Historical Fiction and the Long Tails or Erie People

18 October 2015 Comments Leave a comment

The first serious military clash between the Great League of the Five Iroquois Nations and the Erie People (Erielhonan/Long Tails) is relatively well-documented. In his History of Ashtabula County, Ohio, written in 1798, Rev. S. D. Peet dedicates more than a whole chapter to the battle that might have shaped the following history of this entire region, taking place centuries ago.

Long Tails/Erie were a prominent nation who, until up to the 16th were reported to occupy the southern and eastern shores of Lake Erie, spreading as far out as Ohio River Valley. Having been an inseparable part of the Great Lakes’ demography, they played an important role in local politics and developments, a people that no one made the mistake of overlooking or omitting taking into account. Neither the Great League, not the Wyandot People confederacy, nor various smaller nations around both great water bodies made this mistake.

According to the reports, furnished mainly by the Great League and recorded by the wandering French missionaries centuries later—not perfectly reliable sources, the first having no objectivity in the story, obviously, and the second having no understanding of local mentality and cultural traits—the Erie People were powerful and warlike, feared by their immediate neighbors, even the members of the Great League, at least prior to its creation. Or so the story goes.

To the north and west, where the famous Onguiaahra/Niagara Falls are cascading today as spectacularly as they did centuries ago, Attiwandaronk People populated the land, a small confederacy of various sub-nations that were later recorded and known to us today as Neutral People. The Wyandot had mistakenly lumped them together with their Long Tails neighbors, even though those people were no Erie. However, the two powers would unite from time to time, enjoying a complicated relationship, especially in the face of the growing confederacies all around—the Wyandot and the Iroquois, in particular. It must have been unsettling, to watch such dominant neighbors uniting into powerful alliances. Not an occurrence farsighted people would choose to ignore.

So in this last book of the People of the Longhouse series – or rather the Great Peacemaker’s saga – I wanted to explore such a development, a large-scale war that might have defined the Great League’s path from those relatively early days, as judging by the later centuries, its political and military dealings and the vastness of its influence, the pattern of its expansion has been set for the earlier times.

The Peacemaker wished to have more people and nations sharing in the union of his creation; the various clauses and laws of his constitution, the detailed and very minutely documented Great Law of Peace, make it perfectly clear.

Yet only five original nations remained the members of the exclusive union up until very late post-contact times. Why? A fair question, as the neighboring people were not so dissimilar to the Five Nations, neither culturally nor linguistically. Still, something prevented even the Peacemaker’s native Wyandot from joining the Great League. Early military clashes? Well, it is one of the possibilities. The documented oral tradition supplying accounts such as the one I based The Warpath on suggests this direction.

Other challenges that the creators of the Great League or those who inherited this responsibility might have been facing were as interesting. At some point, they might have come to realize the possible flaws in their unheard-of political body, long stretches of peace as opposed to the threateningly uniting neighbors, lack of readily available warriors’ forces in case of emergency—no standing army, not among the Great Lakes’ dwellers—or even a certain lack of discipline and organized way of fighting among those who were used to raiding in small groups and in a sporadic manner.

All was not well in the lands of the Erie/Long Tails People, on the western shore of Lake Ontario and around Niagara Falls. Tucked between two growing unions, the mighty Great League and the newly formed alliance of the Wyandot to the north, the Long Tails tried to remain neutral, playing for time, doing little while earning no respect from their powerful neighbors on either side. However, there were some who were enraged by the shameful neutrality. Although Aingahon was not one of those. His reasons for hating the Great League were personal, his desire to take the warpath originating in a thirst for revenge. Leading a serious faction of rebellious elements from his town and its surroundings, he was determined to make the enemies of his people pay; still he got nowhere, until Tsutahi, the mysterious girl from the woods, had crossed his path, changing his world in ways he could never have foreseen.

