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My hometown is aflutter with butterflies. Slow your pace in front of the purple blooms of a butterfly bush and you will notice these delicate survivors, intent on the sweetness of living. Many small brown & orange butterflies alight on our bush, but there are only two, large tiger-striped swallowtails left. Last week there were many. One of the swallowtails has a long tear in his mustard wing; he sips frenetically, bloom hopping.

Our Butterfly Bush

If they are lucky, adult butterflies live 20 to 40 days after emerging from their cocoons, mating and taking sustenance from late summer flowers. Their prime seems so short and fragile. Perhaps that is why they are often symbols of impermanence. Today I told my children this Native American story, based on an episode of the wonderful animated show Raven Tales, which airs on the Smithsonian Channel, and a version of the story on the website of the United Cherokee Nations. (Children’s television does not get deeper than Raven Tales. Check it out!).

Here’s my retelling:

There was once a time when children did not grow up or grow old. The Great Spirit knew this way was not sustainable, but he wondered whether the children were ready to change and grow up. He sat on a boulder and watched the children playing, their lively brown eyes flashing, their smooth skin rosy and flushed, and he felt worried that they would not be able to handle the responsibilities of adulthood, and sad that someday they would have to feel the aches and pains of age, that their beauty would wither and fade like a bright autumn leaf. He wanted to make sure they were strong enough to understand.  So he made them a present.

The Great Spirit took all of the colors of nature, the browns of the soil, the reds and oranges of sunsets, the greens of moss and leaf, the whites of the children’s smiles, the yellows of the sun, and blended them together in a huge sack. As an afterthought, he threw birdsong into the mix. Then he shook the sack and pulled out sticky, oval objects that he gave to each child. He told the children to protect the objects until summer’s end. He asked Raven to help the children care for the gifts. The children were perplexed–the sticky little things were not very interesting. Sometimes they forgot about them and left them beside streams and under trees. But Raven always brought them back to the children, squawking and scolding and muttering under his breath.  

When the Great Spirit returned, he thanked Raven and gathered all of the ovals into his hands. He blew on them and from his hands flew hundreds of butterflies, in every color of the rainbow. The children stood amazed and awed. All of the people danced in appreciation of this beautiful new creation. But Raven and the other winged ones sat on the Great Spirit’s shoulders and complained. They felt it was not fair that he gave away the gift that made birds special, birdsong. So the Great Spirit took song away from the butterflies, leaving them silent. 

The Great Spirit asked the children if they were ready to change, and they said yes. He told them to remember that growing up is a gift and a responsibility, and that anytime they felt frightened, they should remember the butterflies, how they filled the sky with their colors for a short time, drinking sweetness and bringing new life to the world. The butterflies would always speak, without sound, of happy times. And then the children began to grow up.

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My family and I have just returned from a week at Piseco Lake, in the Adirondacks, where my paternal relatives have lived and/or vacationed for generations. We stayed in my grandmother’s house, on the lip of a lake where she once washed and wrung her sheets before laundry machines existed.  It was a week of water and fire, with fireworks exploding above the black sheen of the lake, and marshmallows toasted over campfires as we listened to lapping waves.

My family members like to think of ourselves as native to the Adirondacks, but of course, no white person is native to the Adirondacks. When my dad was a kid, he dislodged Indian arrowheads from bark and dirt with his pocket knife. History is also lodged in the words we use. Piseco is a Native American word for fish.  Adirondacks is an Anglicized version of a Mohawk word that means “They Eat Bark.” The Mohawk Indians, a nomadic tribe that used the Adirondacks as fishing and hunting grounds, named their neighbors, the Algonquin Indians, ratirontaks, for their practice of sucking on bark when food was scarce. This pejorative word was applied to and misappropriated by white settlers. Eventually it evolved into the name for the mountain range.

During this week of campfires, I thought a Mohawk story about how mankind obtained fire would raise my kids’ awareness about the original people of the Adirondacks, and educate them about a way of life in which it took more than a match or lighter to ignite a flame. I found the story of How Fire Came to the Six Nations on the website First People. The (by-no-means-authentic) version of the story I told my children at our campfire is heavily based on this account, with a layer of personal interpretation that’s the natural result, and perhaps the point, of retelling. It went something like this:

Long before your cousins hunted in these hills or your great-grandfather fished on the lake, a tribe of Mohawk Indians came here each year to hunt, fish and gather blueberries, to feed their families with the bounty of this wild place. 

There was a boy, almost a man, named Three Arrows in that tribe. The sun shone in his heart: he smiled as his arrows flew straight and true. His father was the chief of the Mohawks, and he recognized something powerful and unbreakable in his son. He knew it was time for his son to commune with the animal spirits, the tribe’s protectors, and to find his place amongst the members of the tribe. He told his son that he must go into the forest and fast, eat nothing and see no-one, until the Great Thunderbird sent him a vision to help his tribe.

His father warned that if he did not see a vision by the setting of the sixth sun, he would have to return to the village. Three Arrows was excited about his journey into the wild of dreams. He brought nothing but water, and the moccasins and loincloth he wore on his body. For many nights, starving and alone in the woods, his dreamed of nothing but black emptiness and he worried he would have to go home in defeat. On the fifth morning, he found a cave that smelled of bear, the totem of his tribe. This was strong medicine. He prayed to Great Thunderbird to send him a vision, and suddenly lightening lit up the sky outside of the cave and he saw the silhouette of a huge bear.  The bear told him a great mystery would be revealed to him that night.

The dream-bear disappeared just as a huge lightening bolt that resembled a blazing arrow lit the sky. The boy braved whipping winds that smelled of bear to walk in the direction that the arrow pointed. He heard an awful screeching sound from a high peak above him, and his heart beat hard in his chest. He knew he had to heed the bear’s words and find what it was the spirits wanted to reveal, so he climbed the peak, where saw two balsam trees rubbing and rubbing together as the wind whipped them. The trees threw off a spark, like tiny lightening. that ignited a fire.

No one in his clan had ever seen fire at this close range, and Three Arrows was terrified. He scrambled down the hill, but suddenly a vision of his family, his clan, entered his mind and he found the courage to face the strange magic. He climbed the hill, snapped two twigs off the balsam pine, and rubbed them together furiously. At first nothing happened, but he kept going until his armed ached, sweat ran down his brow, and a spark flew from the friction of his sticks.

The boy took this knowledge and this story back to the Mohawk people, who gave him a new name, Blazing Arrow.          

I wasn’t quite sure how much of this story my kids absorbed, but today my three-year-old picked up two sticks and began rubbing them together furiously, so he learned something. Hopefully, he won’t get too good at this!