The Oneida tribe is a Native American people that belong to the Iroquois Confederacy, which settled originally in upstate New York. The name that the people give themselves is derived from “Onayotekaono”, meaning the “People of the Upright Stone”. The story of the “Warrior Maiden” is not necessarily specific to the Oneida tribe, but it is actually a rather common legend among the Native American peoples. However, the story is to be found in different versions that are, for their most part, dissimilar and adapted to the particular tradition of each tribe. The Southern tribes, such as the Hopi people who are based in Mexico, have an almost entirely different version of the “Warrior Maiden” story. The Oneida version of this legend offers a memorable and very beautiful example of a true heroine: the young maiden, named Aliquipiso saves the Oneidas from their rival tribe, the Mingos, through unsurpassed courage and self-sacrifice. The legend has a great significance for the history and the culture of the Iroquois and of the Oneida people especially.
Thus, first of all, the story gives an example of a perfect heroine of the people, a maiden that was respected not only by those that knew her and saw her brave heart and her pure spirit, but also by all the following generations that remembered her name. Aliquipiso literally saves her people from dying of hunger, during a war with their most dangerous enemies, the Mingos. The legend is set evidently to a time before the arrival of the white colonizers. As the story has it, after a devastating invasion, the Oneida people found refuge from their enemies in the depths of the forests, in caves and desolate mountains where they were indeed protected but where they could die of hunger because of the lack of provisions. The only option for the tribe seemed to be either to perish in their hiding places by starving or to go out and get killed by their invaders. During the council, the young maiden named Aliquipiso came forward and told them that she herself is willing to sacrifice her life in order to lure the Mingos up to where the Oneida people were hiding, and thus get them all killed and deliver her people.
The warrior maiden acts according to her plan, and, in order to enhance her credibility in the eyes of the enemies, she even takes the fire torture that the latter submit her too, pretending to surrender in the end because of the unbearable pain. Her valor and her willingness to be sacrificed for the safety of her people are so great that she lets herself be killed in the attack along with the enemy tribe, as it was inevitable. Thus, the warrior maiden stands out as an example of wisdom, courage, purity (as the fact that she was a maiden indicates), moral integrity and self-sacrifice in the name of her people.
The young woman fits therefore a pattern common to most of the Native American legends: she represents strength combined with purity, as the title that is given to her also indicates. She is a maiden, therefore she is morally and spiritually intact, but at the same time, her modesty is combined with the absolute strength given by her limitless courage. These two essential qualities obviously hint at the heroic ideal according to the Oneida culture and tradition. Also, the warrior maiden is a model for her people and she represents national pride.
Besides the notion of heroic ideal, the legend of the Warrior Maiden contains a very significant allusion to the very foundations of the Oneida culture. Thus, the very name of the tribe is derived, as already indicated, from the phrase “People of the Upright Stone”. The plot of the story becomes thus very symbolic: the enemies are destroyed with the help of the maiden that lures them to the secret and inaccessible hidings of the Oneidas, by crushing them with giant rocks fell from the mountain top. This particular means of destruction can be interpreted as a hint to the title that the tribe gives itself: the phrase “upright stone” has multiple interpretations, ranging from the idea of “uprightness”, justice and correctness, to that of unbeatable and crushing strength given by the moral force and purity of the members of the tribe: “We are hiding on top of a high, sheer cliff. Above us, the mountain is covered with boulders and heavy sharp rocks. You warriors wait and watch here. I will go to the Mingos and lead them to the spot at the foot of the cliff where they all can be crushed and destroyed.”(Erdoes and Ortiz, 253)A third and even more significant connection between the legend of the Warrior Maiden and the traditional culture of the tribe is the fact that the Iroquois societies were, for their most part, matriarchies.
Thus, for example, the council of the tribe was chosen by the clan mothers or matriarchs, the female leaders of the people. Moreover, the gendered division of the labors and attributions of each tribe member also hint at the strong tradition of the Oneida that gave a favored place to women in society: “Iroquois societies were strongly matrilineal: women controlled agricultural lands, the election of leaders and, to some extent, warfare […] The gender-based division of labor made women responsible for agricultural work and housekeeping, while men hunted, fished, and traded, although there were also women traders. Government and warfare […] were also male activities although the clan mothers heavily influenced decision-making.” It is essential to note therefore that in the Iroquois society women had very important roles: besides the fact that they were wives, mothers and housekeepers they also controlled agricultural work, and to some extent, warfare.
