Mink and his Uncle
A Seneca Legend
A man and his nephew lived together in a cabin in the woods. The uncle's name was Two Feathers, the nephew's was Mink (Hathóndes the listener).
The uncle and nephew were very poor, their food was the fungus of trees and a kind of wood mushroom.
When they had lived in the woods a long time and the boy was almost a man, his uncle said one day, "Tomorrow go to the ravine and listen. As soon as you hear something, come back and tell me what it is. At the bottom of the ravine you will find a log, sit on the log, and listen."
The nephew did as his uncle told him to. He went to the ravine and listened. When he heard the call of a bird he was so frightened that he started up and ran home. Tumbling head first into the cabin, he cried, "Oh, Uncle, I have heard something!"
"Wait, Nephew," said the uncle, "till I light my pipe and let the smoke go up."
When the smoke was rising from the pipe, the boy told what he had heard, imitating the call of the bird.
"Oh, Nephew," said the uncle," that is nothing, go again tomorrow."
The next day the boy went to the ravine, sat on the log and listened. Soon he heard the cry of an owl. He ran home and tumbling head first into the cabin, cried, "Oh, Uncle, I have heard something!"
"Wait, Nephew," said the uncle, "till I light my pipe and let the smoke go up."
When the boy told what he had heard, imitating the cry, the uncle said, "That is nothing. Go again tomorrow."
Each day the boy heard the call of a different bird and told his uncle, imitating the call. After several trips to the ravine he heard women singing and their song said, "I am going after the nephew of the Two-Feathered Man."
The boy thought, "I will listen and learn that song." Soon he heard it again, then he went home and when smoke was rising from his uncle's pipe, he told what he had heard and sang the song.
His uncle said, "That is what I wanted you to hear. Two women are coming after me. We must get ready for them."
He put nice skins on his own couch, but threw his nephew's blanket on the ash heap in the corner and told him to lie there while the women were in the house; to keep quiet and not show his face.
The old man put on his best clothes and tried to be as nimble and bright as a young man, and kept sending the boy out to see how near the women were. At last, when they were quite near, the boy ran in crying, "Oh, Uncle, they are here!"
"Lie down on your blanket and don't stir," said Two Feathers.
The women came in bringing a basket of marriage bread. The old man hurried around to make everything pleasant for them, but they were continually looking toward the ash-heap where Mink was.
When night came, Two Feathers spread down a blanket for the women to lie on, and said, "Here is a nice place for you to sleep." But they went over to the ash-heap and lay down near Mink.
The boy was asleep but they smoothed his hair and spoke pleasant words to him.
Early in the morning the women went into the forest and each gathered a back-load of wood. When they put the wood down near the house and pulled out their straps, the wood increased till it was a great pile, then they started for home.
When Mink woke up he was a young man, strong and fine looking.
The uncle said, "You are a man now, you must follow those women. I will get you ready and teach you how to hunt. You will have power. Those women are the daughters of a great chief."
Two Feathers brought an outfit for his nephews: a panther coat, wild-cat leggings, owl-skin moccasins and an otter-skin head-dress with a white heron on it. He smoothed the bird, blew on it, and it came to life. He brought a tobacco pouch made of a fawn while it was spotted. He smoothed the pouch and the fawn came to life. On the pipe-stem sat two pigeons.
The uncle said, "These birds will bring you coals to light your pipe, and whenever you spit while smoking you will spit wampum beads."
He gave him a bow and arrows, and said, "These arrows will never miss."
The young man put on the clothes. They fitted him and were beautiful to look at. He took them off. The cap became a live otter, the coat a live panther, the leggings a pair of wild-cats and the moccasins two owls.
"Now," said Two Feathers. "I will teach you to hunt."
They went a short distance from the cabin.
The uncle said, "You must think what kind of game You want, then call it.
"I will call a deer."
Two Feathers made the call that a young fawn makes, and soon a deer came in sight, and then a second deer and a third came. The young man shot all his arrows away and each arrow killed a deer.
They pulled the arrows out and Two Feathers said, "Always wipe the arrows clean and smooth with your hand. Now that I have as much meat as I need you may start. I will put something on your feet to make you a swift runner, and I will hang up a wampum belt so that I will know if misfortune comes to you."
