Mandowmin of the Maize by Violet Moore Higgins
An illustration for the story Mandowmin of the Maize by the author Violet Moore Higgins
IN the history of the Pilgrims and their early struggles on the bleak shores of New England, it is told how they were taught by the friendly Indians, Samoset and Squanto, to plant Indian corn, which soon became one of the principal articles of food on their tables. And even now, after nearly three hundred years, there is scarcely any food we think of as more truly American, than corn meal mush, or piping hot corn cakes.
But long long ago, before the feet of white men ever trod the forest of the New World, as America was called in those days, and while Indians in vast numbers roamed over the land, there was a time when Indian corn or maize was unknown even to the red men. Their food consisted almost entirely of meat—the fleet-footed deer and wild turkey—and fish from the little trout streams. Sometimes a handful of sweet berries was found, which added zest to the meal.
Life ran on smoothly in the summer time, for then the Indians lived well, but when the long, snowy New England winters set in, it was quite a different matter. The streams froze over, the birds flew south, and the deer retreated farther into the depths of the forest. Sometimes when there had been an unusually large number of deer killed in the fall, the Indian women cut up the flesh into strips and dried it in the warm bright autumn sunshine. This dried meat was then stored away for the long winter. But the supply seldom lasted until spring, and the people had to face days of famine and suffering during which many of them died.
Now it chanced in those days that there lived a little Indian boy named Waso. He was the son of a chieftain, and like his father he had a kind and gentle heart. The chieftain never forgot to give thanks to the Great Spirit for every catch of fish and for every nimble deer his sharp arrows killed. When times of famine fell upon the tribe, he shared with them until he had no more left to give, and he was constantly trying to discover ways in which he might help his people.
Little Waso, growing from babyhood into boyhood in this kindly atmosphere, began to think very seriously of the welfare of his tribe, over whom he would some day rule as a chieftain.
Often he dreamed strange dreams. He would imagine that he was walking through a dense forest where the briars and brambles stung him, and brought out a rash on his tender skin. But then, at his very feet would spring up a cluster of bright berries, or some green herb, and a voice seemed to urge him to crush the plant and lay it on the red spot. He obeyed and was instantly healed. So too, in a dream, was the bite of a poisonous snake cured. The strangest part of all was that on the following day these things all happened exactly as in his vision. Waso always found the herb he needed growing near him, and thus was saved from many a misfortune.
He told his father of these things, and the chieftain called together the older men of the tribe and related to them all that had happened. They believed his dreams were messages from the Great Spirit, and from that time each particular herb of which the child had dreamed, was carefully gathered and stored away for use as medicine. All the old men declared that Waso would some day become a great chieftain.At last, for little Waso, came the time when an Indian boy goes away from his family and fasts and calls on the Great Spirit to show him a vision of his future life and teach him how to live wisely and well. So the chieftain built a little wigwam for Waso, at some distance from the others, and the boy went to it, and began the solemn rites.
That first night in his tent alone, he dreamed that the Great Spirit sent a new gift to his people, a food by means of which it would be easier for them to live and which would provide against days of famine. This gift was called Mandowmin and was to grow out of the black soil. But the manner in which he should find it was not revealed to Waso and after he awoke he could think of nothing else but the mysterious gift.
He fasted for three days in his lonely tent, sleeping at night on a bed of skins. The third day, weak from lack of food, he looked out of his doorway at sunset, and saw a splendid young brave flying down from the sky. He was clad all in green and yellow, and a tuft of green plumes nodded on his head.
“I am come, oh Little-Chieftain-Who-Loves-His-People, from the Great Spirit,” said the stranger. “He looks with favor upon you and your father the Chieftain, because you contend not with arrows and spears, but seek only the good of your people. I have great news for you, news of a wonderful gift from the Great Spirit; but first you must wrestle with me, as it is only by overcoming me that you may learn the secret.”
Now Waso was so faint and weak that he swayed as he stood, but without hesitation he began to wrestle with the mysterious stranger. It was an unequal struggle, however, and soon the boy lay on his back, panting for breath.
“I will come again tomorrow,” said the stranger, and vanished.
The next day at the same hour the young brave appeared at Waso’s tent, and again they wrestled. Once more Waso was vanquished, but the stranger only smiled his kind friendly smile and said: “Be brave, little Waso! You have another chance—tomorrow—but your last—remember.”
On the third day Waso was so weak that he could scarcely stand, but he said to himself that he must win in order to learn the great secret for his people. And so much did his strong will help his weak body that at last he overthrew the young brave in green.
“Well done, Little Chieftain,” said the stranger, as he arose from the ground, where Waso had thrown him in the struggle, and dusted off his garments. “Tomorrow at set of sun I will come again for the last time. If I am vanquished I shall die. You must then strip off my garments, clear a spot of earth free from all stones, weeds and roots, soften the earth, and bury me in that spot. Then come often to my grave, and see if perchance I have returned to life once more; but let no weeds grow over me. Promise that you will do all as I tell you, and then you shall know the secret of the Great Spirit.”
Waso promised though with tears in his eyes. He had grown to love the handsome stranger with whom he had wrestled on three days at sunset, and the thought of his death saddened the boy, but he gave him his word.
The next morning the chieftain came to his son’s tent with food.
“You have proved yourself a man, my son,” he said. “A longer fast may do you harm.”
But Waso answered: “Wait only, oh my father, until evening, and when the sun goes down I shall return to your fireside.”
So the chieftain went home alone.
At sunset the strange brave returned and appeared once more at Waso’s tent. For the last time they fought. Steadily Waso gained and finally the stranger sank weakly to his knees. He arose again, and once more Waso put forth all his strength and threw his foe to earth. The stranger murmured faintly: “Your promise—remember,” and spoke no more.
Gently, tenderly, with tears streaming down his cheeks, Waso obeyed the instructions. Drawing off the beautiful green and yellow garments, he buried his strange friend in the soft black soil.Then he returned to his father’s home. But every day he visited the lonely grave far away at the edge of the forest. Carefully he pulled away the weeds and in the dry season he carried water in gourds to keep the earth soft and moist. Then one day, to his joy, he saw that the green plumes of the stranger’s head-dress were pushing through the soil. His friend was coming back to him.
All this time Waso had kept these things a secret, but as the summer drew to a close, he led his father to the distant grave. He told the chieftain the strange story, and, when he had finished, pointed to where there rose from the center of the stranger’s grave a plant whose like had never been seen before by the chieftain. As tall as a man it stood, straight and green, with broad shining leaves waving in the autumn breeze, topped by silky bright brown hair and nodding green plumes. From either side grew long green husks full of pearly white grains, sweet and juicy to the taste.
“It is my friend come back to me,” cried Waso. “It is Mandowmin, the Indian corn. It is the gift of the Great Spirit, and so long as we renew it from year to year, and watch and tend it, we need never fear the famine.”
That night, round the grave of Mandowmin, the members of the tribe held a feast and thanked the Great Spirit for his goodness.