Council Of Fire – Snippet 14
The world is changing
Lands of the Six Nations
A steady walk from the sachem’s house at Canajoharie to the Onondaga Council Fire might be five, or even six, sunrises. But Joseph of the Wolf clan would do it in three.
“Go quickly, my son,” his stepfather had told him. “The elders must know what we have seen.”
He ran by day, as far as his legs would carry him, and rested so that he could walk by night. Rain and wind were no obstacle–Joseph was young and strong. The Wolf clan of the Mohawks was well known even outside of their lands, and anyone close enough to loose an arrow or throw a spear would see the markings and know that he descended from sachems and war-leaders, and was not to be harmed.
And as for the trail, the markings stood out to Joseph, day or night, as if they were etched in starlight: where to turn, or cross, or descend. It was said that he could travel from one place to another as quickly and as quietly as any Mohawk warrior, from the youngest and most nimble to the strongest and most experienced.
He would speak of what he and his father Theowaghwen-
garaghkwin had seen a hand of days earlier at the great fort of the Onontio, at the place they called Carillon, and the tribes called Ticonderoga . . .
He ate sparingly and slept little; the elders of Wolf clan would have clucked and talked about how the young can live on nothing but sunshine and stiff breezes. But he did not feel weak–the urgency of the mission kept him running, alert to trail sign, hearing every forest rustle and bird call as he traveled toward the sunset, toward the Council Fire of the Haudenosaunee, the Six Nations.
And then as he was crossing a field of tall grass toward evening, three arrows thudded to the ground in front of him, missing his right moccasin by the span of two fingers. He dove to the ground, rolling onto his side and drawing his bow as he had been taught.
All of a sudden, it was disturbingly quiet. A flock of blackbirds had taken flight as soon as the arrows struck. Joseph tried to be as still as possible, listening for footfalls.
He could hear his heart pounding in his ears and willed himself to be calm.
There. Two, or perhaps three, sets of feet approaching from the direction of the sunset. They were trying to be stealthy, and it was almost good enough.
He carefully drew back his bow, aiming chest-high in the direction of the footfalls as they drew closer . . .
A figure appeared–a very tall figure, dressed richly as a chief, his hands held out in front of him, his eyes seeking the place where Joseph crouched.
“Peace, young warrior,” the chief said. “You know me. You know my face.”
“Skenadoa,” Joseph said, still not moving. “If you are with those who shot at me, know that I demand honor be satisfied.”
“It will be,” Skenadoa said. “You are the son of a Mohawk sachem, who stands to defend the eastern door. I know your voice. Now show your face.”
“Let the others show themselves first.”
Skenadoa looked directly at where he lay hidden, his face unmoving. After a moment he nodded and shouted out a command. Joseph heard rustling from not far away: two, and then two more sets of footsteps approaching. He slowly got to his knees and then to his feet, never letting go of his fully drawn bow, which was pointed directly at Skenadoa’s chest.
“There is no feud between us, young Joseph, nor with your clan, nor with the Mohawk tribe.”
“I was shot at.”
“They missed you,” Skenadoa said. “Be assured, young warrior. If they wanted to harm you, they would not have missed. And if they wanted you to be dead, you would be dead.”
Joseph thought for a moment and then lowered his bow.
“Come to the longhouse,” Skenadoa said, gesturing toward the sunset. “There is something you must see.”
It was almost completely dark when Skenadoa and Joseph reached the longhouse of the Onondaga. He had been there before, attending with his father’s escort. This was the place of the Council Fire of the Haudenosaunee, the center of the Confederacy. For centuries, members of the Five–and now Six–Nations had brought their petitions and their disputes before the Tadodaho, the spiritual leader of the Nations. Graves were covered, hatchets buried, and conflicts were resolved before the Council Fire.
Skenadoa was not a talkative man, but he seemed unusually silent as the traveling party came to the sacred grove on the lakeshore, where the great old longhouse had stood for centuries. Joseph remembered the scene from earlier visits; even from a distance it was easy to pick out the longhouse and smell the fragrant smoke from the constantly burning Council Fire. But he could see nothing but shadows and smelled nothing but the forest and the nervous sweat of his companions.
“Something has happened,” he said to Skenadoa, who said nothing in return but led him to the longhouse. He stepped inside and in a darkness interrupted only by a pair of hanging oil-lamps, he saw a very old chief–the Tadodaho himself–and a familiar white man sitting opposite on blankets spread on the floor.
The rest of the longhouse was vacant, except for three old women sitting off to the side, which was itself unusual–both the vacancy as well as the presence of the women under these circumstances. Joseph recognized one of the women–her name was Osha, if he remembered correctly–and she was the Clan Mother of the Heron clan. He assumed the other women represented two of the other clans.
The clan mothers occupied a very powerful position among the Iroquois. They presided over the longhouses, they controlled land use, and they had the right to choose the sachems of the various tribes.
“Hello, Joseph,” the white man said, turning his head but not rising.
“Sir William,” Joseph answered. Joseph was the white name he had been given by Sir William Johnson, the white sachem who had become his patron a few years earlier; Johnson seemed unsurprised to see him. “What has happened to the Fire?”
“Put out,” Skenadoa said at last. “Something has extinguished the Council Fire.”
“A few nights ago. When the great broom-star fell,” the Tadodaho said, his thin, old voice sounding like rustling paper. “It is as foretold. The world is changing, young chieftain’s son.