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The Sacrifice at Niagara Falls


Nee-ah-gah-rah, meaning "Thundering Waters," is the Iroquois Nation pronunciation of Niagara. They believed that the sound of the cataract was the voice of a mighty spirit that dwelt in the waters. In the years gone by, they offered to it a sacrifice every year.

The sacrifice was a maiden of the tribe who was sent over the cataract in a white canoe decorated with fruits and flowers. To be chosen for the sacrifice was considered such a great honour that girls contended for it. In the spirit world, the happy hunting grounds, were special gifts for such a person.

Probably the last sacrifice at Niagara Falls was made in 1679, when Lela-wala, the beautiful daughter of Chief Eagle Eye, was chosen for the honour of the sacrifice. That year, the French explorer La Salle was in the area. He had been trying to convert the Senecas to Christianity, and he protested against their plan for the sacrifice.

His Protests were answered by one of the tribal leaders: "Your words witness against you. You say that Christ set us an example. We will follow it. Why should one sacrifice be great and our sacrifice be horrible?"

The maiden's father was a brave warrior and a noble chief. His wife was dead. The only member of his family left was the beautiful Lela-wala, very dear and precious to him. But he showed no sign of the grief he felt and made no protest against the choice of her for the sacrifice.

On the day set for the sacrifice, the tribe gathered on the bank of the river. They enjoyed the games, the singing, and the dancing that always took place on special occasions. Everyone became quiet when the little white canoe came into sight, covered with fruits and flowers given to their chief's daughter.

Shortly after her canoe entered the current, another white canoe darted out from under the trees along the bank of the river. Chief Eagle Eye's grief was so great that he was on his way to join his daughter. With swift and strong movements through the rapids, he was soon beside her.

The two looked at each other once. The crowd lost their calmness and shouted at them, some with frantic despair and some with admiration. Side by side, the canoes plunged over the cataract. The brave maiden and the brave chief were beyond rescue.

"After their death, they were changed into pure spirits of strength and goodness. They live so far beneath the falls that the roaring is music to them." He is the ruler of the cataract; she is the maiden of the mist.


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The Indigenous Peoples' Literature pages were researched and organized by Glenn Welker.