. The boy braved whipping winds that smelled of bear to walk in the direction that the arrow pointed. He heard an awful screeching sound from a high peak above him, and his heart beat hard in his chest. He knew he had to heed the bear’s words and find what it was the spirits wanted to reveal, so he climbed the peak, where saw two balsam trees rubbing and rubbing together as the wind whipped them. The trees threw off a spark, like tiny lightening. that ignited a fire.
No one in his clan had ever seen fire at this close range, and Three Arrows was terrified. He scrambled down the hill, but suddenly a vision of his family, his clan, entered his mind and he found the courage to face the strange magic. He climbed the hill, snapped two twigs off the balsam pine, and rubbed them together furiously. At first nothing happened, but he kept going until his armed ached, sweat ran down his brow, and a spark flew from the friction of his sticks.
The boy took this knowledge and this story back to the Mohawk people, who gave him a new name, Blazing Arrow.
I wasn’t quite sure how much of this story my kids absorbed, but today my three-year-old picked up two sticks and began rubbing them together furiously, so he learned something. Hopefully, he won’t get too good at this!