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This Land is Their Land

False Faces: medicine masks of the Haudenosaunee.

The first to feel the spiritual pull of Western New York were Native peoples

Halloween besieges us with the imagery of all things spooky. Our media gives us a pop, generic mosh. Once Halloween was ominous and sacred.

A “Day of the Dead” to Celtic societies, Halloween was associated with the Otherworld, the realm of the human dead and other supernatural beings. Even a century ago, collectors on the fringes of Celtic country could record “live” folklore: stories and reports rooted in ancient tradition, taken as true as urban legends.

It may shock us to realize that New York has its own native supernaturalism, alive and vibrant today. It is that of the Iroquois, in Western New York the Seneca and their Tuscarora cousins. We are on their ground, and if anything is to be encountered this Halloween, it could more authentically be an aspect of their tradition.

Most Iroquois are guarded about their supernaturalism around outsiders. A Mohawk woman I met recently said, “There’s four things we never talk about. Let’s see how many of them you get right.”

I would never reveal anything I knew to be “classified,” but my new friend assured me: “If it’s sacred, you don’t know it.” It should do no harm, then, to talk about these four subjects and stories that have been written or told to me by whites.

Witchcraft: The Feeding of the Dead

Orenda is the Iroquois term for the force of life, spirit, and magic. Though holy and powerful, it could be twisted into a deadly time-bomb affecting places, objects, and even curses. In that form it’s called otkon. Who would do such a thing?

Early in the 20th century the Seneca scholar Arthur Parker testified that the dread of witches was so strong on the Reservation that one Seneca would kill another if convinced this was the source of a curse. Even the threat of a hex was enough to start a riot at a 1950s gathering on the Tonawanda Reservation. In 1989 Anne Marie Shimony guessed that about a third of the residents of the Six Nations Reserve believed in the dark art. Even today there is a healthy respect for magic on the four Western New York Reservations. Some whites may have experienced it.

After an evening lecture in a Southern Tier library, a woman came up to me in the rainy parking lot, asking if I had heard of something called “Feeding the Dead.” Some Native American groups were known to exhume the bodies of the community dead, dress them, set them at tables, feast with them, and return them. This was a ritual of the greatest power. I did not know that the Iroquois had something like it.

This woman had worked on a Reservation pharmacy on the grounds of a former “Indian” school. (Not only were these schools sources of massive trauma for the Iroquois, but bodies were known to be buried on the grounds of this one.) While there she endured a horrid pattern that made her feel cursed. The climax was the Hollywood-style apparition of a Victorian-era schoolgirl with oil for eyes. Sympathetic elders healed her of this curse through a ritual she described as “horrible.” “I need so badly to understand this,” she said. But she broke off before finishing.

“They told me never to talk about it. It could bring it all back.”

I haven’t heard from her since. Judging by the reports, these curses can be directed by power-people, and they can also be encountered by transgressing on power-ground.

False Faces: The Medicine Masks

The Iroquois are distinctive for their healing societies. Most prominent was the Medicine Mask Society, usually called “the False Faces.” To many Iroquois, the orenda they bear makes the greatest of these masks alive.

Using a mask irreverently might curse the bearer or whomever he or she looked at while wearing it. Masks “caged” in museums act up, making their disconcerting whistle-calls, creating poltergeist displays, and driving many a curator to early retirement. The Tuscarora healer “Mad Bear” Anderson used to warn his guests to be reverent of his masks. “If you get something started up out of one of them, I don’t have the power to turn it around.”

If you are a non-Native American occultist called to help with a Reservation case, feel as free as you like to be flattered. More than that, though, be on guard.

In the fall of 2008, a white woman called me with a long story about supernatural persecution. Her white son and his part-Seneca wife were in a dispute over a Reservation house and its contents, including some medicine masks. I told her to make her peace with the Medicine Mask people and give the masks back. She went elsewhere for help.

Some white friends of mine—ghosthunters and Spiritualists—ended up doing an “investigation” and getting in over their heads. Only when they backed out completely did their own feelings of persecution recede.

