|Sales | Introduction | Chapters 1 - 3 | Explore | News & Views | Home|
Shalinka Hosts a Hearth Gathering
The Hawk mother found her visitors crowded onto the benches lining the side walls of her small lodge, and on the earthen floor perched on woven mats and slabs of elm bark carried in from their own hearths. Some women had brought along their sewing to do, some men their fish netting. But everyone sat perfectly still, their hands idle in their laps. All were glad of a diversion on this dark and stormy afternoon. Ekarenni, they'd been told, had much news to relate from his long trading expedition to the Southeast, and from his latest visit to the Dutch settlement on Manhattan's isle.
Tahinya negotiated her way quickly through the tight clusters of Hawk people and Huron and Petun refugees. In the cooking area at the rear of the lodge she picked up her water basket and poured its contents into a large brass kettle, then waited while the slave-woman Hivounti added handfuls of dried venison and cornmeal and lifted the kettle onto stones in the fire pit. After giving the stew a furious stir, the Hawk mother turned and sank down heavily beside her son's widow, the French-speaking Deer half-blood Lante.
Shalinka sat splay-legged in front of a blazing fire at the centre of the hearth. On his right sat his nephew Cloweil; on his left slumped the Petun war chief. Shalinka's own spine was ramrod straight, and his thickset chest and long straight legs glistened in the firelight. So too did his broad face, and large dome-shaped skull, shaved clean save for a patch of long black hairs covering his fontanel. Like most of the men in the packed lodge on this afternoon, he wore only a loincloth and moccasins. And, like his Petun brother Ekarenni, his head, torso, and four limbs were festooned with a labyrinth of intricate tattoos that once had been a marvel of crisp lines and vivid colors, but were now faded and yellowed with age.
Across the fire, Ekarenni's nephew Nantei sat with his uncle's war party -- the men and women who'd paddled canoes and collected firewood and cooked and sewed and hunted during the Southeast expedition. Their downcast eyes and drooping shoulders proclaimed their shock at seeing the hundreds of Petuns in Ounontisaston, and in hearing at first hand all that their people had suffered during their long absence.
Shalinka's face revealed no hint of the acute distress he'd just endured at seeing Ekarenni's Crucifixion medallion, nor of the welter of emotions that had plagued him since first greeting the Petun the previous day. He'd realized at once Ekarenni was pursuing a secret dream, and initially this knowledge had aroused in him a stream of vivid, exciting memories -- and no small degree of envy. Those sentiments, however, had soon given way to an intense anxiety, and then, finally, to a deep sympathy for his distracted and sorrowful brother. Now, having recovered from this new upset, he was engaged in a rueful meditation on the Hawk mother's stubborn insistence on a hearth gathering. 'She'll get nothing out of Ekarenni this day...and likely as not neither will I,' he sighed, thinking of his role as host to the expectant visitors.
A sharp gust of wind rattled the southeast corner of the lodge. Shalinka rose and presided over the pipe ritual. When the last sacred fumes had wafted up to the smoke-holes, he went on to enact the opening scene in the Northeast corn growers' age-old forest welcome drama. Using elegant figures of speech and telling gestures, he vividly portrayed the many perils and hardships that regularly befell travelers in the great forests. Afterwards, placing two bales of choice deerskins beside Ekarenni, he declared that the skins would enable his Petun brother to wipe his eyes, and to clear his ears and throat of any obstructions which might have lodged in those organs during his long and difficult journey. Finally, and in a slightly firmer voice than was customary on such an occasion, he declared that the skins would restore Ekarenni's memory and enable him to relate everything of interest he'd seen or heard on his travels.
Stirred by the spellbinding power of the old forest ritual, and by the tone of his old friend's final words, Ekarenni shifted his head and signaled his nephew. Shalinka glanced down at Cloweil, and together the two watched as Nantei stumbled to his feet and carried a small linen satchel around the fire. But when the young Petun set the linen satchel down in front of his uncle, Ekarenni seemed unaware of it -- or of the eager hearth visitors. Instead of rising and performing his part in the forest welcome drama, the Petun war chief remained seated, staring morosely into the orange-red flames.