Two Feathers hung up the belt, and said to his nephew, "When you are well, the wampum will be high; if you are sick, it will lower till it nearly reaches the ground; if you die, it will drag on the ground.
"When you think that I have eaten all of the meat you must come and get me more. Go straight East. About midday you will find a trail; follow it. You will meet Woodchuck Leggings, an old man, but pay no attention to him; hurry along."
The young man started early in the morning and traveled till sunset without meeting anyone. Just at sunset he heard a cry of distress. He thought, "I must be careful, maybe that is the man my uncle told me about." Soon he saw an old man running around a tree, making a great fuss, and acting as though there were coons or something up in the tree. When he saw Mink he called out, "Oh, my dear nephew, come and help me kill these white martins."
The young man, remembering his uncle's words, went along. The old man ran after him, begging him not to leave him, to stop and help kill the martins.
When the young man was far beyond the tree, Woodchuck Leggings cried, "You needn't stop, only point an arrow and shoot, you will kill a martin. Your arrows never miss."
Mink thought, "It will do no harm to shoot an arrow." He shot and killed one of the martins. Then Woodchuck Leggings begged him to kill another; he shot again and hurried along.
The old man picked up the martins and ran after Mink, calling to him to stop and take his arrows. Mink waited for him to come up, then Woodchuck Leggings said, "I know where you are going, I am going there too, but we can't get there tonight. I have a place where we will rest till daylight."
The old man walked fast and kept talking all the time. When it was getting dark, he said, "We must wait till morning. It wouldn't do to get there in the night.
Mink thought this might be true, for his uncle had told him that he would reach the place at sundown.
They gathered a pile of wood and built a fire. Among the pieces of wood was a hickory stick. The old man said, "I can whittle an arrow for myself out of this while you are sleeping. I will sit one side of the fire and you can lie down on the other side. You can go to sleep as soon as you like, old men sleep less than young men."
They skinned the martins and cooked them. After eating, Mink took off his clothes and lay down by the fire, and right away was asleep.
Woodchuck Leggings began whittling. He thought, "There is no hurry, I have him now."
When he had the hickory stick well sharpened he crept up to steal the young man's clothes, but the coat, now a panther, wouldn't let him come near. He fed pieces of meat to the beast till it was pacified. When he reached for the leggings two wild-cats were there and wouldn't let him touch them. He pacified the cats as he had the panther. At last he had the whole outfit, except the bow and arrows, those he forgot. Then he went to Mink and thrust the sharpened hickory stick through his backbone. Mink woke up but he couldn't speak he was in such agony. He saw Woodchuck Leggings throw his dirty clothing down by the fire and hurry off.
Two Feathers knew when his nephew shot the first arrow, for he was watching the wampum and he saw it lower. He felt badly; he knew that Woodchuck Leggings had deceived the young man.
When Woodchuck Leggings thrust the hickory stick into Mink's back, the wampum belt came nearly to the ground. Two Feathers groaned, threw ashes over his head, and said, "I shall mourn for you ten summers."
He watched the wampum, repeating continually, "I shall mourn for you ten summers."
Woodchuck Leggings knew the power of the clothes he had stolen and as he hurried along he smoothed the white heron on the cap, and said, "You must call out when we are near the chief's house." The bird was silent.
When Woodchuck Leggings was near the house, the chief's elder daughter ran out to meet him, Everyone wondered how she could go to such an old man. She called to her younger sister, and asked, "Why don't you speak to our husband? We have been at his uncle's cabin, and now he has come for us."
"That is not the man we went to," said the girl, "I will not go into the house while he is there," and taking her blanket she went to a hut in the corn-field.
Woodchuck Leggings wanted to show his power. He said to his wife "Ask your mother for a deerskin. I am going to smoke and I shall spit wampum beads."
The mother was pleased and she gave the largest and best deerskin she had.
Woodchuck Leggings drew out his pouch, spotted like a young fawn, and told it to stand up, but it fell down and do what he could it wouldn't stand.
"Oh," said he, "it is timid, there are so many people looking at it."
He took out his pipe and told the birds to get coals; they didn't move, and everyone wondered why he talked to dead things. He smoked and spat, but spittle it remained. After a time he told his wife to roll the skin up and put it away, and when it was unrolled they would find wampum.