Back in the lands of the Great League, the generation of younger leaders, Ganayeda and Okwaho – not to mention Ogteah, the newcomer facing new troubles and challenges – sensed the winds of change as well. The relationship between the Five Nations, conducted just like the Great Peacemaker’s legacy prescribed, wasn’t enough, not anymore. A closer cooperation between the nations might be needed, a mutual help and support, even if it came to sending reinforcements and fighting in wars that were not strictly theirs.

The War Chief’s sons’ way of going about pushing their plans was as unconventional as it was forceful and decisive. To bend laws and customs was not the same as breaking them.

Or so they thought, heading toward the inevitable clash with the notorious Long Tails from the west, a clash of proportions neither side could have foreseen or foretold.

An excerpt from “The Warpath”, People of the Longhouse Series, book #4.

“The Great League is not a stone giant,” he said, holding their gazes, sensing their need to hear more. “They claim they are one and many at the same time. One longhouse, five families, they say. But it is not possible, not on such a large scale. What works for clans and towns, doesn’t work for nations.” Taking a deep breath, he hurried on, feeling their attention almost physically. Even the strange girl stopped her knife-throwing exercise and was staring at him through her narrowed, nicely tilted eyes. “We’ve been warring against the Mountain People for many summers, long before their League was born. And even though the warring slowed down through the last decades, we’ve still raided an occasional village of theirs, while they raided ours.”

Another glance at the girl confirmed what he always suspected. Her darkening face and glazing eyes were an indication. Was her entire village destroyed, or only her family, he wondered, then forced his attention back to his audience. “And what happened through all these last summers’ warring. Did the Onondagas come to their fellow members of the Great League’s aid? Did the Flint People from the far east? No! None of them joined this war, just like these same Mountain People don’t travel to join the wars in the lands of the rising sun.”

The memory of the cheeky, violent, bubbling-with-life fox from that hilly Onondaga town made his stomach shrink like it always did, every time he remembered. That familiar mix of anger and warmth. She was such a strange-looking thing, a total foreigner, not even pretty or sweet, not feminine, not attractive in the usual sort of way, even though he did fancy her.

Had he wanted to take her away when the chance presented itself? He didn’t know, didn’t bother to face this question. The following events erased any such thoughts from his mind. The disastrous consequences, the pain of the failure.

“You say that if we start warring on our neighbors in force, their so-called allies would not come to their aid?” The voice of one of the men cut into his flow of thoughts just in time, before his anger turned difficult control.

“Yes, I say that, and I say that with a good reason. The Great League would not join our unworthy neighbors in their war, just like these same Mountain People do not go to war in the east.” He encircled them with his gaze, glad to put his mind on something he could deal with. “The Flint People, whom they call the Keepers of the Eastern Door, are warring against fierce savages from the lands of the rising sun. The Onondagas are dealing with the Wyandot, their recently ridiculously temporary peace agreements notwithstanding.

Those won’t last. We all know they won’t, and they know it too. So they must be busy watching the shores of their Sparkling Water.” He paused, but only for a heartbeat, eyeing them one by one. “No one will join our wars in the west. They will be too busy or too indifferent to do that.” Shrugging, he let his smile of contempt show. “Their Great League is nothing but a sham. It helps them avoid the opening of their old squabbling between each other, but it does little else, no matter how they try to make it sound like a great union of one people.”

They nodded thoughtfully, offering little in the way of an argument. But, of course. They weren’t his adversaries, all these hunters and warriors whose pride the current stance of uncertain neutrality hurt. These men were various and many, from all over the region, curbed by the councils, mainly the Town Council of Tushuway, Aingahon’s own town. Such a major settlement, led by cowards. Only a handful, one or two of the more careful elders, but those were influential people. And very headstrong.

The girl was still watching him, staring with her strangely tilted, disquieting eyes. There was something about her gaze, something ominous. The closeness, he knew. It was unsettling enough before, when she would gaze at nothing in particular, but now, filled with concentration, with an obvious thought process, it made his skin prickle. Like facing an animal, he reflected, a forest creature of unknown quality. Smart, dangerous, dedicated to purpose, some purpose.

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