The Iroquois Nation still retains vestiges of their adoration of the Sun. They continue to observe certain rites, such as the Sun Dances, which are survivals of more elaborate sun ceremonies of long, long ago.
Among the most popular sun dances of many tribes and bands of Iroquois Nation were the Ostowa-gowa, or the Great Feather Dance. This became a prime religious dance of the Gai'wiu religion of Handsome Lake, the Seneca Prophet. He revolutionized the religious system of the Iroquois of New York and Ontario.
Few of the early folk-beliefs have survived the taboo of the Prophet. These beliefs are difficult to trace, unless one has the Gai'wiu religion of Handsome lake and the Code of Dekanawida, the founder of the Iroquois Confederacy.
The Seneca Sun Ceremony of Thanksgiving is called by any tribal member who dreams that the rite is necessary for the welfare of the community. The ceremony begins promptly at high noon, when three arrows or three musket shots are fired heavenward to notify the Sun of their intention to address him.
After each volley, the people shout their war cries to the Sun-- for the Sun loves war. A ceremonial fire is built. In ancient times, fire was started by a pump drill, and more recently by striking a match. The tribal Sun-Priest chants his thanksgiving song while he casts from a husk basket handfuls of native tobacco upon the flames to carry his words upward to the Sun.
The ceremony begins outside of the Long House, where the rising smoke lifts everyone's thoughts and songs to the sun. Immediately after this beginning, the entire assemblage enters the Long House, where costumed Feather Dancers begin their ritualized Sun Dance. The New York Iroquois tribes do not carry effigies of the Sun in their preparation for or in their dance, according to their traditions.
The following Seneca legend was related by Edward Cornplanter, the recognized head preacher of the Gai'wiu of the Handsome Lake. Cornplanter was a Seneca Indian and a descendant of Gaiant Waka, the Prophet's brother.
In the following legend, there seem to be some modern features, stated Cornplanter. He asserted, however, that the portion relating to the sky and sun are very, very old traditions. He said that he had always heard the upper world described as told in this legend. He then added that the Sun loved the sound of war, and would linger in his morning journey to observe battle activities anywhere, but after he reached midheaven, the Sun travelled on at his usual speed.
This legend developed in olden times, when not many people were about. Three brothers who were not married spent their lives hunting. When young they enjoyed the excitement of hunting, but as they grew older they seemed to lose the pleasure of the sport. Youngest brother suggested that for a new experience they walk to the edge of the earth, where the sky comes down and touches the big sea of salt water. At the western side of the salt water, this world is an island.
The other brothers thought the plan sounded like a good one. When everything was ready, they started on their journey. For a good many years they kept going and many things happened to them; however, they always continued straight westward.
Finally, the brothers came to a place where the sun goes under the sky's edge. The sky bends down there, and sinks into the water. For a month, they camped and watched the things that were happening. They noticed just how the sun got under the rim of the sky and disappeared quickly. They saw some men trying to get under the edge of the sky, but it descended too quickly for them, and they were crushed.
The brothers noticed when the sky came up, the water sank lower; and when the sky went into the water, the water rose higher. Youngest brother said he wanted to try to pass under the rim of the sky when the sun slipped under on its sun-road. But eldest brother said he thought the happenings were too evilly mysterious, and he was afraid for them to try.
Without waiting for anyone's opinion, youngest brother ran very quickly under the sky's rim, and found the rim very thick. Second brother followed youngest brother like a flash. They kept on the sun road with the water on each side of them. Eldest brother watched, and when he saw nothing had injured his brothers, he began to run after them.
The younger brothers turned from their safe place to encourage him, but at that moment the sky came down on the sun-road and crushed eldest brother. But they did see his spirit shoot by them quickly. The two remaining brothers felt very, very sad.
They discovered that, on the other side of the sky, everything was different. Before them loomed a large hill, which they ascended, and they saw a very large village in the distance. A man came running toward them. As he approached them he called out, "Come!" They realized he was their eldest brother.
