Spirits of Sky, Spirits of Earth: The Spirituality of Chingachgook

Barbara Alice Mann (University of Toledo)

Presented at the Cooper Panel of the 2002 Conference of the American Literature Association in Long Beach, California.

Originally published in James Fenimore Cooper Society Miscellaneous Papers No. 17, September 2002, pp. 1-5.

Copyright © 2002, James Fenimore Cooper Society.

[May be reproduced for instructional use by individuals or institutions; commercial use prohibited.]

Who can forget Chingachgook’s visionary choice to die in flames, or, when that was thwarted by Natty, his subsequent, agonized death, in the cavern? While these events in The Pioneers are dramatic, most critics gloss over Chingachgook’s suicide as Indian inscrutability, just as they put his singing in Bold Dragoon Tavern down to an old man, physiologically unable to cope with liquor, falling heavily into his cups. Nevertheless, these and other poignant scenes in the Leather-stocking Tales point to a fledgling grasp on James Fenimore Cooper’s part of the spirituality of the eastern woodlands, insights caught courtesy of his able source on Native lore, John Heckewelder. To anyone with knowledge of woodlands spirituality, the scenes in the forest, cavern, and tavern convey a depth of character and a complexity of motive in Chingachgook that have been left unexplored by literary critics of the Leather-stocking Tales.

Today, I will explore a little of the Lenâpé spirituality behind these scenes, which Cooper was able to replicate with sometimes surprising accuracy. Although Cooper’s use of inauthentic missionary interpolations — “the Great Spirit,” “the Happy Hunting Grounds” — and his Christian assumptions of one God per universe and one soul per person detract from the impact of his ethnological tidbits, more often that one might expect, Cooper lifts the cultural veil to enter genuinely Native mindsets in the east (i.e., east of the Mississippi River).

It is important at the outset to dispel the notion, still extant (thanks to New Agers) that there was a Great Spirit, a counterpart to the Christian God. This is a complete interpolation, which has, alas, since gained some adherents among those modern Natives who do not know their own traditions very well. The idea of a lonely-only Creator is nonsense to traditional woodland thought, just as the shared universe of woodlanders is nonsense to Europeans, because the base numbers of their cultures are completely at odds. The base number of European culture is one — there is one god, one life, one soul, one true love — whereas, among eastern Natives, the base number of culture is two.

The bedrock assumption of eastern cultures is that everything that exists, exists by halves. The cosmos is seen as naturally dividing into its two, complementary parts — Sky and Earth — which interact for harmony. 1 Thus, not only does everything have a naturally occurring counterpart — male/female; youth/age; summer/winter; light/dark — but each of these halves naturally belongs either to Sky or Earth. Both halves are good. Spiritually speaking, it is important to know which is which, for the point is to keep the halves in perfect harmony. For instance, female things are Earth medicine, where male things are Sky medicine. Both must interact equally if the cosmos is to maintain its equilibrium.

The base number of two has profound ramifications for the structure of woodlands societies, economics, government, and spirituality, as I discuss at length in Iroquoian Women. Here, I will simply extract a few of its spiritual implications for Chingachgook, in particular, the fact that, in the east, everyone has two spirits. Before I continue, let me nip a misunderstanding in the bud. Some of you may have heard that, among a few western nations, the term “two-spirit” indicates homosexuality. This notion is confined to those western cultures and is entirely unrelated to eastern concepts. In the east, it is just common sense that everyone has two spirits, a spirit of Sky, inherited through her father, and a spirit of Earth, inherited through her mother. 2 A person born with only one spirit is deformed, demented, and, quite possibly, criminally insane.

The Sky spirit lives in a person’s head; the Earth spirit, in the marrow of her bones. (This is why, on the one hand, people have a little voice in their head, and, on the other, feel things in their bones.) At death, her Sky spirit travels to Sky, walking the Milky Way Trail home to the stars, often through the medium of fire (cremation). On the other hand, at death, her Earth spirit runs beneath the Western Rim (of the Earth) when her bone and marrow — even if they are fragments — are buried in the mounded ground.

