Thursday’s Tale: The Twelve Brothers and Their Uncle, Dagwanoenyent

Whirlwind

Today’s tale, “The Twelve Brothers and Their Uncle,  Dagwanoenyent,” is a Native American story from the Seneca. It features on the Seneca’s mythological character, Dagwanoenyent the whirlwind. I read it in the Thirty-Second Annual Report of the Bureau of American Ethnology to the Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution. You can read it here.

There were twelve brothers who lived together. All were great hunters, excelled in everything they did and had magical powers.

Each day the twelve would go in different directions hunting. Apparently the oldest was the wisest and “seemed to understand best the women, who went around the world to destroy men, so he always avoided them.” One day, though, the women tricked him, one disguising herself as a woodpecker and luring him to the other on top of a high rock. The second woman said, “Let his bones drop to the ground!” and his body fell apart and the bones fell to the ground among the bones of other men the women had destroyed. His brothers were sad when he did not return.

Eventually a second brother was caught by women and buried. The brothers were scared and told the youngest to stay at home instead of going out hunting. Eventually, one at a time, eight more of the brothers don’t come home, presumably captured by the women, leaving only the two youngest. The youngest decided to seek out their uncle, Dagwanoenyent, a terrible man with no body who lives on a high rock. The remaining brother told him that the uncle would kill him, but the youngest insisted. He prepared by gathering hickory bark, the food the uncle ate, and made arrows from trees which he magically shrinks. He also practiced running and while doing so discovered the buried brother, who he brought him back to the cabin where the other anointed him with bear oil.

The youngest set out, running north until he sees the head on the rock. Using his magic, he entered a mole, telling it to quietly take him as close to the head as possible. When the young man saw his uncle, he was frightened, but he sprang from the mole and with his bow-string drawn, cried out, “Uncle, I’ve come for you!” He let the arrow fly and as it whizzed through the air it grew to the size of a tree. The tree hit the Head above the eyes. With a loud laugh the Head rolled from the rock and swept along in the air leaving behind it a wide track of fallen trees. It went through the forest as a terrible whirlwind.

The young man was just ahead, running very fast. When his uncle was near he turned and shot another arrow. The arrow became a tree, hit the Head and drove it back a long distance; again the young man was ahead. He shot an arrow whenever he was in danger of being overtaken. Each time the Head was driven back a shorter distance; Dagwanoenyent gained on his nephew continually.

The brother at home heard them coming, opened the skin-doors and built a big fire. When the Head rolled into the house, the brothers pounded on him til  he was still. Then the youngest told him he must stay and tell them where their brothers were. Dagwanoenyent replied that he couldn’t stay but he would help them. First he blew on the man who had been buried and the man became whole and well again.

At night the Head stayed outside gnawing on the bark. Then, after a few days, Dagwanoenyent said to his youngest nephew, “I must go home, but first I will take you to the place where your brothers’ bones are.” I don’t know why it took several days for him to decide to go.

Dagwanoenyent and his youngest nephew started out together and didn’t stop until the were at the women’s rock. The uncle said they had to kill the women. He said three times “Fall and be bones!” and they did. Notice the magic three. The nephew scattered the bones and then turned them into birds that flew away.

The Head told his nephew to gather up the bones that are here in piles and make as many bodies as he could, giving each body its own bones. He explained that while the nephew was doing that, he would off a long distance and then come straight back. When the nephew heard the roar of the wind and saw the trees falling he should yell to the skeletons, “Rise up or the trees will fall on you” The Head said they would obey and he would pass over them and go to his own home, adding that if the nephew needed him again, he could come for him.

The young man worked as fast as he could. When all the bones were used, he heard the roar of wind and knew that his uncle was coming. Then he called out, “Rise up or the trees will fall on you!”

Dagwanoenyent, with a terrible roar, swept over the skeletons and they jumped up, restored men.

In two of the skeletons, the  bones had been interchanged. One man, who, from the shape of his feet, had been called “Sharp-pointed Moccasins” had but one of his own feet. A second man had the other. Both were cripples. One of these cripples, a man-eater, had been enticed from a long distance. Right away he wanted to begin eating his companions. The young man killed him with one blow. In the crowd were nine of the twelve brothers.

All the men returned to their homes and the brothers were happy to be reunited.

I found it a rather confusing story. I’m not sure, for example, why one of the brothers was buried when the rest were turned to bones. Or if all women were evil or just the two. And the bit about the man-eater at the end just seemed added on. Certainly an interesting story, though.

Thursday’s Tales is a weekly event here at Carol’s Notebook. Fairy tales, folktales, tall tales, even re-tellings, I love them all.

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