Shalinka's relief turned to foreboding. As he stood waiting for Ekarenni, the gales buffeting Ounontisaston's hilltop increased in sound and fury. Across the ravine a tree splintered and crashed to the ground. Outside the Hawk mother's lodge raspberry canes scraped frantically against the bark shingles. Violent drafts streamed across the floor of the hearth and glowing coals exploded in the fireplace. Signs of unrest rippled through the crowd of visitors.
Finally, the Petun war chief roused himself and opened the linen satchel and removed eight small woollen sacks. With shaky fingers he loosened the drawstring on each and poured out, onto the mat between his legs, a stream of shell beads. When all eight sacks were empty, two mounds of glistening shell wampum -- one white and one dark blue -- lay in front of the roaring fire.
But now Ekarenni seized a handful of the white wampum and brought his hand close to his face. Behind the faded tattoo mask his skin grew pale, his eyes stricken. Dismayed, Shalinka sat down beside his Petun brother and gently motioned to him, asking to be shown the wampum. The war chief looked around blankly, then thrust the shell beads into his old friend's outstretched hand.
Ekarenni seemed to rally now. Lurching to his feet, he spoke his lines in the forest welcome drama, then signed to his nephew to take some of the wampum around the hearth to show to the visitors.
As Nantei drifted haphazardly through the crowded hearth, the Petun war chief -- in loud strident tones -- admonished the visitors to look carefully at the beads in the wooden bowl. The beads, he said, had been made with the iron drills of the Dutchmen, by a people living on the long island at the edge of the Ocean Sea. Iron drills, Ekarenni thundered, didn't break the whelk and clam shells and produced uniform, good-sized bead-holes convenient for stringing. Finally, giving way to a trader's pride, he boasted that the Dutchmen on Manhattan's isle had given more wampum than ever before for his furs and deerskins.
Shalinka gritted his teeth. A report on the iron drill's power to pierce shell was hardly news. Nor, he thought bitterly, was it news that Dutch and English fur traffickers and land grabbers were using shell wampum as their money. He cast a sudden sidewise glance at his nephew. Cloweil's eyes were riveted on the glistening mound of black wampum.
Never before, Shalinka realized with a start, had his Petun brother brought so much black wampum to the Deer capital. Black signified death, mourning...nothingness...Looking down at the glistening shell beads in his hand, he listened to Nantei extolling -- in loud, ofttimes incoherent phrases -- the merits of the Dutchmen's iron drills. As he listened, Shalinka remembered his friend Chaboyer's warning about the French Black Robes and their cunning porcelain beads.
As Nantei talked on and on, Ekarenni sank back down onto his mat and in a state of near oblivion began again to gaze into the roaring fire. Shalinka rued once more his brother's secret dream. And his thoughts grew sour as he recalled how Tahinya had insisted that a hearth gathering would help Ekarenni: that the sight of the destitute Petuns would remind him of his obligations, and stir him to action, and thus deliver him from sorrow. Shalinka's neck twitched at these smooth words, and at the memory of his wife's final blast -- that her people would also benefit from the gathering, since they'd once again get to see their wampum keeper welcome a renowned war chief.
Shalinka looked up at the bulky deerskin satchel hanging above the heads of the visitors perched on his sleeping bench. Bursts of firelight illumined the shingles above the visitors' heads, and for a time he watched the light play over the satchel's bulky contours. Ten wampum belts lay curled inside the satchel: the record of Tsouharissen's treaties with the old Niagara clans. 'The words in the wampum have lost their meaning,' Shalinka murmured irritably. 'Whether Tahinya accepts it or not, the Deer nation has withered away. Neither I, nor Cloweil, nor anyone else will ever again read out and renew the words stored in those belts.'
Bristling, he recalled his wife's sly emphasis on the words 'renowned war chief'. This he knew had been a rebuke, a reprimand for his rejection of the heart ceremony. He was well aware of how his quarrel with Tahinya had begun. He'd provoked an uproar, not only at his own hearth but throughout Niagara, by publicly condemning his people's age-old practice of torturing and burning prisoners of war. He knew, too, that in the Hawk mother's eyes -- and in the eyes of many others -- his renunciation of the corn growers' central ritual had rendered him unfit to be a wampum keeper.
