Jane Johnston Schoolcraft (1800-1842) also known by her Objibwa name, which is translated as “Woman of the Sound the Stars Make Rushing Through the Sky“, is recognized as the first Native American literary writer. The grand-daughter of a noted Ojibwa chieftain, and daughter of a well-educated Irish fur trader, she married the famous explorer and cultural anthropologist Henry Rowe Schoolcraft. Her heritage and education enabled her to re-tell ancient Ojibwa legends as a fluent speaker of both languages.
“The Corn Story” (or “The Origin of Corn”) has been reprinted many times since Schoolcraft’s first translation and is retold in Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s The Song of Hiawatha in which it is Hiawatha who wrestles with the spirit. The myth displays the practice of fasting for inspiration, a major tenet of Ojibwa religion.
Once upon a time, a poor Indian with his wife and several children lived alone and apart from the tribe. It was on the first indications of spring that his eldest son had arrived at that age when it is thought necessary for youth to fast to see what kind of spirit would be his guide and guardian through life. [This could be as young as five or six years.] Accordingly, a little lodge was made for him, as customary on such occasions, some distance from the parents’ lodge.
The father was a poor man and not very expert, either in hunting or fishing, barely getting enough for the use of his family day by day. He was contented and happy and always thankful to the Great Spirit, for all the comforts, little as they were. He was an humble, peaceable man.
His eldest son, of whom we are to speak in particular, had always been a thoughtful, quiet, pensive boy from infancy. He was always ready to assist with his parents without murmuring. Kind and gentle to his brothers and sisters, he was very much beloved by the whole family. The parents felt anxious about the fast and hoped it would be propitious.
After the lad had prepared himself and entered the lodge, the few first days of the fast, he amused himself by walking in the woods and on the mountains, examining the early plants and flowers, and as he observed all nature in its progress of re-animation, he sighed and wished to know all about how they first came, how they grew without the help of man and everything else about their being useful to mankind and more.
After a few days, he confined himself to his little lodge, thinking how he could be helpful to his poor fellow creatures.
He thought how precarious the exertions of his poor father were in order to sustain his family, and thought if there could be no other means of support than that of fishing and hunting.
This and a great many other ideas came into his mind, such as, who is the Author, the Maker of all that I see, so beautiful, so silent, and yet, perceptible in its operations?
“There must be a Great Spirit”, he said to himself, “who has made all things and who takes care of all. I must try to find out who it is, perhaps in my visions I shall find out who he is and he may show me pity, and teach me to be like him – bountiful and good. For a good spirit he must be, who bestows such beautiful things for the use of man”.
On the third day, he became weak and faint and kept his bed, and fancied he saw a man come down from the sky, advancing toward him very gaily and richly dressed having on a great many blankets of the same color, only slight shades of difference, some were deep green and others lighter. He was very beautiful, having fine waving feathers on his head.
When he came near, he said, “I am sent to you, my friend, by the Great Spirit who made all things in the sky and on the earth, the same great one you thought must exist, from what you observed the other day. He has seen and known your motives in your fasting now.”
“He sees it is to do good to your fellow creatures, and you did not think of yourself.”
“You seek not for grandeur or praise from your fellows, but their good, and the Great Spirit is pleased with your fasting and in consequence, I am sent to instruct you to in how to do your kindred good, as you feel most anxious about that”.
He thus told the lad to arise and prepare himself to wrestle with him as it would be only by his courage and perseverance, as well as strength, then he could hope to succeed in his wish to do and get good for mankind.
The lad knew he was weak in body, but felt strong in mind and at once rose from his bed determining to die rather than fail in his most ardent wish to do good for mankind and he commenced wrestling with the beautiful stranger and was almost exhausted, but he would not give up until the stranger said, “My friend it is enough for once. I will come again and try you” and smiling on him encouragingly he ascended, in the same direction he came from.
The stranger came the next day at the same hour, and they wrestled as at first, and though the lad was weaker from want of food, this day more than the day previous he would not give way until the stranger again spoke as before and left him, saying in addition, “Tomorrow will be your last trial. Be strong my friend and try to vanquish me, for that is the only way you can do good and get food for yourself and others”.
