Excerpt from Chapter 4 – The Mohawk Valley 1770

The boy sat in the secret hollow of a huge red oak, feeling the roughness of the jagged bark merge into his bare skin. He let his mind empty out, becoming quiet and open to the forest around him. A beetle, foraging for food, crossed over onto his leg. He felt the pull and release of its tiny claws on his skin as it worked its way across his body to move further up the trunk. As he quieted, the sounds of the forest around him began to come to life, the way the morning sunrise gradually turns dark shadows and unrecognizable shapes into bright, familiar clarity.

Old Grandfather Tiyanoga, the Mohawk chief, had been his first teacher. The earliest lessons he could remember had been about quiet patience, letting the forest come to him. White men walk through the forest with their eyes on the ground, their tongues flapping, and their ears closed, Tiyanoga had taught him. When a warrior or hunter walks, he sees with his feet, listens with his eyes, and looks with his ears. Now the Mohawk way of moving silently, effortlessly through the woods, feet feeling and adjusting to avoid the snapping twig or rustling leaf, senses open and mind empty, was as natural as breathing.

He remembered waiting for hours by a deer path, letting his spirit become one with the rhythm of the forest, merging into the space around him, so that small animals ran past him or over his legs as if he had been just another stone. When a deer finally passed next to him, he reached out his hand and touched its glossy side, with no more pressure than a yielding branch.

His mother, Susan Doyle, was white, and his white name was Henry Doyle. The Mohawks called him Okteondon. His mother lived on a small farm, a mile from Johnson Hall, home of the great English chief, Sir William Johnson, whom the Mohawks and their Iroquois brothers called Warrahiyagey. Since he could remember, the Mohawks had been his people, and Joseph Brant, whom the Mohawks called Thayendanega, his best friend. He had never known his father. Some people said he was Warrahiyagey’s son. Others cruelly said his father was a marauding Cherokee, or worse, one of the evil spirits, the Jo-Ge-Oh, who lived in the north. His mother had said that his father was a great chief, who would one day proclaim him as his son. When he had killed his first deer, and Warrahiyagey had marked his face with its blood, his heart had burst with the question he could not ask, “Are you my father?”

Once again, the boy’s mind drifted into his dream.

He was looking again at the countryside around Fort Johnson, but now from a great height. He felt his heart beating rapidly as his shoulders effortlessly drove feathered wings.

Around Fort Johnson the longhouses of the People were all gone. The great forest that once had stretched as far as the eye could see was broken, the land stripped bare by hundreds of small farms. White men with horse-drawn plows worked the fields the People had once tended by hand.

His vision leapt ahead of his sight. Now he flew over ugly brick buildings stretching along both banks of the river, spewing smoke into the air and fouling the water with their waste. This time, the sun seemed to gather its light into a single, impossibly bright cloud that drifted down until it was right before him. Without a thought, he flew directly into the brightness.

When he came through the light, he was looking at a wilderness of sand, empty of trees, water and life. Far to the south, mountains, ragged as broken, rotten teeth, rose from black, rock-strewn soil. His eyes caught a glimpse of a dark, motionless speck miles away to the east and his brain said “food.” His wings, now huge and powerful, drove him downwards toward his prey. As his shadow spread across the figure on the ground, sharp, taloned feet stretched out to grasp it.

When the dreams first began, he had gone to Corn Silk, the arendiwanen. Are my dreams real, he had asked. She had answered, “The dream world is the real world, Okteondon. This life we have here is no more than a shadow world. White men have forgotten how to dream, so they live always in the shadow world, ignorant and blind as stones. They have opened a great wound between the earth and sky and lost the part of themselves that is one with all created things. They pray to an absent god to take them back to the real world. In dreams, you live in the real world and find the great spirit in yourself.”

“But are my dreams true? Do they tell of what must happen in the future?”

“There are many kinds of dreams,” Corn Silk said. “Some are big, some little, all come from your spirit. If you think false, you will dream false. If true, then true.”

“But how will I know when I dream true?” Doyle asked.

“In a true dream, every sense, every part of your spirit lives in that dream. There is no separation between the dream and the dreaming and the dreamer. But you ask too many questions. Serihokten. Go away and stop pestering me or I will turn you into a rabbit and cook you for dinner.”

His mind gently slid back into the present. Nearby, two birds paused in their nest building as the chattering sound of a pine squirrel fifty yards away changed into angry complaint. Further, deeper into the forest, the song of another bird and the croaking of the frogs by the small creek several hundred yards away had stilled. The boy couldn’t actually see the fox that had noiselessly stepped to the edge of the creek, but he knew it was there.

Johnson_Hall_by_Henry

Painting by E. L. Henry 1903

 

So he heard the approach of the visitors long before they broke out of the woods on the Schenectady road and turned their horses past Johnson Hall toward the Fort. Beneath him, on one side of the steep hill, flowed the river. Fort Johnson, with its many barns and outbuildings, was directly in front. The long houses of the Mohawks were next to the creek to the west. Everyone came here to seek Warrahiyagey’s counsel and to ask for his help—the people of the Iroquois, the white settlers, and the British chiefs in their fine clothing.

Becoming invisible to the white settlers in the forest around Johnson Hall had been easy. Their minds were so busy with themselves they saw almost nothing anyway. It was a good game, taking fifteen minutes to stalk them until he was standing next to them, then pulling on their jacket or sleeve. Some laughed in surprise, some cuffed him away in anger; few ever saw him approach—or leave. He had learned that white people focus on what they expect to find; becoming part of what they, themselves, didn’t notice made him disappear.

A big table had been set up in front of the house, between the two block houses. Some soldiers, easily spotted by their red coats and tall, pointed caps, stood lazily on guard in front of the house, their rifles stacked in tripods. Servants, and occasionally a red-coated officer, were busy at the table or running back and forth from the house.

Already, the chiefs of the Mohawks and the other Iroquois Nations were gathering in a circle around the fire, some standing and talking, others spreading blankets and furs on the ground and sitting, sachems in front and the war chiefs behind them. Now Warrahiyagey appeared from the house and began talking to each group of chiefs. The boy gently lifted himself up from the tree and climbed back down to the ground. He would listen to the talk of the men around the fire. There would be long speeches, punctuated by frequent cries from the People, “We hear!” “We understand!” After the speeches were completed and the Nations had spoken with one voice, the presents would appear. Gold medals, lace-trimmed hats and silver buckles and buttons for the sachems and war chiefs: blankets, kettles, salt, and seed corn for the women; bright hair ribbons, new tomahawks, knives, and guns for the men and, of course, rum. Barrels of rum. By the time the men were all drunk, a boy should be careful not to be seen or found underfoot.

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