As we watch in awe and wonder at the mighty cataracts thundering their eternal roar and we bathe in the ever-present cloud of moist incense pluming upwards, our minds think back to the well-known “Maid of the Mist” legend.
You know the story right?
No, I’m not talking about the boats that ride up to the base of Niagara Falls loaded down with tourists wearing wet blue slickers.
I’m talking about the Legend of the White Canoe?
Of the beautiful Indian maiden who was sacrificed by her people, in the White Canoe as it sped over the crest of the mighty Niagara hurling to the abyss below to appease the evil god?
Is it real?
Or is it a myth?
If so – whose?
Iroquois? or White man?
No? Haven’t heard it?
Well, come with me then on a journey down the Niagara River and let’s visit with the spirit of LeLawala – the Princess of Niagara – the Maid in the Mist.
THE LEGEND OF LELAWALA
Many hundreds of year ago, in what is now the Niagara Frontier Region, before the Haudenosaunee (the people) formed the Confederacy of the Iroquois, the Ongiaras pitched their wigwams and built their longhouses along the waters of the fast river. They were a peaceful tribe who lived in harmony with the river, the sky, the forest and the thundering waters.
Then tragedy struck and for reasons unknown, braves and squaws began dying mysteriously and the cause could not be found. Worse, the burial grounds were desecrated, the bodies stolen and devoured, leaving only their burial clothes.
The shaman prayed and chanted and told the tribe the Thunder God – Hinum was displeased. Hinum lived in a cave, behind the wall of thundering water with his two sons. The shaman said they must appease Hinum or the people would continue to die and their bodies be desecrated.
So the people filled canoes laden with fruit, flowers and game and placed them into the fast water, sending them into the Thundering Waters to appease Hinum.
But the people continued to die.
The shaman prayed again and beseeched the sky and the forest to show why the people were abused so dishonorably. He told the tribe that Hinum was not satisfied with the people’s offering and that a greater offering was required. They must sacrifice their most beautiful maiden and give her to Hinum.
And the people did.
During a ceremonial feast, they chose the most beautiful maiden of the tribe, decorated her in garlands and braids, placed her in a canoe filled with fruit and meat and sent her into the mighty river which carried her over the crest of the Thundering Waters to appease the Hinum.
And for a year the people lived without the curse visiting them.
But then people died again for no reason and their burial grounds were again defiled. And so each year they chose the most beautiful maiden and offered her to the Thunder god.
One year, Lelawala, the beautiful daughter of Chief Eagle Eye was chosen. On the appointed day, Lelawala appeared on the river bank above the Falls, wearing a white doeskin robe with a wreath of woodland flowers in her hair.
She stepped into a white birch bark canoe, was pushed into the current and the roaring rapids quickly carried her into the Thundering Waters.
Her father, heartbroken, leaped into his canoe and followed her.
Both canoes plunged over the brink, disappearing into the mist and were never seen again.
Hinum‘s sons were waiting for her, and they reached out their arms and caught her. They desired her and fought over her. Lelawala agreed to accept one – the one who would tell her why her people were dying and how they could rid themselves of this evil. If she were permitted to tell them, she would agree to live forever in the caves behind the Falls.
The sons of Hinum were sworn to secrecy but after much distress, the younger son told her of the giant snake which lay at the bottom of the Thundering Waters and would grow hungry once each year. While the Indians slept, the snake would poison their water. After those who died were buried, he would visit and devour their bodies to satisfy him for another year.
In spirit form, Lelawala was allowed to return and tell her people of the great snake and of how they might destroy the monster. They were to drink only from the springs and when the night of the serpent’s visit arrived, they were to destroy the god snake with spears, tomahawks, bows and arrows.
Laying in wait the evening of the feast, the determined braves assaulted the monster and after a fierce battle, they mortally wounded the serpent who crawled away.
Returning to his lair in the river, the snake got his head caught on one side of the river and its tail got caught on the other side. In its violent death throes it formed a semi-circle in the shape of a horseshoe on the brink resulting in the Horseshoe Falls. There it remains to this day, showing that the gods are present to protect the people against the evil spirits and every year thereafter, the people sacrifice a virgin maiden to the Thunder gods.
Lelawala returned to the cave of the God Hinum, where she reigns to this day as the Maid of the Mist.
And now we know the story…
…or do we?
Well, in my opinion, it wouldn’t be a wise decision to recite this legend to members of the Iroquois Six Nations, especially to the Senecas.
Oh – the Iroquois are very certain that the beautiful Lelawala went over the mighty cataracts so many centuries ago.
But that is the only agreement they have with the story above.
What is the Iroquois Legend?