Just to keep life interesting, a person’s two spirits are not necessarily aware of one another, so that it is the job of each person to discover the agendas of her Sky and Earth spirits, so as to keep them moving in synch. Failing conscious coordination, her Sky and Earth spirits will pull in separate directions, tearing her life apart, leaving her depressed and unable to cope. Uncoordinated spirits make a person sick, even to the point of causing premature death.

There are appropriate methods of interacting with one’s Sky and Earth spirits. Earth spirits can be met and touched through Earth methods, particularly herbal medicines and meditation, especially while staring into water in caves. Sky spirits are encountered through visions and dreams, often facilitated by medicines. Through these means, a person can discover the common purpose her Sky and Earth spirits have in this life, and see that it is met.

People lean predominantly towards Sky or Earth medicine, so that medicine people (who, in the east, have always included at least as many women as men) find which way their talent tends and then specialize in that type of medicine. Chingachgook’s specialty was Earth medicine, which is why he knew of the herbal remedies to cure Young Eagle, Oliver Effingham, of The Pioneers. In Lenâpé traditions, Serpents, especially the Great Horned Serpent, are formidable Earth spirits, called mêxaxkuk in the Unâmi dialect and w’axkok in the Munsee. 3 The two premiere medicine bags of the Lenâpé contained scales of the Great Horned Serpent — that is, mica sheets. 4 Thus, the name, Chingachgook, is quite significant of his Earth power, for it means “the Big Snake,” as Cooper knew from reading Heckewelder. 5

As you might have conjectured by now, the notion of one life is foreign to eastern cultures. Reincarnation is the accepted idea. 6 Here, again, let me head misunderstanding off at the pass. Native reincarnation is unconnected to Hindu ideas of continual rebirth and karma. The point of Native rebirth is not payback for past misdeeds; the point is strengthening community through powerful medicine. Certain spirits return because the people have need of them at a certain time and place, i.e., the strongest and best return and always for a communal purpose. The more powerful the spirit, the more often it returns. Thus, among the Iroquois, the two most powerful spirits, Sky Woman and the Lynx, are permanently incarnated. Sky Woman, the original creator of life on Earth, is Grandmother Moon, while her daughter, the Lynx, is Mother Earth. Ordinary people, however, come four or six times, again, as Cooper gleaned from Heckewelder. 7 (By the way, their Sky and Earth spirits do not necessarily incarnate together. Different lives have different combinations of Earth and Sky spirits.)

Because of their knowledge of reincarnation, suicide was commonplace for eastern Natives who had lost all. 8 In particular, suicide was the method of choice for rejoining a beloved yet deceased spouse. 9 Moreover, since the Lenâpé, like all eastern Natives, recognized a person’s absolute right to his or her body, for eastern Natives, suicide did not imply the moral turpitude or seeming blasphemy that it did for Christians. Instead, it was a moral choice to join a community of spirits that had already walked ahead, and which awaited them in Sky and Earth.

Armed with this knowledge of eastern traditions, Chingachgook’s actions in the fire, cavern, and tavern begin to make some sense. In the Bold Dragoon Tavern, Chingachgook was already contemplating his end, for he was singing his quivering song — his death song. Typically, when a person was facing the end, he composed a song recapping the main achievements of the life just lived. If he was among his enemies at the time, his song could be very defiant, even belligerent, as was Chingachgook’s, so that Natty shushed him. 10

Furthermore, there was a Sky vision method involved in the singing. Before Europeans came, the preferred vision medium in the east was the Black Drink, an emetic and hallucinogen. Ceremonially, one sang vision songs, purged over the Black Drink, and entered altered consciousness. 11 After Europeans came, a second vision medium was added, the White Drink — liquor. Called “spirits” by the Europeans, it was seen as a perfect complement to the Black Drink, an important discovery to cultures that naturally saw phenomena happening by pairs. This pairing was facilitated by Natives having observed Europeans drinking. Exactly the same thing occurred with the White as with the Black Drink: first people, sang, then they vomited, and finally, they achieved other-consciousness.