Women thus played an active part in society, as influential leaders. In this context, the legend is easier to interpret: the Oneida, as a people that honors women will be expected to give them a special place in their mythology. Thus, the warrior maiden takes here the place of a true leader of the people and a commander that orders the attack on the Mingos and thus, in a way, she plays the part of a man also: “The Mingos crowded together in a dense mass with the girl in the center. Then Aliquipiso uttered a piercing cry: ‘Oneidas! The enemies are here! Destroy them!”(Erdoes and Ortiz, 253) The warrior maiden becomes a symbol of the “brave women”, as the story tells us: “The Great Mystery changed Aliquipiso’s hair into woodbine, which the Oneidas call ‘running hairs’ and which is a good medicine. From her body sprang honeysuckle, which to this day is known among her people as the ‘blood of brave women.'”(Erdoes and Ortiz, 253) The warrior maiden hair and body transform into woodbine and honeysuckle respectively, both of which are considered to be medicinal plants that have a great healing power. As it is widely known, for most of the Native American cultures, the plants play a very important role in medicine but also in various types of religious rituals and invocations of the spirits.
Moreover, the metamorphosis of the maiden into these plants is in concordance with the strong agricultural tradition of the Iroquois. The transformation of the maiden into these two plants also signals the status that the warrior maiden has inside the Oneida culture: she is much more than a heroine; she is a mythological figure, symbolizing the purity and the strength of the female. The maiden is also, like most of the legendary heroes, an embodiment of the divinity, the Great Spirit in this case, which speaks and acts through her as the members of the clan acknowledge: “The Great Spirit has blessed you, Aliquipiso, with courage and wisdom,’ he said. ‘We, your people, will always remember you.”(Erdoes and Ortiz, 253) The legendary figure of the maiden is thus a symbol, something for the future generations to remember with honor and to set as an example: “The story of the girl’s courage and self-sacrifice was told and retold wherever Oneidas sat around their campfires, and will be handed down from grandparent to grandchild as long as there are Oneidas on this earth.”(Erdoes and Ortiz, 253)
She is at once the pure maiden, the matron, the chosen heroine inspired by the Great Spirit, and a courageous warrior. The fact that it is a woman who saves the whole people from perishing in the hands of the enemy tribe is very significant. Although women were not associated with physical strength or with skills on the battlefield, they are praised and honored for their spiritual qualities and their purity. This combination between purity and strength demonstrates that one of the most important characteristics of the Oneida culture is the belief that physical or mere heroic strength is not the greatest virtue. Perfection comes thus from the spirit or wisdom, paired with honor and courage and the devotion to noble causes.
Thus, the warrior maiden is a symbol for many different virtues that put together form the perfect heroine. The legend itself tells very significant things about the Native Indian cultures in general and the Oneida culture in particular. The story offers at once hints to the heroic ideal of the Iroquois, to the cult of the female gender specific to some Native American peoples and to the metaphoric significance of the tribe’s name. The most important conclusion to be derived from the analysis of the story is therefore the fact that there is a tight connection between the legend and the values and ideals specific to the Oneidas.
Other versions of the Warrior Maiden legend, such as the variant told by the Hopi tribe, also render the image of feminine modesty combined with spiritual strength. In the Hopi tradition, the maiden actually fights against the enemies of her people, because she is left alone at home with her mother, who at the time of the attack was just combing her hair. Once more, this feminine detail emphasizes the delicacy of the maiden, as well as her hidden strength. Thus, although the details of the plot differ, the main contention of both the Oneida and the Hopi versions of the legend is that strength can come from the spirit, as well as from the body. The legend thus demonstrates the importance of the female cult for the Native Americans, to the extent that these people have created a mythology to explain female braveness.
Erdoes, Richard and Alfonso Ortiz. American Indian Myths and Legends. New York: Pantheon Fairy Tales and Folklore Library, 1984.
Oneida Culture. Indian Country Wisconsin. http://www.mpm.edu/wirp/ICW-57.htmlOneida Culture and Language. http://www.native-languages.org/oneida.htm
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