The Indian myths here presented, in their original form as dictated to Mr. Curtin by aged Indians of the Seneca people, were collected by him while acting as an agent of the Bureau of Ethnology of the Smithsonian Institute, and are now published with the permission and approval of that body.
Mr. Curtin considered the collection of the ideas of primitive peoples as indispensible to the study of the development of the human mind. From college days, though living abroad and occupied with affairs connected with his diplomatic position, he spent his leisure time studying philology and mythology; and when, many years later, in 1883, he was offered a position in the Bureau of Ethnology, he was very glad to enter the field as an active worker.
His teacher in the Seneca language was Sim Logan, a Seneca Indian, who was in Washington in government employ and was willing to add to his earnings by acting as Mr. Curtin's tutor. At the end of four months Mr. Curtin had acquired considerable knowledge of Seneca, which he found one of the most interesting of Indian languages. In September of that year Logan left for his home near Versailles, N. Y., and a few days later Mr. Curtin went to Versailles to begin work in the field.
He remained there till late in December and it was during this time that he collected most of the myths in the present volume. He appointed a time and place, and when the Indians assembled he told them why he had come to the reservation; that the Bureau of Ethnology wished to preserve their traditions and myths and that this could only be done by writing them down. A young man called Two Guns, immediately advised the people to have nothing to do with Mr. Curtin, as he was there to get hold of their Seneca religion and store it away as a curiosity. He had
considerable influence, and Mr. Curtin might have been unable to get any of their traditions had not Solomon O'Beal, a wise old "pagan," stood firmly by him and for the Institution that wished to collect and save the folk-lore of the Senecas. O'Beal was a son of Corn Planter, a descendant of Handsome Lake, "the great teacher." He was highly respected by the old Indians of the tribe and after he had told Mr. Curtin all the traditions and myths stored in his mind, each man was willing to add what he knew. It was only the old who possessed any knowledge of Seneca mythology--middle aged and young men had "thrown it away." If the myths in this book had not been collected at that time they would have been lost.
Before Mr. Curtin left the Reservation he had so far won the esteem and confidence of the Senecas that they wished to adopt him into the tribe and give him an Indian name. He was glad that they were friendly, and was willing to become one of them. A Council was called, and an old man performed the ceremony of adoption; afterward announcing to those present that the old men of the tribe had given their new member the name of HI-WE-SAS (Seeker of Knowledge).
How the Indians obtained the traditions of "the first people" is recounted in the story entitled, The Origin of Stories.
Mr. Curtin was again in Versailles in May, 1888, and on that occasion met with no opposition, for he was now a member of the tribe. At this time however, he found very few myths that he considered of value, for in 1883 they had given him the best of all they had. Nevertheless he obtained much information regarding their old-time customs and ceremonies. For instance: On May 2nd of that same year he was present at an Indian funeral feast given by George White for his wife, ten days after her death. It was the last time her spirit would enter the house and eat--she ate "the spiritual part of the food." A large quantity of food was placed on a table in the living room. After a time an old man arose and eulogized the dead woman; then he divided her clothing among her intimate friends--the relatives retained no part of it. Later he divided the food, none of which was eaten in
the house or left there. The Indians who participated in this funeral feast were all "pagans."
A week after the funeral feast Mr. Curtin gave a "Kettle feast" to the Indians of New Town--the "pagan" Indians. It was their annual spring festival after the planting season was over. Mr. Curtin simply paid for the uncooked food. Three fires were lighted outside the "Long House" and a huge kettle was hung over each fire. In one kettle was hulled corn; in the second beef was cooked, in the third pork soup and brown beans. When each person had partaken abundantly of the corn and soup, dancing began. The dances were all of a religious nature--dances in honor of the Great Spirit, who gives the blessed Springtime.
Mr. Curtin left Versailles on June 1st of that year and was never able to return there.
It is perhaps hardly necessary to emphasize the extraordinary interest and value to students of folklore and primitive beliefs of the material so tirelessly and carefully collected here by Mr. Curtin, or to stress the fact that if the collecting of it had been delayed a few years the opportunity to gather it would have been lost forever.
As a matter of fact, the knowledge here brought together of the early Seneca traditions has, as far as the Indians are concerned, entirely vanished from the earth, and is only preserved in these records left behind him by Mr. Curtin.
G. M. A.