Until the end of the eighteenth century, Natives used both the Black and White Drinks for obtaining Sky visions, and, when medicine people began inveighing against the White Drink about the turn of the nineteenth century, it was not for moralistic reasons, but because they realized that all Natives were bringing back from White Drink ceremonies was the European vision for Native America: Death. Thus, Chingachgook’s drinking was not, as among Europeans, for the purpose of inebriation but for the purpose of contacting his Sky spirit and entertaining visions of his death.

In dying, first in a fire (Sky) and then in a cave (Earth), Chingachgook hoped to be preparing his return in better times, just as he expected to meet his beloved wife, Wah-ta-Wah, and son, Uncas, among the spirits of Sky and Earth. Fire is of vital importance in this connection, for the implication of the Leather-stocking Tales is that Wah-ta-Wah died in the genocidal fires at Goschochking, the Lenâpé capital in Ohio. The Goschochking genocide was the attempt by the Revolutionary Army out of Fort Pitt to “wipe out” the Lenâpé and Mahican of Ohio, the better to serve the fine farm hands of the Muskingum Valley for European settlement after the Revolution. 12

On March 8, 1782, a detachment left Fort Pitt for the purpose, accomplishing it by rounding up ninety-eight starving harvesters — mainly women, children, and old folks — beating them, scalping them, and finally burning them to death in two huts at the “praying town” the missionaries called Gnadenhütten. Two teenage boys escaped to flesh out the tale, for all that remained at Goschochking were burned bones, later collected up by the surviving Lenâpé and buried, mound-style, at Gnadenhütten, where they remain to this day. 13 The impetus behind the term, “last of the Mohicans,” this event was well-known and — thanks to John Heckewelder — much reviled when Cooper began the Leather-stocking Tales.

In his seventies in The Pioneers, Chingachgook was presented as having been “Christianized by the Moravians about the time of the old war,” i.e., the Revolutionary War, 1776-1783, and having served with the Americans, for which he received a silver Washington medallion. 14 Chingachgook and his family belonged, therefore, to Moravian Lenâpé whom Colonel David Williamson killed on March 8ᵗʰ. Thus, Wah-ta-Wah, the beloved wife of Chingachgook and mother of Uncas, was among the ninety-six harvesters so brutally murdered. She perished in flames, after being clubbed and scalped, in scenes that Heckewelder moving recounted, particularly in his Narrative.

It was not at all unusual for Sky visions to reveal the manner of one’s death. Consequently, Chingachgook knew that he was to die in flames. He had had it in his visions, as he told Elizabeth Temple, just before the forest fire. Since his flames proved not to have been the flames at Goschochking, eager to release his spirits, Chingachgook took advantage of the Templeton fire to meet his end, clamping hold of the rock on which he sat to await his fate.

Natty interrupted this end, dragging the half-burned Chingachgook to the cave, in which he had hidden Major Effingham. There, Chingachgook consummated his death vision, for caves are vaginal entrances into the womb of Mother Earth. The Earth spirits of those waiting to be reborn reside beneath the earth, smiling up at the passing people. When eligible women pass by, they hurry up, through the soles of their feet and into their wombs, attaching to the fetus, thus becoming its Earth spirit. This is why tradition bids us walk gently across the skin (surface dirt) of Mother Earth, so as not to injure the rising generations tucked in beneath. This is also why the people say we come from the earth.

With this traditional lore in mind, Chingachgook’s death in The Pioneers speaks powerfully to his spirituality. He prepared for death by composing and singing his quivering song at the Bold Dragoon Tavern. Having foreseen in a vision that he would die in flames, and finding that it was not the flames of Goschochking, he realized it must be the flames of the forest fire at Templeton. His Sky spirit sent home to Sky by its fire, his Earth spirit ran beneath the Western Rim from the cave, returning to the Earth from whence it came, and reuniting with all his relatives, who had gone before him.


1 For a complete discussion of the twin precept, which the Iroquois call The Direction of the Sky, see Barbara Alice Mann, Iroquoian Women: the Gantowisas (New York: Peter Lang Publishers, 2000) 59-112.

