Storytelling knits generations together. The Oneida oral tradition is filled with wonderful tales from our Elders, guaranteed to scare, interest, or amuse you. Some stories are intended to teach a lesson, and they are passed from generation to generation to show others how behave, how to act, and how to properly care for each other.
Even if the story is not intended to teach a lesson or impart information, telling and listening to stories strengthens the bonds between people in a community. Storytellers have their own style, reflected in their words, the pace of their stories, and the drama they infuse in every event they describe.
Stories from the Oneida Elders
Originally published in April 2001
“I think that one thing that was so special about having an oral tradition and having stories passed on from generation to generation is that people genuinely learned how to listen to one another and how to spend time with one another and how to entertain one another without having the artificial surroundings of TV and computer games,” said Sheri Beglen (Wolf Clan).
Imagine listening to the words from the following storyteller. Let the story build to its conclusions with the use of suspenseful repetitions and differing pace, like the following from Birdy Burdick (Turtle Clan).
“This is a true story and it’s kind of startling. It was told to me by someone who grew up on Marble Hill.
There were people living on the Territory, the Thirty-Two Acres, and they had a child and there was something wrong with him. One of his legs was numb and he dragged his leg when he walked. He died while he was still a child. There was a little church on Marble Hill and the people on the Territory asked the people on Marble Hill if they could have a service for this little boy because they didn’t have a church over there. So they said yes.
There was a path that went from the Thirty-Two Acres to Marble Hill. At that time, there was a main road on Marble Hill and then a path that went back into the woods and that’s where the lady who told me this story lived when she was a child. She was about eight years old when this happened, I think.
They had the church services for this little boy and afterwards, after the service, they went over to the house over in the woods and they ate. In fact, they had a lot of food there and everyone was welcome.
The girl was in the house and there was a window in the living room. She said that she was looking out the window and she thought she saw that little boy and he was going over to the pathway, back over to the Thirty-Two Acres. He was dragging his leg. She thought, “Oh, I don’t want to tell anybody because no one will believe me.” She went to get her sister, and she told her sister about it, and she said, “Please don’t tell anybody.”
Well, they went and they looked together and they both saw him.
At this time, there were some people coming from the Onondaga Reservation to the church services and the wheel fell off their wagon so they were delayed. Finally they fixed it. They were late, but they thought they would come to eat. As they drove by the Thirty-Two Acres, there was a stone fence there. The lady said she saw a little crippled boy dragging his leg and he would get up on the fence and walk on the fence, the stone fence, and then he’d get down. She said, “Isn’t that little boy the one whose funeral we’re going to?” Her husband said, “No, no that can’t be.” Then they didn’t see him any more and they continued coming over to the house for the meal.
When they got there, they told their story and that’s when the girls told everyone else.
That was told to me and I kept it in the back of my mind. When I first started working for the Nation four years ago, I worked with the children. One day we were all goofing around, cooking at the cookhouse and it was around Halloween time. I asked one of the girls if she knew any stories. She said, “Well, a funny thing happened here to me. We were all out one night on the Territory here and it was quite late. It was really weird but underneath the street light we could see this little crippled boy and he was dragging his leg. Isn’t that strange?”
I said, “Really,” and then the story came back that I had been told and it was so many years but when a story is told to you, you remember.”
Elwood Webster (Wolf Clan) tells a tale about how the body tells the soul to mend its ways.
“This is a story that is really, really clear in my mind and I’ll never forget it. At the time, I was really heavy into alcohol and substance abuse. My grandma always told me, “Elwood, what you hear and what you see is a warning to you to mend your ways.” I believe that’s what it was because now with all these years of being alcohol and drug-free, nothing like this has happened since then.
It was always when I was under the influence of alcohol or substance abuse. I used to work downtown in the city of Syracuse when I lived with my grandmother on the Onondaga Reservation. I used to take the last bus home at night which was at eleven o’clock. That was the last bus that used to go to Nedrow.
After work and before I got the bus, I used to hit the local bars and be feeling pretty good. As I got up to Nedrow, at the turn-around there, I still had two miles to go. From the entrance to Onondaga down to Grandma’s place it was two miles.