Let’s ask them:
(Condensed version) as retold by
S. E. Schlosser (Seneca leader)
She lost her husband at a young age and could not find her way through her sorrow. So she stepped one day into her canoe, singing a death song softly to herself, and paddled out into the current. As it pitched over, Heno, the god of thunder who lived in the falls, caught the maiden and carried her to his home beneath the thundering veil of water.
Heno and his sons ministered to the grieving girl and her heart healed within her. The younger son spoke words of love and they married. A son was born.
A great evil snake came down the mighty river and poisoned the waters of her people. They grew sick and many died. The snake returned to devour the dead. She begged that she might return to warn her people. Heno lifted her through the falls and set her down among her people to give warning. She advised them to move to a higher country until the danger was past.
The giant serpent returned to the village, seeking victims. When the snake realized that the people had deserted the village, it hissed in rage and turned upstream to search for them. But Heno heard the voice of the serpent and rose up through the mist of the falls and threw a great thunderbolt at the creature, killing it. The giant body of the creature floated downstream and lodged just above the cataract, creating a large semi-circle that deflected huge amounts of water into the chasm.
And the maiden lived with the Thunder gods to this day protecting her people.
So – which is right?
Iroquois Indian Legend…
…or White Man Myth?
Scholars pondered this question and after extensive research, concluded there has never been any proof that the Haudenosaunee people were ever involved in human sacrifice. On the contrary, the Huadenosaunee held their women in the highest regard. Unlike the European invaders of the time, their women held critical roles and responsibilities within the government and communities. The Haudenosaunee‘s respect for the sanctity of women’s role in the creation of life, not the waste of it, motivated them be one of the first peoples to have equal suffrage.
The Maid is never offered as a human sacrifice by her people. She attempts suicide out of lost love and is rescued by the Thunder gods where she lives and learns from them the proper teachings of the Creator. The Maid is redeemed from her attempt at self-destruction when she returns to her people and shares the Creator’s instructions with them.
Where then did the story of human sacrifice originate?
Robert Cavelier de La Salle, the European explorer who ‘discovered’ the Region and made contact with the Iroquois in 1679, wrote about his visit with the Haudenosaunee claiming to have witnessed, first-hand a horrible sacrifice when the chosen virgin maiden of that year was “Chief Eagle Eye’s daughter named Lelawala and was sent to her death over the great waterfall.
“When learning of this yearly sacrifice, I attempted to stop them of such an ungodly practice.”
Oh, such altruistic motives to save the ignorant savage, by a man who carried a sword and had no hesitation in using it.
But did he really witness such an event?
We know for a fact – he did not.
Years later – his wife blatantly denied these accounts, admitting that her husband had taken the Legend of the White Canoe as told to him by the Haudenosaunee and distorted it.
And we honor him by naming towns, streets, rivers and buildings after him.
But why would he do this?
The answer is obvious: greed.
The King and Queen of France, the financial backers as well as the explorers themselves wanted what the Haudenosaunee had – their land and all the riches they could plunder from it. By portraying the natives as ignorant, savage people who practiced human sacrifice, no one would have sympathy for them and would oppose stealing their land from them.
And, that is exactly what happened. First the French – then the English – then the Americans.
Correct versions have been told by such distinguished Haudenosaunee Chiefs Hewitt, Corn Planter, Handsome Lake, Parker, Mt. Pleasant and Rickard. These men told the story as it had been handed down to them by the elders.
Still the white man’s version persists – even to this day and continues to portray the Haudenosaunee as crude natives requiring European civilization.
Ironic, that what is not said is that the founding principles and documents of the American Government were actually constructed around the Iroquois Confederacy of Six-Nations sprinkled with a liberal dose of Biblical doctrine and law.
But now, you know.
So, is there a Maid in the Mist?
Oh yes – she’s there – I’ve seen her
I’ve heard her as she cries in the mist.
She cries over what has happened to her Thundering Water,
to her land and to her people.
Come to Niagara – see the Thundering Waters and listen to
Lelawala – the Maid in the Mist
The legend of the Maid of the Mist, as expressed in the words “From the depths of a watery grave in the Niagara, she shall rise to meet the sun and a new life,” inspired Prof. Slawinski’s creation of this sgraffito mural. A free-standing structure, it is located in the garden at 125 Buffalo Avenue, adjacent to the house that was once the artist’s Gallery and Studio Sgraffito.
A sgraffito mural is a labor intensive and time-consuming project. It requires the maximum of organization beforehand and strict discipline on the part of the artist so that the work can be completed before the cement dries, which takes place in approximately 48 hours. At this stage of his work, Sławiński describes stopping work only for in situ naps and light meals.
The artist at work
Until next time – Embrace Life’s Bridges – For They Define Who You Are.