Fall 1995, Volume 12.3
Jay Hansford C. Vest
My Mother's Brother: Monacan Narratives of the Wolf from the Virginia Blue Ridge
Jay Hansford C. Vest (Ph.D., University of Montana) is Assistant Professor of Native American Culture and Literature—American Studies Department at Arizona State University West, and a Native Monacan Indian from Virginia. A 1992 Fulbright Professor in Bamberg, Germany, he has published extensively in scholarly journals addressing Native American Cultural Studies and Literature, world mythologies, environmental ethics and wilderness.
Among the tribal narratives of the southeastern woodlands, the wolf has an ambiguous role. Traditionally the friend and teacher of hunters, the wolf is also a metaphor for lean and hungry times. Largely a region rich with agricultural production, the southern Indian civilizations raised maize, beans, squash and many other vegetables and fruit crops; and even today these crops remain common amid southern Indian gardens. Although supplemented with the gathering of wild foods, fishing and hunting, this economy primarily involved the cultivation, storage and preservation of domestic crops against winter and times of famine. Manifesting the roles of harbinger of want and "uncle" to hunters, the wolf is always associated with the consumption of food.
While our people—the Monacan tribes—were not overly bothered by wolves, these animals with their wintry, forlorn cries and predatory ways symbolically convey want and hunger. This mythological characterization of the wolf, as bringer of famine, is present among many of the southern woodland tribes; it is particularly evident in eastern Siouan—Monacan, Catawba, Yuchi, Biloxi and Ofo—mythologies. Throughout these narrative traditions, Wolf is found preparing to consume some unsuspecting prey and he is regularly outwitted by woodland creatures such as Rabbit, Opossum, and Bear. Rabbit is particularly effective in deceiving Wolf in the narratives of the Yuchi, as well as those of my elders.
Before relating the Monacan narrative of Bobtail and the Wolf which exemplifies the wolf as a metaphor of consumption, I wish to briefly describe the setting common to these stories. High atop the Blue Ridge Mountains, my ancestors founded a settlement known as Hico. Founded by Georg W. Vest (a mixed blood) and his Monacan wife, the settlement is today bisected by the Blue Ridge Parkway at Robinson Gap near Buena Vista, Virginia. Near their cabin rested a geological feature known as the Buzzard Rock, where countless generations of Turkey Buzzards roosted and reared their young amid the ancient Chestnut trees. Accordingly, it is no surprise to learn that Hico-oto translates as Turkey Buzzard Lodge. This site is a place of great beauty offering panoramic views of the surrounding mountains and their green forests. In fact, the city of Buena Vista, located in the west valley as seen from Hico, was aboriginally known as Green Forest. Under the threat of eminent domain, great grandfather—Pa Hiram—was loath to leave this indigenous settlement, but with no alternative he sold it to the Forest Service in the late 1920s. Although title has passed from our people to the government, Hico remains the site of the family cemetery and ancient traditional burial mound; and despite its inclusion in the George Washington National Forest, the Buzzard Rock is not forgotten amid the narratives of our people. Grandpa Charlie told many stories of Bobtail's exploits and how the great Rabbit was the chief of the mountains. More cunning than the Fox, Bobtail was not frightened even by Wolf. In the long ago, Wolf decided he would be Chief of Hico; he had decided to catch Bobtail off guard and eat him up. Noting that Bobtail was the Garden Chief, Wolf planned to trap him in his garden which was located in a rich fertile valley southeast of Hico and shaped like a horseshoe. Surrounded by two hundred foot walls, the valley could only be entered by a narrow neck on the south side. Recognizing this feature as a natural trap, Wolf howled to his friends: "Watch this and I'll show you how it is done. He'll fill my belly tomorrow."
Sure enough as the early morning light danced upon the field, Bobtail was there working his crops when Wolf approached by way of the narrow neck passage. With a howl of delight, Wolf's eerie cry echoed throughout the horseshoe valley sending cold shivers down Bobtail's spine. Crying with glee, Wolf addressed Bobtail: "Now I've got you and I'm going to be Chief of the Mountain." "Wolf," Bobtail responded, "you've killed great bucks and mighty bears, you are strong and swift, your teeth and fangs are the sharpest of all the Forest People and no one has greater jaws than you. But if you will have me, you must first face a creature whose strength cannot be measured and whose powers know no match." Confidently Wolf replied, "I am not afraid of anything in these mountains. You and your friend will both fill my belly. Show him to me and I'll prove that I am Chief of Hico." Backing away a short distance, Bobtail stooped down and uncovered his friend, exclaiming, "Go get him Piskey!" Without hesitating Wolf leapt upon the Piskey [Tar Baby] slapping him with both front paws which stuck fast. Angrily he clawed out with both hind legs but they became tightly affixed to the Piskey; and in a last desperate act, Wolf bit the Piskey about its head. Now he was stuck fast, so tight he could not move and his mouth was so full of tar that he couldn't even grunt. Bobtail never heard from Wolf again and so the story was told from generation to generation.