"How did you arrive here so quickly, brother?" they asked. "We did not see you come."
"I was too late, and passed by on a spirit road," he replied.
They noticed an old man walking toward them. He was youthful and strong in body, but his hair was long and white. He seemed like a very old man. His face showed wisdom and he bore himself like a chief. "I am the father of the people in the Above-the-Sky- Place," he said.
"Haweni'u is my son. I wish to advise you, because I have lived here a long time. I have always lived here, but Haweni'u was born of the woman on the island. When you see my son, call quickly, 'Nia'we 'ska'no!' If you fail to speak first, he will say, 'You are mine,' and you will be spirits as your brother is."
The three brothers proceeded and came to a high house made of white bark. They walked up the path to the door. A tall man stepped out quickly, and the brothers said the magic words. The great man said, "Doges' I have been watching you for a long time." The brothers entered the house. When inside, the tall man said, "In what condition are your bodies?"
"We have fine bodies," they replied.
"You do not speak the truth," the great man answered. "I am Haweni'u and I know all about your bodies. One of you must lie down, and I will purify him and then the other."
One brother lay down, and Haweni'u placed a small shell to his own lips, and put it on the brother's mouth. He also tapped him on the neck, and sealed the shell with clay. Haweni'u began to skin the brother. He took apart the muscles, and then scraped the bones. He took out the organs and washed them. Then he built the man again. He loosened the clay and rubbed his neck. He did this with both brothers, and they sat up and said, "It seems as if we had slept." Haweni'u said, "Every power of your bodies has been renewed. I'll test you."
The brothers followed Haweni'u to a fine grove of trees surrounded by a thick hedge. All kinds of flowers were blooming outside. "My deer are here," said Haweni'u.
A large buck with wide antlers ran toward them. "He is the swiftest of my runners. Try and catch him," said Haweni'u.
The men ran after the deer and rapidly overtook him. "He has given us good speed," the brothers said. They soon discovered they had many other superior abilities, and the great man tested them all on that day.
They returned to the white lodge, and the brothers saw a messenger running toward them. Upon his wide chest was a great bright ball of light. It was very brilliant. In some unknown language he shouted to Haweni'u and dashed on.
"Do you understand his words, or do you know that man?" asked Haweni'u. "He is the Sun, my messenger. Each day he brings me news. Nothing from east to west escapes his eye. He has just told me of a great war raging between your people and another nation. Let us look down on the earth and see what is happening."
He led them to a high hill in the middle of the country, and looked down through a hole where a tree had been uprooted. They saw two struggling bands of people and all the houses burning. They could hear people crying and shouting their war-cries.
"Men will always do this," said Haweni'u, and then they came back down the hill.
The brothers stayed a very long time in the upper world, and learned so much they could never tell it all at one time. Sometimes they looked down on the earth and saw villages in which no one lived. They seemed to be waiting for people to be born and live there. In the upper world they saw villages, likewise, awaiting the coming of people from below.
Haweni'u told them a good many things, and after a time asked a messenger to lead the brothers to the path that the Sun took when he came out on the earth in the morning. They followed the messenger and came out on the earth. They waited until the Sun had gone over the earth to the west. Again they went under the edge of the sky in the east, and came out in their own country again.
It was night and they slept on the ground. In the morning they saw their village, and it was overgrown with trees. They followed a familiar path through the woods, and came upon another village. Their own people were living there. They went into a council- house and talked. They told their story, but no one recognized them except their sister, who was an aged woman by then.
She said, "The war of which you speak took place fifty years ago."
The brothers did not care too much for the earth now, but wished themselves back in the upper world. They were not like the other men, because they never grew tired. They were very strong and could chase animals and kill them with their hands. Nothing could kill the brothers, neither arrow nor disease. After a long time; they were struck by lightning, and they were both killed. Presumably, they were granted their wish, and joined eldest brother in the Above World.
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