The next morning he went out to show his skill as a hunter. He called deer but not one came. At last he killed a small fox. While he was skinning it the heron on his cap kept drooping over. He pushed it back till its white feathers were black. When he got home, he told his wife to cook the fox.
"It smells badly," said she, but she cooked it and as soon as she took the kettle from the fire he began eating the hot meat. Her brothers wouldn't touch it, each one said, "It smells badly."
When Woodchuck Leggings left Mink he was in agony, but about midday he crawled to where the old man's clothes were and, with great effort, put them on, then on his hands and knees he went towards the chief's house. He saw a cornfield and thought, "I will go there first, for I am hungry."
He went to the middle of the field where stalks were put together for a hut. In the hut was a bed made of husks. After eating an ear of corn Mink lay down on the husks and went to sleep.
The younger sister had gone for food and was starting back when her father said, "Your sister is married but you are living out in the cornfield. Stay here!"
She stayed that night, but in the morning she stole off to the hut. She found a man sleeping on the husks. His clothes were in rags and he seemed to be in great pain, but she recognized him and when he woke up, she said, "You are the young man my sister and I went for, but an old man came here for us and my sister is his wife."
Mink told the girl everything just as it had happened and showed her the hickory stick in his back. She made him a soft bed, covered him with a skin blanket, and fed and cared for him. He made her promise not to tell that he was there, for he wanted to punish Woodchuck Leggings.
The next day he said to the girl, "Tell your father that a man has had a dream and that he, as chief, must see it fulfilled. The man's dream said that the chief's son-in-law was to meet him at a sweat-house and that all the people must be there to witness the meeting."
She told her father the dream and he had a sweat-house built and heated. In the house was a great kettle of water and many red hot stones were ready to throw into it.
The chief's ten sons and his son-in-law and all the people of the village came to the sweat-house. Soon they saw an old man coming, led along by the chief's younger daughter. The girl's brothers were ashamed of her and everybody wondered how a beautiful girl could care for such a wretched looking, dirty old man.
Woodchuck Leggings said to the ragged man, "Go into the sweat-house first."
"No," said the ragged man, "We will take our clothes off out here." They stripped and went into the sweathouse.
The hot flint stones were thrown into the kettle and the door was closed. Right away the two men began to sweat. Every minute Mink reached to his back to see if the hickory stick was loosening, and after a time he pulled it out. As Woodchuck Leggings sat bent over Mink suddenly thrust the hickory stick into his back, saying, "I have done just what I wanted to."
Then he went out of the sweat-house, picked up his own clothes and smoothed them. The panther and wild-cats and owls came to life. He smoothed his cap; the heron screamed with joy, then everyone knew that he was the real owner of the clothes.
All this time Two Feathers was crying and singing, "Ten summers I will mourn for him," but once in a while he rubbed off the ashes and looked at the wampum. One day when he looked he saw that the wampum had gone up. Then he was happy for he knew that his nephew was well again. He washed the ashes from his face, brushed his cabin, made a fire and began to cook meat.
The young man dressed and went to the chief's house. The crowd followed. They left the old man in the sweathouse. After eating, Mink sat down to smoke. He shook his pouch; it became a beautiful little fawn, walked around and looked at everyone, then was a pouch again. He filled his pipe. The birds flew and brought coals. He began smoking and spitting, and he spat wampum beads which rolled around everywhere, and the crowd rushed to pick them up.
Early the next morning the young man went to hunt. He called deer. They came and he killed one after another till all of his arrows were used. He pulled out the arrows, cleaned them, and went back to the chief's house and told his wife to send her ten brothers to bring home the deer.
The chief was astonished that so many deer could be killed near the long house. He sent out a runner to tell people to come with their head straps and carry home all the meat they wanted.
Each time the young man smoked he spat wampum and soon the whole village had plenty of meat and plenty of wampum.
One day when Mink was out in the forest, he saw a large birch tree which he thought would make good ladles. He was cutting off a bough when he heard somebody say, "Look here!"
He looked up and saw two beautiful women, one called,
"Come here! Why are you cutting off the limbs of that tree! That is an old man's work."
When he paid no attention to her she said to her sister, "He is a proud fellow, I shall have to go to him. Come along," said she.