2 The two spirits of the east are well recorded, though poorly understood by western scholars. The earliest conscious discussion of them occurred in Joseph François Lafitau, Customs of the American Indians Compared with the Customs of Primitive Times, ed. and trans. William N. Fenton and Elizabeth L. Moore, 2 vols. (1724; Toronto: The Champlain Society, 1974) 1::230, and (n2), (n3), 230. Two more early references, including some comprehension, occurred in Daniel G. Brinton, The Myths of the New World: A Treatise on the Symbolism and Mythology of the Red Race of America (1868; 1876, reprint; New York: Greenwood Press, Publishers, 1969) 252-253; and J.N.B. Hewitt, “The Iroquoian Concept of the Soul,” Journal of American Folk-lore 8.29 (April-June 1895): (n1) 107. In the twentieth century, there are John Reed Swanton, “Introduction,” Notes on the Creek Indians, Smithsonian Institution, Bureau of American Ethnology, Bulletin 123, Anthropological Papers, no. 10 (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution, 1939) 157; and Åke Hultkrantz, Conceptions of the Soul among North American Indians, Monograph series, no. 1 (Stockholm: Ethnographical Museum of Sweden, 1953). See my commentary on the two spirits, in Mann, Iroquoian Women, 327-333. Since I have discovered the extreme confusion concerning this idea in western sources, especially since the western notion of homosexual “two-spirits” has entered the popular lore, I included an extended discussion of Earth-Sky spirituality in chapter 4 of my forthcoming Native Americans, Archaeologists, and the Mounds, due out in the Fall of 2002 from Peter Lang Publishers.

3 John Bierhorst, Mythology of the Lenape: Guides and Texts (Tucson, AZ: The University of Arizona Press, 1995) 11-12.

4 M.R. Harrington, “A Preliminary Sketch of Lenápe Culture,” American Anthropologist 15 (1913) 431.

5 John Heckewelder, History, Manners, and Customs of the Indian Nations Who Once Inhabited Pennsylvania and the Neighboring States (1818, 1819, 1876; reprint, New York: Arno Press, 1971) 431.

6 Mann, Iroquoian Women, 333-335.

7 Heckewelder, History, Manners, and Customs, 245-246, 271.

8 Heckewelder, History, Manners, and Customs, 258.

9 “You know perfectly well that we and our wives commit suicide rather often, so that we can keep each other company in the land of the dead after one or the other dies,” the seventeenth-century Wyandot chief told the Baron of La Hontan. Barbara Alice Mann, “’Are You Delusional?’ Kandiaronk on Christianity,” in Native American Speakers of the Eastern Woodlands: Selected Speeches and Critical Analyses, ed. Barbara Alice Mann (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2001) 67.

10 Michel Eyquem de Montaigne, “Essays I: XXX,” The Essays, in Great Book Series, vol. 25 (1580; Chicago, Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc., 1988) 97.

11 Heckewelder, History, Manners, and Customs, 245; Gregory Evans Dowd, A Spirited Resistance: North American Indian Struggle for Unity, 1745-1815 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992) 33, 39, 40.

12 John Heckewelder, Narrative of the Mission of the United Brethren among the Delaware and Mohegan Indians from Its Commencement, in the Year 1740, to the Close of the Year, 1808 (1820; reprint; New York: Arno Press, 1971) 309-328. For another manuscript, “Captivity and Murder,” written on the spot as Heckewelder heard of the carnage, see Paul A.W. Wallace, Thirty Thousand Miles with John Heckewelder (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1958), 189-198.

13 For a more detailed account of this episode, see “Goschochking Genocide, March 8, 1782,” in Bruce Elliott Johansen and Barbara Alice Mann, ed., Encyclopedia of the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois Confederacy) (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2000) 118-122.

14 James Fenimore Cooper, The Pioneers (1823; New York: Signet Classics, 1980) chapter XII, for conversion, 128; chapter VII, for medallion, 82.