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Mon-daw-min Or The Origin Of Indian Corn

Source: The Myth Of Hiawatha


In times past, a poor Indian was living with his wife and children in a
beautiful part of the country. He was not only poor, but inexpert in
procuring food for his family, and his children were all too young to
give him assistance. Although poor, he was a man of a kind and
contented disposition. He was always thankful to the Great Spirit for
everything he received. The same disposition was inherited by his
eldest son, who had now arrived at the proper age to undertake the
ceremony of the Ke-ig-uish-im-o-win, or fast, to see what kind of a
spirit would be his guide and guardian through life. Wunzh, for this
was his name, had been an obedient boy from his infancy, and was of a
pensive, thoughtful, and mild disposition, so that he was beloved by
the whole family. As soon as the first indications of spring appeared,
they built him the customary little lodge at a retired spot, some
distance from their own, where he would not be disturbed during this
solemn rite. In the mean time he prepared himself, and immediately went
into it, and commenced his fast. The first few days, he amused himself,
in the mornings, by walking in the woods and over the mountains,
examining the early plants and flowers, and in this way prepared
himself to enjoy his sleep, and, at the same time, stored his mind with
pleasant ideas for his dreams. While he rambled through the woods, he
felt a strong desire to know how the plants, herbs, and berries grew,
without any aid from man, and why it was that some species were good to
eat, and others possessed medicinal or poisonous juices. He recalled
these thoughts to mind after he became too languid to walk about, and
had confined himself strictly to the lodge; he wished he could dream of
something that would prove a benefit to his father and family, and to
all others. "True!" he thought, "the Great Spirit made all things, and
it is to him that we owe our lives. But could he not make it easier for
us to get our food, than by hunting animals and taking fish? I must try
to find out this in my visions."

On the third day he became weak and faint, and kept his bed. He
fancied, while thus lying, that he saw a handsome young man coming down
from the sky and advancing towards him. He was richly and gayly
dressed, having on a great many garments of green and yellow colors,
but differing in their deeper or lighter shades. He had a plume of
waving feathers on his head, and all his motions were graceful.

"I am sent to you, my friend," said the celestial visitor, "by that
Great Spirit who made all things in the sky and on the earth. He has
seen and knows your motives in fasting. He sees that it is from a kind
and benevolent wish to do good to your people, and to procure a benefit
for them, and that you do not seek for strength in war or the praise of
warriors. I am sent to instruct you, and show you how you can do your
kindred good." He then told the young man to arise, and prepare to
wrestle with him, as it was only by this means that he could hope to
succeed in his wishes. Wunzh knew he was weak from fasting, but he felt
his courage rising in his heart, and immediately got up, determined to
die rather than fail. He commenced the trial, and after a protracted
effort, was almost exhausted, when the beautiful stranger said, "My
friend, it is enough for once; I will come again to try you;" and,
smiling on him, he ascended in the air in the same direction from which
he came. The next day the celestial visitor reappeared at the same hour
and renewed the trial. Wunzh felt that his strength was even less than
the day before, but the courage of his mind seemed to increase in
proportion as his body became weaker. Seeing this, the stranger again
spoke to him in the same words he used before, adding, "Tomorrow will
be your last trial. Be strong, my friend, for this is the only way you
can overcome me, and obtain the boon you seek." On the third day he
again appeared at the same time and renewed the struggle. The poor
youth was very faint in body, but grew stronger in mind at every
contest, and was determined to prevail or perish in the attempt. He
exerted his utmost powers, and after the contest had been continued the
usual time, the stranger ceased his efforts and declared himself
conquered. For the first time he entered the lodge, and sitting down
beside the youth, he began to deliver his instructions to him, telling
him in what manner he should proceed to take advantage of his victory.

"You have won your desires of the Great Spirit," said the stranger.
"You have wrestled manfully. To-morrow will be 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 this, and now tell you
what you must do to benefit your family and your tribe. To-morrow," he
repeated, "I shall meet you and wrestle with you for the last time;
and, as soon as you have prevailed against me, you will strip off my
garments and throw me down, clean the earth of roots and weeds, make it
soft, and bury me in the spot. When you have done this, leave my body
in the earth, and do not disturb it, but come occasionally to visit the
place, to see whether I have come to life, and be careful never to let
the grass or weeds grow on my grave. Once a month cover me with fresh
earth. If you follow my instructions, you will accomplish your object
of doing good to your fellow-creatures by teaching them the knowledge I
now teach you." He then shook him by the hand and 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
favor you, he will do it now. It is seven days since you have tasted
food, and you must not sacrifice your life. The Master of Life does not
require that." "My father," replied the youth, "wait till the sun goes
down. I have a particular reason for extending my fast to that hour."
"Very well," said the old man, "I shall wait till the hour arrives, and
you feel inclined to eat."

At the usual hour of the day the sky-visitor returned, and the trial of
strength was renewed. Although the youth had not availed himself of his
father's offer of food, he felt that new strength had been given to
him, and that exertion had renewed his strength and fortified his
courage. He grasped his angelic antagonist with supernatural strength,
threw him down, took from him his beautiful garments and plume, and
finding him dead, immediately buried him on the spot, taking all the
precautions he had been told of, and being very confident, at the same
time, that his friend would again come to life. He then returned to his
father's lodge, and partook sparingly of the meal that had been
prepared for him. But he never for a moment forgot the grave of his
friend. He carefully visited it throughout the spring, and weeded out
the grass, and kept the ground in a soft and pliant state. Very soon he
saw the tops of the green plumes coming through the ground; and the
more careful he was to obey his instructions in keeping the ground in
order, the faster they grew. He was, however, careful to conceal the
exploit from his father. Days and weeks had passed in this way. The
summer was now drawing towards a close, when one day, after a long
absence in hunting, Wunzh invited his father to follow him to the quiet
and lonesome spot of his former fast. The lodge had been removed, and
the weeds kept from growing on the circle where it stood, but in its
place stood a tall and graceful plant, with bright-colored silken hair,
surmounted with nodding plumes and stately leaves, and golden clusters
on each side. "It is my friend," shouted the lad; "it is the friend of
all mankind. It is Mondawmin.[50] We need no longer rely on hunting
alone; for, as long as this gift is cherished and taken care of, the
ground itself will give us a living." He then pulled an ear. "See, my
father," said he, "this is what I fasted for. The great Spirit has
listened to my voice, and sent us something new,[51] and henceforth our
people will not alone depend upon the chase or upon the waters."

He then communicated to his father the instructions given him by the
stranger. He told him that the broad husks must be torn away, as he had
pulled off the garments in his wrestling; and having done this,
directed him how the ear must be held before the fire till the outer
skin became brown, while all the milk was retained in the grain. The
whole family then united in a feast on the newly-grown ears, expressing
gratitude to the Merciful Spirit who gave it. So corn came into the

[50] The Algic name for corn. The word is manifestly a trinary
compound from monedo, spirit; min, a grain or berry; and
iaw, the verb substantive.

[51] The Zea mays, it will be recollected, is indigenous to
America, and was unknown in Europe before 1495.

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