Shalinka had come late to the office of Deer wampum keeper. Only after the death of his long-lived maternal uncle had he taken up the affairs of this venerable old forest profession. And the renewal ceremonies associated with Tsouharissen's ten treaty belts, it must be said, had by no means been his sole responsibility during the high chief's last decade. The wampum keeper's prodigious memory was also a repository for the Ancient Word -- that fund of ornate, metaphorical discourses meant to instruct the Deer people in all aspects of their behaviour, including proper techniques for worshipping their gods.
It must be said, too, that Shalinka had not been quick to renounce the grisly sacrifice to the great god of war. He, after all, had been a renowned war chief himself -- a war chief more famous than Ekarenni for his brilliant exploits, and for being always in luck, and for the zeal of his bloody devotions to Areskoui. However, soon after taking up the office of wampum keeper, he'd begun to be tormented by what he called his 'burden of Souls'. Images of the dead, harrowing, terrifying, in dreams and sudden visions, assailed his days and nights...Images of stinking, pustule-ridden corpses from the time of the Great Dying... Images of cherished comrades, slain by the hundreds in Tsouharissen's many wars...Images from his own huge harvest of death...
After years of torment and anguished reflection Shalinka had voiced his opposition to the heart ceremony. He'd done so at Tsouharissen's farewell feast, when in a low mournful voice the dying chief had asked him to recite the legend of the Chosen Ones. Ranks of eager young braves had lined the walls of Ounontisaston's council lodge. They'd waited with shining eyes and hope-filled hearts to hear the old words that spoke so compellingly of willing victims, whose bloody, shattered bodies are transformed into nourishment for their people. But Shalinka had politely refused the high chief's request, declaring that he now believed song-making to be the proper method for worshipping the great god of war.
Tsouharissen had betrayed no emotion at this startling announcement from his once bloodthirsty lieutenant, nor had he uttered a word in reply. Instead, for a very long time he'd gazed down at the bottle-green dagger resting in his right hand. Then, after giving Shalinka an almost imperceptible nod, he'd turned to his drummers and asked that a dance be performed.
In truth, Tsouharissen hadn't been much surprised by his wampum keeper's announcement. He'd known for years of Shalinka's 'burden of Souls', and known too that Shalinka's decision had been influenced by the Quebecker Chaboyer. As the dying chief sat silent at his farewell feast -- with his senior wife and his lovely young Tuscarora wife conspicuously missing from his meager fireside circle -- it's likely he thought of Shalinka's son, the son who'd been caught in the Seneca ambush with Chaboyer and who'd died a Chosen One. It's likely, too, that Tsouharissen thought of his own son's recent, shameful death. And, perhaps, of his own 'burden of Souls'. And of course he'd known full well that Shalinka was not the first wampum keeper in the forests to champion song-making over blood-letting as the proper means of worshipping Areskoui.
Nantei suddenly appeared at the fireside, noisily insisting that Shalinka too admire the Dutchmen's wampum. After the youth staggered off, the wampum keeper listened to the rising winds, then glanced up again at the bulky deerskin satchel hanging above his sleeping bench. Not all of Tsouharissen's ten wampum belts, he remembered, were strung with shells from the Ocean Sea, or with shells from the sweet-water seas scouring the shores of Niagara. His uncle had made one of the treaty belts from brightly stained blocks of wood, and another of deerskin embroidered with porcupine quills. Stone drills had never pierced shell properly; before the men of iron arrived shell wampum had been rare.
Ekarenni continued to stare desolately into the fire. Shalinka's heart went out to his old friend; the two went back a long way together. In childhood, they'd lived as brothers at the hearth of Shalinka's aunt. As privileged youths they'd shared with Tsouharissen the joys and travails of a glorious expedition into the Northwest, to the far shores of the largest of the five sweet inland seas. Soon after the Northwest expedition Ekarenni had returned to his home on the Blue Mountain, but the bond between the two brothers had remained fast. The Petun war chief had become a major link in Tsouharissen's far-flung network of trade and military alliances. Time after time, he'd returned to Ounontisaston, and to Shalinka.
