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Rousing a Curiosity in Hewitt’s Iroquois Cosmologies
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Through my research on the work of John Napoleon Brinton Hewitt, I found myself in a unique position to challenge current thinking in the field, champion J. N. B. Hewitt, and rethink the cosmologies of the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois). For too long creation has been reduced to a narrative of Skywoman’s descent into a water-covered world, where she and the twins of creation would come to rest and reside on the Turtle’s back. This narrative has many variations throughout the northeastern woodland indigenous peoples. In this essay, I intend to challenge accepted thinking that reduced this narrative to nine plot points, as William Fenton did in his research. Further, I intend to demonstrate why we must now scour the Hewitt texts in order to excite a discourse about where and how these narratives differ and thus demonstrate distinctive cultural interpretations illustrating the uniqueness of each individual Haudenosaunee nation.

By revisiting Hewitt’s works on the cosmologies, new theories and interpretations can be developed and discussed. Hewitt was of Tuscarora descent, and a lifelong scholar of the Haudenosaunee. Today, Haudenosaunee scholars are scouring understudied texts and archives and recovering new information for the purpose of stimulating dialogues in our own communities and with one another.

Hewitt published his work on the cosmologies in two parts—one in 1903, and the second in 1928. Although Hewitt is acknowledged as an authority, he remains largely absent from contemporary conversations on the creation narratives of the Haudenosaunee. The first three narratives that were published in part I of the Bureau of American Ethnology (BAE) annual report (1903) included an Onondaga version by Chief John Buck in 1889, a Seneca version by John Armstrong obtained in 1896, and finally a Mohawk version by Seth Newhouse obtained in 1896 and 1897.1 Hewitt further noted that the Buck–Onondaga version was enlarged with the aid of Joshua Buck, the son of Chief Buck, adding that it was obtained at the Grand River territory in Ontario, Canada. The Newhouse–Mohawk version was also gathered at the Grand River territory. Hewitt noted that the Armstrong–Seneca version originated from the Cattaraugus territory of the Seneca Nation of Indians.

To illustrate their unique value I intend to examine a specific point made in all three versions. Further, I will demonstrate how a rethinking of these texts may lead to new understandings and reveal a uniquely Haudenosaunee voice that older interpretations have not allowed us to learn. While Haudenosaunee culture has long been studied, whose voices are heard, studied, and established as authentic remains open to debate, conflict, and question. In much of the research, certain informants, scholars, and versions of a story are heralded over that of similar or dissimilar narratives. While bias, preference, and choice are certainly part of a human condition, how does one articulate that into “objective academic literature”? These questions, among others, are the focus of this essay. Who has the right and even the duty to authenticate or validate culture and the definitions of culture? This area of study is fraught with slippery slopes, well-meaning intentions, and very human egos.

For far too long, William Fenton’s influence has resulted in the narratives being treated as versions of a single, original narrative that can then be reduced to plot points. Fenton argued in his 1962 article “This Island, the World on Turtle’s Back” that the narrative can be reduced to between nine and twenty-three plot points of similarity, whereas Hewitt’s work on the cosmologies shows the breadth and depth of the metaphors utilized by the Haudenosaunee speakers. Fenton worked from Arthur C. Parker’s fifteen and twenty-three plot points, published in 1922 and 1926, respectively. Fenton further underscores the reduction of the cosmologies to nine plot points based on the work of Frederick Wilkerson Waugh. Waugh, who worked on the Grand River territory between 1911 and 1918, produced an interesting collection of ethnographic and anthropological materials that is largely underutilized outside of academic communities and archival research.

Fenton clearly sought to replace Haudenosaunee thinkers, Holders of Tradition, and communities as the authority of the cosmology. Fenton notes, “In recent years the ethnologist who sits at the feet...

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