The lad felt encouraged by this and determined on the morrow, rather to die than be vanquished.
The stranger appeared again at the usual time and said, “My friend this is the last struggle between us. Three days I have wrestled with you. Weak as you are, you have behaved manfully and you seem to struggle more for others than for yourself and therefore I hope you will prevail” and they continued their combat.
The poor youth was very faint in body, but grew stronger in mind determined not to give up the contest but with his life.
After the usual time of struggle, the stranger acknowledged himself conquered and the strife ceased. For the first time he entered the lodge of the youth and, sitting down beside him, he began to instruct him in all what manner he should take advantage of his having prevailed against him.
“Now,” said the stranger “tomorrow is the seventh day of your fasting. Your father will give you food to strengthen you and, as it is the last day of trial, you will prevail. I know it, and now tell what you must do for the good of mankind, as well as for your family.”
“Tomorrow.” he continued “I shall meet you for the last time and when you have knocked me down, clean the earth of weeds and roots and make the earth very soft. Bury me in the spot thus prepared, and come occasionally to see where you shall place me. Be careful never to let the grass or weeds grow on the hillock where I am laid and once in the month cover me anew with fresh earth.”
“If you follow my instructions, you will do good for your fellow creatures by telling them and teaching them, what I now tell you.” and shaking hands with the lad, he disappeared.
In the morning, the youth’s father came with some slight refreshments saying, “My son, you have fasted long enough. If the Great Spirit will do you good, he will do it now. It is seven long days since you tasted anything, and you must not sacrifice your life as that would be displeasing to the Master of Life.”
The youth requested his father to wait till sundown as he did not wish to break his fast till he had accomplished his vision. “Very well, my son,” said the father “I shall wait till you feel inclined to eat.”
At the usual hour, the beautiful stranger appeared and said, “You have not availed yourself of earthly strength, but so much the better: you have strength given to you from him you trust in to enable you to succeed against me.”
So saying, he continued, “You have already conquered me, and when I fall, bury me as I directed and observe all the directions I gave you and never feel grief for my passing. Keep the weeds and grass from my grave and then you will have your vision and benefit your fellow creatures”
Accordingly, they began to wrestle, and the youth felt strengthened more than usual and prevailed against his adversary. As soon as he found he had slain the stranger, he selected a beautiful spot to bury him. It was a shallow vale where the sun shone daily and the dew descended nightly.
He observed everything that he had been directed to do about the body, for the stranger had told him not to fear killing him, as he would come to life again, and that it was only through his death, for a little while, that any good would come.
The youth did all that was directed him by his friend and felt deeply anxious about the result of his obedience, but determined to watch carefully when his friend would come to life again as he had predicted. He then went home and took sparingly of his father’s kind meal, and finished his fast.
All spring he attended the grave of his friend and carefully weeded the spot he was buried in. The lad never told what had occurred until one day the father followed him to the place he so often went to. This was after a long absence. To their mutual surprise, they beheld a strange plant, several feet high with light hair as if it were floating in the air at the tops, and large oval clusters on the sides of the stalks. The lad shouted, “It is my friend and the friend of all mankind. None need ever depend alone upon hunting and fishing as long as there is Mondaumin* to live and grow from the ground.”
He pulled an ear of corn and gave it to his father. “See Father, this is what I fasted for and the Great Spirit of all flesh has listened to my wish. Henceforth men need not depend along upon the chase and the produce of the waters, for by careful attention to this plant, they will have plenty to eat whilst the world lasts.”
He then told his father what the beautiful stranger had told him before in their conversation, that his blankets must be taken off and his feathers pulled away before he could be of any use to man, and when both were done, they returned home, roasted the ear of corn and felt thankful to the Master of Life who so mercifully provides for his creatures.
So corn came into the world for the good of mankind and since that time, through the instruction of the little boy, all the Indians have endeavored to get corn for their families.
*Mondaumin is the Ojibwa word for corn