This one time I was standing there and hitch-hiking. I was so afraid, growing up with the stories from other people of their experiences, that just the thought of me walking down in pitch black – there were no street lights – I couldn’t do that. So I used to stand on the side of the road there and wait for a ride.
I was standing there and I heard this team of horses. I heard a team of horses pulling a wagon. I heard that in the distance and I tried to think who had a team at that time. I believed that Jack Gibson used to have a team of horses so I thought that was him.
It was pitch black but you could hear them, you could hear the horses coming up, coming up from a long distance, clump, clump, clump.
They were coming.
It got so close – there, it was right in front of me.
But when the sound went over to the main road where there were lights, there was nothing to see. I heard it but I didn’t see it.
That was one of the things that I’ll never forget.
My grandma had said, “Elwood, if you ever hear or see anything, just swear at it.” And that was exactly what I did. So I was swearing, swearing, swearing at it and it went away.
Now I really couldn’t walk down and there was no ride coming. All the ones that had come had gone straight by. Still I’m not going to walk. Near the corner where I was, there used to be a big tree growing. So I just curled up under the tree and took off my jacket and covered up and stayed there until daylight.
Just as soon as the daylight came I got up, brushed myself off, and walked down the hill to my grandma’s house.”
The following is a story from Tamara Rodgers (Turtle Clan):
“My grandfather told us that when he was younger there used to be a barn up on one of the side roads. He said that all of the men used to go there and they’d play cards and they’d drink, but basically they gambled a lot.
One night this guy came and he was dressed up, all dressed up. He had a nice hat on and he had a black suit on. He was spiffed up really good and he sat there and he played cards with them. They played cards and he kept winning and he kept winning. He would drink and nothing fazed him, nothing fazed him that they could see.
No one knew him, they didn’t know how he got there or anything.
Finally he said, “It’s getting towards dawn, I have to go.”
He got up and he went toward the door and they noticed he had a tail and hoofs. When he got to the door, he turned around and he had horns and red eyes. He went out the door and that’s the last they saw of him.
That was strange.”
Liz Roberts (Wolf Clan) shared a story about an encounter her great-grandmother experienced.
“My mother told me a story about my great-grandmother who was blind.
One time there was a woman who lived up on Onondaga Hill somewhere who had arthritis very, very bad. She was in a lot of pain. She had spread the word around that she wanted help for her arthritis. My great-grandmother said, “Well, I’ll go up and see her.”
My mother was little then, she was about five or six years old. She used to go with her grandmother to lead her.
My great-grandmother told the woman, “I have medicine. I’ll tell you what, I’ll bring a quart up each week and you drink that. It’s a dollar a quart and you pay me at the end.” So she took this medicine up for about a month and that woman got well.
The last treatment, the last jar she took up there, the woman said, “Well, I just want you to know that your medicine didn’t help. The doctor’s medicine helped me.”
My great-grandmother turned around with my mother and said, “Let’s go back. I’ll fix her.” So they went home.
The next morning they went up and it was barely daybreak. They went up there and when they got up there my great-grandmother had a jar of the medicine and she started pouring it out, pouring it right out until it emptied.
They went home and the very next day the woman died.
So it sounds scary, but that’s what happened to her.”
Brenda Bush (Turtle Clan) recalled the following story from her childhood experiences on the Onondaga Reservation.
“When I was probably about ten years old, we lived on the Onondaga Reservation. My sisters Shirley, Francis, Lucita, and I, we were outside in the yard. It was in the summertime because we were all home. It was probably about afternoon.
We looked up into the woods. We spent a lot of time in the woods. We used to go up there and pack a lunch and spend the whole day in the woods. But this one day, we were out in the yard and we looked out to the woods that we always played in and we could see these little men. We all could see the same little men. They were all green, so we called them “Little Green Men” but they were Little People.
We watched them for quite a while. They were all the same color, their bodies and their clothes. It seemed like they were at the base of a tree and it seemed like they were working very hard around the base of this tree. It even looked like they were digging a hole.
We called my dad and we told him what we could see in the woods behind our house which were probably about half a mile away. My dad said, “I don’t see anything.” We said, “They’re there, they’re there. We can see them.” And we all could see them. We said, “They look like they’re digging a hole. I wonder what they’re digging for?” My dad said, “Well, okay, I’ll go up and check and see what these little people are digging for.” So he went up to the woods. We told him, we knew exactly the tree where they were. We knew because we used to go to this tree and gather butternuts so we told him it was at the butternut tree.