Little People: Healers and Tricksters

Popular impressions of the fairy folk, the lead characters of the Celtic Halloween, come from northwestern Europe: the Irish, the Scottish, the Scandinavians. It would surprise many to know that traditions about diminutive, magical human beings are found all over the world. While random reports of Little People and mention of places associated with them may not be classified, this may be the most private of all subjects to the Iroquois.

In the old tales there were three nations of Little People, all with different roles. They were not hostile, but they were powerful, and they could do damage if they played rough. Edmond Wilson judged that the types that came back most in 1950s report were two tribes that he classed as “Healers” and “Tricksters.” Algonquin Michael Bastine tells us in 2010 that this two-tribe model holds, and not all are friendly. Occasionally they come to whites, typically to children.

Ten years ago a small family was visiting the Tonawanda Reservation. The white husband lounged outside in the twilight and noticed small, curious lights along the unused railroad tracks where his children played. His six-year-old son came back talking excitedly about Little People he’d met. The Seneca grandmother angrily sent them all home. Next morning the boy came to breakfast talking about Little People again, this time in the family driveway, trying to get him to come outside in the night.

The Seneca grandmother had some ritual done at the house and no more was said, but the father was mystified. A year or two later, the grandmother took him aside. The Little People came to children, she said, often up to no good. Five years before, they had lost a boy about the age of her grandson. He had been by the tracks and simply disappeared. They turned the Reservation upside down, but there was nowhere natural he could have been. He showed up days later, knocking on someone’s door, well-fed, clean, and neat.

There were two curiosities about the boy, however. For one, he was talking about Little People. For another, he had forgotten his English. He was speaking fluent Seneca. This old tongue, the high language of Seneca magic and spirituality, has few speakers these days. You don’t learn Seneca in a long weekend. It was weeks before the boy’s English came all the way back.

Shapeshifters: The Bestial Choirs

The fourth classified category surprised me: shapeshifters. Shapeshifting figures everywhere in world legend. Connected with shamanism, animal-totemism, and reincarnation as well as witchcraft, this subject has a long lineage. I think the reason this is private could be that most Iroquois high deities are shape-morphic, too. The Great Spirit, when He comes to us, comes most often in a small and humble form.

Iroquois legend features beautiful, haunting tales of witches turning into wolves; shamanic walkabouts as bears; horses talking Seneca in the fields; and human strangers with fox-tails or bear-ears. Most of them are dangerous.

A young East Aurora woman spent childhood time on the Tonawanda Reservation. One evening a clan-mother drew her white guests together. “It’s time for you all to go,” she said, cautioning everyone to walk only in the light, to drive safely, and not to stop or get out until off the Reservation.

“Why all the precautions?” said the white girl.

“The shapeshifters are out.”

She laughed. “How do you know?”

“We can hear them. Listen…”

Everyone strained their ears into the woody dimness around them. To this day, the young woman remembers the howling, the eeriest thing she has ever heard.

“What was it like?” I asked.

“It was like…a choir. Choirs. In the night.”


“Yeah. Choirs of people, howling together like wolves. Like 15 human voices. Well, that is…mostly human.”

My late friend the Seneca storyteller DuWayne Bowen told me that the best way to spot a witch or shapeshifter in any form was to look for the breath, glowing and fiery at night, as though a furnace burned inside.

When you take your evening walk this Halloween season, don’t forget that an ancient supernaturalism is alive and well in Western New York. Be respectful of whatever you encounter on its territory.

Mason Winfield is the author of eight books on the local paranormal, including 1997’s Shadows of the Western Door and 2009’s Ghosts of 1812, a history of the Niagara war and its supernatural folklore. Talking Animals and Medicine People, a book on the supernaturalism of the Iroquois co-authored by Michael Bastine, will be published by Bear & Co./Inner Traditions International in 2011. Mason is the founder of Haunted History Ghost Walks, Inc., an East Aurora-based walking tour company, and co-founder of Spirit Way Project, a research-based organization.

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