Shalinka's 'burden of Souls' had lightened since his renunciation of the bloody sacrifice to Areskoui, but he was by no means free of distressing visions and dreams. Indeed, recently, certain memories from his youthful adventure with Tsouharissen and Ekarenni had begun to give rise to such vivid and painful images that he now included these in his 'burden'. For the Northwest expedition had witnessed Shalinka's initiation into the cult of the Chosen Ones. Both he and Ekarenni had been visited by Thunderbird, the great patron of forest warriors; and both had welcomed the arrival of their dream songs, and had listened enthralled to the old Cherokee priest-chief expound the mysteries of their cult.
As another blast of wind rattled the shingles, the wampum keeper glanced at his Petun brother. Only in recent years, Shalinka thought sadly, had the two ever disagreed about anything -- and that had been over the heart ceremony.
As if in response to his Deer brother's unspoken thoughts, Ekarenni began again to attend to the restless hearth visitors. From his tobacco pouch he extracted a cloth packet; after fumbling it open he held up a large and unusual glass bead. 'The Dutchmen carry many useful things across the bitter waters,' he shouted above the racket of the gusting winds, 'and beads of crystal for the Souls'.
'The Bearded Ones bring death to the peoples on this side of the great waters!' Nantei interrupted his uncle harshly, his voice cracking. 'Sickness comes in the blankets of the fur traders!'
Murmurs of alarm eddied around the hearth. Everyone present had heard such statements before; no one wished to hear them now. Nantei had lost both parents and brothers and sisters to small pox, and his ravaged face bore witness to his own early bout with that dread disease. Many others at the hearth had suffered a similar fate. The Hawk mother leapt up and gave the kettle a violent stir, then retrieved her knapper's kit from beneath her sleeping bench; sinking down again beside Lante she began to stroke the kit's heavy rawhide cover.
Nantei's outburst stung Ekarenni into another brooding silence. Shalinka, knowing he must try to stop the youth from going on about the Great Dying, was about to change the subject when Nantei suddenly accomplished this himself.
'The Quois devils wouldn't dare trespass on your lands if Tsouharissen still lived,' shouted the Petun brave recklessly.
'It is true,' agreed Shalinka quickly, 'during the high chief's time the Deer people lived at peace with the Iroquois. The chief was very skillful in council, and the Deer people had many warriors and powerful allies. All these things kept the Iroquois -- and the Hurons too don't forget -- from raiding our towns and villages.'
The Huron guests at the hearth felt uncomfortable at this mention of Huron raiding parties. But no one challenged Shalinka's words. It was no secret that links between the Deer people and the Hurons had been shaky during Tsouharissen's time. But the peace had been kept!
What's more, during the long decades of war between the Hurons and Algonquins, and the five nation Iroquois, the high chief had granted refuge to fugitives from both sides -- and compelled them to keep the peace while they were in the Deer country. Indeed, it was this feat of diplomacy that had led the Frenchman Champlain to label Tsouharissen's people 'the Neutrals'.
Only after the death of Tsouharissen had Iroquois war chiefs launched their final raids on the Huron and Petun towns. Dotak's response to the calamity befalling his northern neighbours had earned him his nickname, The Coward. He'd simply handed over Huron and Petun fugitives demanded by Iroquois war chiefs. And when a war party of Senecas, on their way through the Deer country, had turned on their hosts and wantonly slaughtered them, he'd done nothing. There'd been no reprisals!
But now, as Shalinka looked on helplessly, the Petun war chief lurched to his feet, scattering the mounds of glistening wampum. 'The Bearded Ones demand beaver, nothing but beaver!' Ekarenni shouted. 'No beavers live now in the Quois' lands! The furs those shits stole from the Hurons and Algonquins went for Dutch muskets! They've hundreds of the new guns!'
Ekarenni collapsed back onto his mat as suddenly as he had risen from it. The hearth visitors whispered hurriedly amongst themselves. The men began to pack up their netting needles and hemp twine, the women their hides and awls and sinews. Soon everyone had filed out of the hearth and around the bark curtain of the lodge.
|Sales | Introduction | Chapters 1 - 3 | Explore | News & Views | Home | Top|