While this story is among the earliest recollected memories of my childhood and an exemplar of the oral narrative tradition which my grandparents and other elders passed on to me, I am sure that there are some who will suggest antecedents for it in southern folklore. Indeed, there is the "'wonderful' Tar-baby story" published by Joel Chandler Harris in Uncle Remus: His songs and His Sayings in 1880. Based upon their prima facie identification with Harris's work, folklorists have tended to identify this narrative as derived from African origins. In an essay titled "From Bobtail to Brer Rabbit: Native American Influences upon Uncle Remus," I have, however, established that the Rabbit-Trickster was present in Virginia 2,500 years ago. Historically, the Rabbit-Trickster pre-dates any African presence in Virginia by nine years. Moreover, in William Strachey's The Historie of Travell into Virginia Britania (written in 1610 and published in 1612), well before the presence of any African influences or slaves in North America, the author identifies "a mightie great Hare" as "the Chief god" among the Native Americans. While Strachey's account may well have referenced narratives from the Powhatan Confederacy, linguistic evidence and mythology also link the Hare with eastern Siouan peoples. For example, the Winnebago trickster cycle centers upon the Hare as trickster, and Winnebago was said to be mutually understandable with the Yesang (Tutelo) division of the Monacan Confederacy. Prehistorically the Rabbit-Trickster is manifest in a petroglyph at Westham, Virginia, near Richmond. This site was historically known as a Monacan fishing village used in the fall of the year and has been dated at 2,500 years ago.
Folklorist Aurelio Espinosa has specifically addressed the "'wonderful' Tar Baby story" concluding its place of origin to be ancient India. While Espinosa rejected Africa as place of origin for the narrative, he did suggest that it was transported there and to the Americas by the Spanish. While he offered no evidence as to how the narrative arrived in Spain from India, he clearly implied that two versions which he had discovered there were primary before both Africa and America. Noting that "the Tar-baby story has the Tar-baby motif as its central theme" and that the "stickfast" motif functions as a part or sequel of the Tar-baby motif," Norman Brown contested Espinosa's ancient and medieval India origins for this narrative in North America.
There is also some evidence for concluding that the narrative came from North America to Spain. Capturing several Indians in the vicinity of Winyaw Bay, South Carolina, in 1521, Lucas Vázquez de Ayllón took them to Santo Domingo where the authorities forced their captors to free them. One man among these apparently Siouan Indians survived. The Spaniard named him Francisco of Chicora and Ayllón took him to Spain. During his stay in Spain, Francisco met and was interviewed by the great historian Peter Martyr. Using material largely learned from Francisco, Martyr prepared an initial description of a North American Indian people which he included in his book De Orbe Novo. Given that Francisco of Chicora was an eastern Siouan, he may well have transmitted this narrative to Martyr who made it known to Spain at large. Martyr's book would have certainly been essential reading among the clerics and conquistadors who sought to convert and conquer the Native peoples of the Americas. Acknowledging that only two versions of the "stickfast" motif are found in Spain and over twenty-nine in the Americas, the narrative would appear more indigenous to the Americas than Spain. Consequently, using material derived from the Native Siouan, Francisco, Martyr may have acted to transfer the narrative to Spain and the Spanish clerics and conquistadors to other points in the imperial realm of Spanish conquest. This perspective may be further asserted given the fact that several "stickfast" motifs are present in the Winnebago Trickster cycle which even Espinosa overlooked. Accordingly, the narrative reflects an aboriginal survival of the Monacan mythology in my tribal heritage.
Metaphorically this narrative conveys the gift of agriculture and its importance in preventing hunger and death. Bobtailthe Rabbit-Trickster is the giver of agriculture and a metaphor for light—the driving force of life. Conversely the all-consuming wolf represents winter famine and death; but he is held at bay by the agricultural produce in Bobtail's Garden. Despite Wolf's "bad guy" role in this narrative, it would be remiss to assume that the Monacan people sought to harm or destroy him and his kind. In fact, a narrative recovered from a related tribal account conveys respect for Wolf's power as hunter and uncle.
Long ago some people were hunting and a short distance from their camp they shot a deer. Returning to camp with the deer, they found a strange man there who claimed to be their mother's brother. They thought that he was indeed their mother's brother, so they said, "As you are our mother's brother who lives yonder, we have thought to come and see you." Their uncle responded, "I have a strong craving for fresh meat, and thinking that perhaps you had shot some animal and that the body was lying here, I have been following your trail to this camp."
Accepting the strange visitor, the hunters decided among themselves and the chief spoke: "Since you are our mother's brother and have traveled far to be with us, you may watch the camp while we search for more deer." Their uncle was very greedy, so after flaying the deer he roasted the meat, but before it was done he began eating it entirely raw and bloody all over. Observing his feast, the returning men said: "Oh! Mother's brother! Oh! He is eating the venison that is still raw, though it has been put on to roast. Perhaps he does not see that it is all bloody." But the uncle replied, "This way it is very sweet."
Telling him to once more watch the camp, they again went hunting. Shooting another deer, they returned with the heavy load upon their backs and found that their uncle had been very greedy. Anew he was flaying the bodies and eating the raw, bloody meat. While he was so engaged, the old blanket which he had wrapped about himself fell open revealing his tail. At this discovery, the men cried, "Oh! Does mother's brother have a tail?" Hearing this, the Uncle exclaimed, "Oh! Oh!" And departed. As he ran from their camp, the hunters saw a very aged male wolf. Accordingly, when Indians go hunting, there are usually wolves barking close by their camp. And it is said, "Our mother's brother feeds us."
