Long before there were classrooms, chalkboards, pencils and erasers, the People of the Oneida Nation were effectively teaching their children through stories. These tales are rich with lyricism and life lessons.
Keller George, Wolf Clan Representative to the Nation’s Council, shares the following legend he recalls from his childhood about the gift of sacred tobacco.
Many, many winters ago, a band of Haudenosaunee were camped along a river. One day, as the people were working, they paused when they heard an unfamiliar sound coming from the river. Rushing to the river’s edge, the people strained to see what was making the noise, which at one moment sounded like a howling animal and another like people chanting.
Suddenly, a booming voice echoed from the river just as a canoe appeared filled with odd beings. The occupants of the canoe, who were dressed in the style of medicine men, were beating a large kettle drum and chanting a strange song.
As the canoe floated closer to the village, the booming voice again was heard coming from the canoe, warning the villagers to go to their homes and stay inside. The voice warned the people if they disobeyed bad luck would be heaped upon them.
Most of the people were frightened by the warning and ran to their homes. However, several villagers refused to be afraid of the strange creatures and stood on the bank of the river, watching them approach.
When the canoe passed by the people remaining by the river bank fell down and died. The odd beings in the canoe continued moving down the river.
The next day, a relative of one of the dead gathered a war party, seeking revenge. They paddled down the river looking for the odd beings. The following day, the war party came upon the strange beings sleeping in their canoe that was floating in a sheltered bay.
From out of the canoe the voice again boomed, this time ordering the warriors to destroy the strange beings. The voice said that great blessings would come to the Haudenosaunee if they followed the instructions.
All but one warrior went and hid in the forest next to the river. The lone remaining warrior threw stones at the odd beings, who awoke shouting. The warrior ran off, with the odd beings running after him. The warrior led the beings into a trap. The other warriors joined him and together they killed the odd beings and burned their bodies.
From the ashes emerged a strange plant; it was tobacco.
The booming voice again was heard, this time coming from the earth. The voice told the warriors how to prepare the plant and how to use it. This plant, the tobacco, was a great gift to the Haudenosaunee.