Native American Legends
The Wampum Bird
An Iroquois Legend
One legend tells how the Iroquois hero Hiawatha, while travelling
through the territory of the Mohawks, came to the edge of a great
lake. As he was wondering how to cross it, a huge flock of ducks
descended on the lake and began to drink the water. When the birds
rose up again, the lake was dry and its bed was covered with shells.
From these shells Hiawatha made the first Wampum beads and used
them to unite the tribes in peace.
According to another story, however, the first Wampum was not obtained
so easily. An Iroquois girl had gone to gather cranberries in a
marsh near her village, but there such a terrifying sight met her
eyes that she dropped her basket and fled in panic. In the middle
of the marsh squatted a huge bird, half the height of a tree, with
fierce flashing eyes and a cruel, hooked beak. Its whole body was
covered, not with feathers, but with purple and white shell beads.
The girl's tale caused great alarm in the village, for such a creature
had never been seen before. The chief hurriedly called a council.
All the wise men were summoned to find out what the monster was
and what its presence meant.
The council deliberated long and hard. They prayed to the spirits
of earth and sky and made offerings to enlist their aid. At last,
the oldest shaman, the wisest of them all, rose to his feet to address
"Through my powers," he declared, "I have learned
that the creature in the marsh is a Wampum bird. I have heard that,
in the Sky Land far above us, such birds do exist, but this is the
first ever seen in our world. It may be that we shall never see
another. If we can obtain the Wampum which clothes its body, it
will bring us much wealth and good fortune."
"Then let us not waste a moment!" cried the chief, "We
must not let such a bird escape. I will call together my boldest
warriors to kill it and bring the Wampum back to our village."
Led by the chief, the warriors set out for the marsh where they
found the Wampum bird feeding among the cranberries. White Wampum
covered its body, purple its wings. At a signal from the chief,
the warriors rushed forward, shouting their battle cries and whirling
The great bird seemed completely unafraid. It did not even attempt
to fly away. Instead it turned to face them and, in spite of its
ungainly appearance, it moved swiftly and fiercely, beating its
wings and lunging with its beak and talons. So ferocious was its
onslaught that the warriors fell back in disarray and retreated
to the edge of the marsh.
The chief saw that the task of obtaining the Wampum would not be
as easy as he had at first thought. Already several of the young
men had been wounded in the attack and blood flowed from deep gashes
inflicted by the bird's sharp claws. Her tried to rally his shaken
"Our clubs are no use to us here," he said, "since
we cannot get close enough to strike. We must use our arrows instead.
Do not be discouraged. Remember what riches the Wampum will bring."
"Moreover," he went on, "I offer an additional prize,
for whoever kills the Wampum bird shall have my daughter for his
The chief's daughter was the most beautiful girl for many miles
around and her hand was eagerly sought by all the young men of the
tribe. Each now swore that he would be the one to defeat the Wampum
bird and reached for his bow.
Arrows flew thick and fast through the air towards the Wampum bird.
As the first arrow struck it, the bird rose to its full height and
shook it off. As it did so, the Wampum showered from its body like
hailstones and settled in great drifts around it. Yet, in an instant,
new beads covered its body, as if nothing had happened.
Again and again the warriors drew their bows, but each time an
arrow found its mark, the bird merely shook it off. With every movement,
clusters of Wampum fell to the ground until the whole surface of
the marsh was covered with shining white and purple beads. Yet still
the bird was unconquered and still Wampum clothed its body.
The chief was in despair. It seemed that nothing could destroy
the Wampum bird and his men were growing weary and dispirited. As
they discussed what to do next, they saw a young man emerge from
the woods bordering the marsh and come towards them.
The warriors fell silent at his approach, their faces hard with
suspicion. Several tightened their fingers around the handles of
their clubs, for they distrusted strangers. "Who are you and
what brings you here?" the chief challenged the young man.
The stranger answered proudly, "I am a Delaware. My village
lies not far from here, beyond the woods."
At his words, the warriors began to mutter among themselves. There
had been disagreements and skirmishes between the Iroquois and the
Delaware in the past and there were old scores to settle.
The young man paid no heed to their threats and went on, "News
came to my village of this monster bird. I have come to see it for
myself and to kill it if I can. Clearly, it is no simple target."
The Iroquois warriors grew angry. "Let us kill this impudent
Delaware now!" shouted one. "He is an enemy and comes
to mock us!" There was a roar of agreement from his fellows
and they raised their clubs in readiness.
"Wait!" said the chief. "Let him try to shoot the
bird. If he fails, we will show no mercy and kill him where he stands."
The young man fitted an arrow to his bowstring. None saw the arrow
leave his bow and none saw it strike, but before their eyes, the
Wampum bird, uttering a harsh, unearthly cry, fell to the ground
and lay still.
For a moment the warriors stood as if turned to stone. Then they
rushed to where the bird lay. It was dead, the arrow piercing its
head between the eyes.
The Iroquois looked at the young man with awe and amazement. There
were still those who wished to kill him, jealous that he should
have succeeded where they had failed, but once more the chief intervened
and he was carried back in triumph to the village.
The Wampum which had fallen from the body of the great bird was
gathered up and carried back as well. There was so much of the precious
material that even the largest lodge could not hold it all.
The chief was true to his word and he offered the young Delaware
his daughter's hand in marriage as a reward for killing the Wampum
bird. The young man was as handsome as the girl was beautiful and
both were well satisfied with the arrangement.
Then the chief said to the young man, "Go, return to your
village and bring all your people back for a great council. The
Delaware have been our enemies, but henceforth they will be our
At the council the Iroquois acknowledged the Delaware as their
kinsmen and, to confirm the bond between them, they passed back
and forth strings of Wampum taken from the body of the bird which
the Delaware youth had killed. Ever afterwards the Iroquois and
the Delaware lived side by side in peace and friendship and, from
that time, no treaty was ever concluded without the passing of a
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