Taking hold of Mink she pulled him on to a log. She sat down on one side of him and her sister on the other side and they began to comb his hair. Soon Mink was sound asleep, then one of the women took a canoe out of her pocket and stretched it till it was large enough for three persons to sit in. When the three were in the canoe the younger woman sang, "Fly, my canoe, fly."
The canoe rose in the air and went toward the West. After it had gone a long distance the women brought it to the ground, shook the young man, wakened him, and asked, "Do you know this place?"
"This is the place where my uncle and I used to hunt."
"We must go farther," said the woman, "As far as our ledge of rocks." And putting the young man to sheep, they sailed off again toward the West.
When they reached the rocks they took the young man out of the canoe and put him where if he wakened and moved he would fall off or if he didn't move he would starve to death.
Then they sailed away.
Two Feathers knew that his nephew was in great danger for the wampum came down as before. He threw ashes over his head and face and began to mourn.
When the young man woke up he stretched his arms and found that he couldn't reach anything. He looked and couldn't see anything. He heard a noise and thought that some animal was coming to devour him, but, after listening a while he knew that there were men near him, for he heard a groan.
Then he thought, "Those women bring men here for some terrible creature to eat." After a while he heard a noise that sounded like crunching and he knew someone had been killed. At last the creature came to him. It was an enormous Head. It took a bite from one of his legs and flew away over the ledge of rocks.
Mink spat on his hand, rubbed his leg with the saliva and it was well again.
Just at daylight Mink heard a man's voice in the distance. It came nearer and nearer and soon he heard the words, "This is what we, who dwell among the rocks, eat." Looking up he saw a man on the cliff above him. The man held up a roasted squash and began to blow the ashes off from it. He took a bite and smacked his lips to torment Mink, who was hungry, then he swept down between the rocks and showed the squash to men who were starving.
Mink lay on the rocks all day, thinking what to do. He got his bow ready and when he heard a great noise and saw the terrible Head coming he let an arrow fly. It went straight through the Head and the Head fell between the rocks.
When the Squash man came again and looking down said, "This is what we, who dwell among the rocks, eat," Mink sent another arrow and the Squash man fell down between the rocks.
Mink thought, "I have killed the Head and the Squash man, now I must get off from this rock." He leaned over the cliff, ran his fingers down his throat, and, trying very hard, vomited a little. Then he began to sing, "Let a great hemlock tree grow from that, Let a great hemlock tree grow from that."
As he sang a tree began to grow and it grew till its boughs were far above the cliff. Then Mink called, "My friends, I have found a way down. Creep along carefully. If you find a skeleton, push it off."
Several men crawled along. Mink made them go, one at a time, down the tree; last of all he went himself. As he went down, the tree decreased. When he reached the ground it disappeared.
He said to the men, "Those of you who know which way you came can go home; those who do not know may go home with me."
All this time Two Feathers had been mourning. When Mink was near the cabin a voice at the door said, "I have come home, Uncle."
Two Feathers looked at the wampum belt; it had gone up. He was happy, he called, "Wait a minute, my nephew, till I wash off the ashes." When he opened the door there stood a Rabbit. It made great leaps and in an instant was out of reach.
The old man was disappointed; he scolded the Rabbit and shut the door. Soon he heard steps again and a voice called out, "I have come, Uncle."
"That must be my nephew," thought Two Feathers, and he opened the door. It was a Fox.
"Wretched animals!" said the old man, "I will kill you if you torment me when I have mourned so long for my nephew."
He got a strap and a corn pounder, then made a hole in the door just large enough for a man's hand. When an animal came again he was going to kill it.
Mink came and when he called out, the old man said, "Now I will catch you."
It was so quiet inside that the young man wondered what his uncle was doing, and he called a second time, "I have come, Uncle."
"If you have, put your hand through the hole in the door."
Mink put his hand through. Two Feathers caught hold of it and strapped it to the door, then opened the door. When he saw his nephew he was overjoyed.
Mink told the old man everything that had happened, and said, "I will get meat and wood for you, then I will go for my wife."
The men who had come with Mink gathered the wood and took care of the game he killed. When his uncle was well supplied, Mink went for his wife and brought her home.
Return to Seneca Legends