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Spadina Literary Review  —  edition 4 page 04


Among Tekahionwake's most blood-curdling crowd-pleasers were a pair of anti-Huron narratives, composed in heroic couplets, that she kept in her repertoire for most of her career. They were also the opening poems in The White Wampum, her first published collection. As we shall see, Tekahionwake eventually faced a sort of reckoning for these poems in the court of poetic justice (no pun intended).

The 59-line poem entitled “As a Red Man Dies” tells of a Mohawk chief who has been captured by Hurons. But this Mohawk will not grovel,

Least, to the puny tribe his soul abhors,
The tribe whose wigwams sprinkle Simcoe’s shores.

The poem is harkening to a time when the Huron homeland reached from Lake Simcoe to Lake Huron, an area in Ontario still known today as Huronia. Using Old English verb forms — to engrave the speech in ancient time? — Tekahionwake has the Huron offer their prisoner a cruel choice:

“Wilt thou
Walk o’er the bed of fire that waits thee now —
Walk with uncovered feet upon the coals,
Until thou reach the ghostly Land of Souls,
And, with thy Mohawk death-song please our ear?
Or wilt thou with the women rest thee here?”

So, stay with the women? Or sing a song while you walk on coals?

“Prepare the fire!” he scornfully demands.

The Huron felled a tall pine and set it afire to form a burning path in front of the Mohawk.

“Up the long trail of fire he boasting goes,
Dancing a war dance to defy his foes.
His flesh is scorched, his muscles burn and shrink,
But still he dances to death’s awful brink.

The Mohawk lets go a fierce cry that echoes thru the forest before he finally falls dead — dead, but in that culture, undefeated, for this hero will continue to wage war from the spirit world. In fact Tekahionwake, predicting the past, declares that vengeance will be vested upon the Huron one day when:

...reeking, red and raw,
Their scalps will deck the belts of Iroquois.

And make sure to growl that alliterative r-sound.

The merciless blood feud between the Iroquois and Huron confederacies extended far back in time, back before the fur trade, back before the White People bumped into North America. Presumably from her upbringing Tekahionwake would have absorbed various Mohawk legends against the Huron.

While a number of Tekahionwake’s “Indian poems” focused on conflict with white soldiers or settlers, which gave her the opportunity to excoriate white policies and attitudes towards Native peoples, the two anti-Huron poems discussed here were Tekahionwake’s only Indian-versus-Indian poems, with the exception of a piece entitled “The Avenger” wherein a Mohawk exacts murderous revenge upon a Cherokee — the Cherokee being, like the Huron, a traditional Mohawk enemy.