He went up to the woods and went over to the butternut tree. He said he saw nothing, there wasn’t even a hole there.
He came back and he said, “No, girls, there’s nothing there. I couldn’t even find a hole.”
My dad kept saying, “It’s the way the wind is blowing.” And we’d say, “No, no, Dad, it’s not the way the wind is blowing,” because they weren’t the same color as the leaves. They were definitely there. That’s what we saw.
We never told anybody about this, we never discussed the little people after that until we got older. We kept it to ourselves. I had to be an adult before I finally told somebody about the little people that we saw in the woods.
My sister Francis was with a group of people and they were talking about different things that happened when they were children. She told them about the little people that we saw. It really was something that we had kept a secret for so long. It was an experience that few children had, and usually only children see these little people. It’s believed the little people are there to protect us. Now when we talk about our childhoods, I have to say, “I’ve got to tell you about the little people that we saw when we were little.”
It was quite an experience and something I’ll always remember. I was one of the privileged people to get to see the little men. They came to visit us, myself and my sisters.”
Iva Rodgers (Turtle Clan Mother, 1920-2002) told this tale about life on the Onondaga Reservation.
“My older sister and I went out one night. We went out to sit on the bridge, that bridge up at Onondaga. You could sit on it and you could watch the cars go by. It was about eight, nine o’clock at night.
These two old ladies lived right across from the bridge there. First thing I know one of them comes up and that lady said to us, “You know what? You better go home.”
“Why?” we asked.
“Every night about midnight there’s a pig that comes up the road and it will spook you,” she said.
These two old ladies were the kind of nosy kind. They set out most of the night just watching what was going on on the road and out there. She said, “They come soon. If I were you, I’d go home. Don’t let that pig catch you.”
So my sister and I jumped off and ran back home. It was just a little way, but it seemed far enough.
We got back home and my dad was sitting out there and all of a sudden we heard this pig. We said, “There’s the pig now!” It started coming around our house. Oh, my sister and I, we ran upstairs, we stayed as close to the wall as we could so the pig couldn’t see us. We went with our hands on the wall, guiding ourselves. Dad was still sitting down there.
“It’s that pig that they told us about,” we said. So we went to bed but we were still scared about this pig.
In the morning when we woke up, our dad was outside, he was talking Indian to one of our neighbors down there. After a while this guy said, “Did you see a couple of pigs last night out here?” Dad said, “Yeah,” because he was sitting there and he had heard it, too.
“Yeah.” The neighbor said, “Two of my pigs got out of the pig pen and came up the road.”
That’s what it was, it wasn’t anyone witching us. It was just two pigs who had gotten out from their pig pen and they were across the road. They went up the high field and up in the woods back there.
That’s where that guy found them, he found his pigs.”
Barbara Wood (by permission of Shirl Oatman [both Turtle Clan]) recalled the following story :
“My uncle, Melvin George, used to walk to Vernon to get groceries and things.
I remember this very plain. He used to walk over there and probably had something to drink first. He went one night and was very upset when he came back.
On his walk, all of a sudden he looked up and saw this cow. It was like a cow with no head. It went across the road.
When he got back, he said that he was scared.
Everyone said, “You know you get into things when you get over there.”
He said, “No, I wasn’t drinking. I saw that for sure.”
He saw it on Townline Road, near the chapel over at Vernon. I remember him telling the story many times. We’d be sitting around and he’d say, “A lot of people thought I was drunk, but I had nothing to drink that night. I got close to it and the cow went across the road with no head on it.” He said when he came back to the house he was scared. He was scared stiff because he didn’t know what happened.
Maybe he did see it.
The Thurston farm had cows down there in the pasture, and my mother said he probably saw one of those. When we were kids, every time we went down there, we’d think about the cow with no head. So it was kind of scary.
Still to this day, when I go on that road I think about the cow with no head.
He might have seen it, or maybe not.
He talked about it many times.
I actually think he saw a cow with no head. A cow with no head, that’s kind of scary, isn’t it?”