Details in the story of creation depend on who is telling it among the Haudenosaunee people — comprised of the Senecas, Oneidas, Mohawks, Cuyahogas, Onondagas and the Tuscaroras. Michael Martin, an Onondaga who was named faithkeeper for his Onondaga Beaver clan in 2016, gave Chautauqua his version of the story for Week Five’s Interfaith Friday.
The story of creation is passed down strictly through oral storytelling.
“The point of oral interpretation, the beauty of it, is that it’s supposed to stay alive in terms of the current context of things, too — in terms of how people utilize this information, or how they’re supposed to,” Martin said.
Institution Vice President of Religion and Senior Pastor Gene Robinson joined him in conversation on the CHQ Assembly Video Platform at 2 p.m. EDT Friday, July 31. Martin answered questions from the audience, who submitted questions through the www.questions.chq.org portal and on Twitter with #CHQ2020.
Martin is also executive director of the Native American Community Services of Erie and Niagara Counties. But when his clan mother tapped him for the role of faithkeeper for his clan, his family, Martin said he felt ill-prepared.
Robinson said this was a shared experience for many faith leaders.
“Those who feel called to that never feel up to the job,” Robinson said.
Martin started where Beth Roach left off in the creation story of Sky Woman in her Interfaith Lecture Series talk in Week One of the Chautauqua season. In Martin’s version, Sky Woman fell from the sky and landed on a turtle’s back. She gave birth to a daughter, and the daughter later gave birth to twin boys. She gave birth to the second son through her armpit, and died.
Corn, beans and squash, known as the Three Sisters, bloomed from her grave. The three crops are still grown at the same time, richening the soil so they all grow stronger together.
The twin boys, meanwhile, fought constantly. Martin said this is meant to represent an internal struggle we all have for balance and harmony within ourselves, with each other and with nature.
The first son would later be known as the creator of humans, and ruled over the day. The second son would be known as Flint, who ruled over the night. The twins competed all the time, and through competition they balanced each other. The creator crafted a rose, and the other, Flint, added thorns to the rose. The creator carved a river, and Flint added rapids to the river. When the creator formed a bird, Flint, who Martin said was not as skilled at creating, made a bat.
But the original Sky Woman, their grandmother, favored Flint. Martin said that he was not evil, but simply contrasted with the creator. When Sky Woman died, the brothers fought again. This time, it was over her body. The creator, jealous of Flint, threw Sky Woman’s body into the sky where she became the moon.
When the creator formed humans, he made them from four different elements. The four peoples were ordered to travel in opposite directions in search of a lost object that is usually described as shiny. Some day, they will be called to return to each other to unify humanity in a time of need — a prophecy that has yet to be fulfilled.
Martin said that as scientific discoveries have unfolded, they have only proven the story of creation to him. He sees the pieces of the turtle’s back in maps of plate tectonic movements. And the Three Sisters really do grow better together, thanks to the beans that add nitrogen into the soil and wrap around the tall cornstalk, while squash growing at the bottom deters weeds.
“To me, it kind of helps to reinforce our understanding of creation, too,” Martin said. Even today, when I see a meteor shower, it reminds me of the story of creation and how things began so many generations ago.”
Babies are first exposed to the oral storytelling of creation a few days after being born, through a speech on their responsibility for the earth and the call to respect nature and all of creation. The “Ganohę:nyoh,” or “Thanksgiving address,” is a major moment of gratitude for the gifts of creation.
No part of Earth is ignored in the Thanksgiving address. People, Mother Earth, water, fish, trees — it’s all important on the only observed planet that can support humanity.
“How many people pass trees every day and don’t pay them any mind or attention?” Martin said. “Without those trees and those plants taking our CO2 that we expel and turn it back into oxygen for us, we can’t live on this planet. This Thanksgiving address really goes back to our creation, reciting and giving our appreciation and respect to all of these gifts of creation that were intended to keep us healthy and well.”
While there are differences in interpretation in the delivery of the story of creation between people and tribes, which Martin said have each suffered different traumas, a peacekeeper once served as a messenger between the various tribes. He traveled to each tribe and called for the strongest warrior to break an arrow, which they would do with ease. But when asked to break five arrows bound together, it became impossible. This peacekeeper proved to each tribe that like the arrows, the tribes were stronger together, and he united the tribes once again under what was called the Great Law of Peace.
Martin said he sees the laws of the Haudenosaunees echoed throughout the U.S. founding fathers’ ideologies and the Constitution. He equated the council of Clan Mothers to the U.S. Supreme Court, the older brother tribes as the Senate, and the younger brothers — including his tribe, the Onondagas — as the House of Representatives.
In the Great Law of Peace, the call for unity did not stop with the Nations. It extended to all people. Even now in meetings, the Haudenosaunees refer to the United States as their “white brothers.”
This deepens the betrayal of European colonists during the initial settlement of North America.
“From our (perspective), how could you do that to another brother?” Martin said. “There is trauma from that.”