Traditionally among the Monacan and other southeastern Siouan tribes, the mother's uncle is responsible for teaching the arts of hunting. For example, it was from my grandmother's youngest brother that my father learned to hunt. Moreover, the mother's brother has complete disciplinary and educational responsibility for his sister's children. In the narrative, "Mother's Brother"the Wolf visits the hunting camp where the hunters implicitly accept him as their Uncle and accord him the respect of an elder. Moreover, having tracked the hunters to the camp, the Wolf manifests the skills essential to the chase and as its master, he is given a bountiful supply of fresh meat to consume. The myth demonstrates, by similiar association, the character and product of the hunt; thus it conveys the Wolf's consummate power over the chase. Acknowledging this relationship with the maternal uncle, this narrative tradition makes it clear that the wolf is the teacher of the hunt. The reference to age would seem to imply the Chief Wolf himself or the archetype of wolfness characteristic of a Native American metaphysic of nature; most certainly it implies the wolf as an elder and conveyer of wisdom.
Beholding to the wolf in this traditional manner, the southeastern Sioux were not bothered by the wolves themselves. It was only when the non-Indians arrived with their cattle, swine, and poultry that wolves became a threat. Laws were enacted by the European colonists which demanded tribute of wolf heads and ears from the tributary tribes. This tribute system developed as a phase of the English conquest of the Virginia and Carolina Indians; while the Natives were paid to kill the wolves, it was a grievous thing to do to one's "mother's brother." Fortunately living in the mountains, the Monacan people were somewhat free of this obligatory attack on their "uncles"—the wolves.
Reflecting this condition with a sense of loss, Grandpa Charlie told a narrative of a White woman who mutilated many wolves. The woman had come into the mountain country with her husband who had died as the winter set in on them. Keeping her company in her sorrow were many cats for whose entry she had a special hole in her door. Through the long winter evenings, many wolves would come and howl about her cabin. Having killed her cow, the wolves became the target of her revenge.
As the winter grew long, the wolves often came and scratched upon her door trying to get the cats. Since she had always kept the cat hole fastened, the wolves could not enter. One night after the cats had entered, she left the hole unfastened and awaited the wolves with an ax. Soon the wolves had gathered about the cabin and their howls filled the chilled winter night. Scratching the cat hole a wolf placed his paw through the door; seeing this the woman chopped it off. She then placed a basket under the cat hole and as the wolves came to scratch at the door, she chopped off their paws. By morning she had a bushel basket full of paws and the snow about the cabin was crimson with wolf blood. Whether she received a bounty for the paws, I do not know. But grandpa Charlie said it was a cruel and mean thing to do.
Acts like this one made the wolves of Hico mean and dangerous. Where the wolves once had been our "uncles," they were now vicious and mean because of this Winnichus' s [white man's] cruel behavior. Despite these acts, however, Hico still had a large population of wolves, bears, panthers, wildcats and some catamounts in the early twentieth century.
Grandpa Charlie played the fiddle at mountain barn dances and on one such occasion, he had traveled many miles from Hico to play at a "Fiddler's Hoe Down" in Coffeetown. The trip had taken him across the Tobacco Row Mountains, and not having a spare horse or mule, he had walked these many miles. The Hoe Down had ended very late and it was after twelve o'clock when he started on his way back to Hico. It was a cold night and the stars brilliantly filled the sky with blue twinkling points of light. As he was walking up the mountain, the moon was beginning to sink below the horizon; with the night light fading, he hurried up the trail keeping a very fast pace. As he crossed the Tobacco Row and climbed the Blue Ridge summit, he reached the Lick Log Springs where the eerie cry of a panther pierced the cold night air; it squalled like a wounded woman—a woman giving birth. In answer, grandpa Charlie played a few notes on the fiddle and then took a drink of the cold mountain spring water. His music seemed to calm the panther and he heard nothing more from her. But when he turned onto the Hemp Field Road near Pa Hiram's new tobacco rick, he heard a pack of wolves howling. They were close behind him in the hollow near the "Herman House." Without a moment's hesitation, he ran quickly and climbed the tobacco rick with the leader of the wolf pack directly on his heels.
Howling in the shadows of the moonlight, the wolves looked hungry and real vicious. Estimating the pack at fifteen to twenty, grandpa Charlie thought that even a big ole black bear wouldn't be safe with this pack. With the dark winter night and the wolves all about him, he found a safe spot atop the rick where he could watch them. Growling and howling into the night, the wolves remained intent upon him. Noticing the fear that griped him, grandpa Charlie thought to remain calm. Fresh from the barn dance, he was flush with playing music; and in that glow of harmony which accompanies the creative artist, he began playing his "violin." Just as soon as the bow touched the strings, the wolves ceased to howl. With the music they became calm, but when he stopped playing, they began again to growl and leap about the rick. So he began playing many different tunes through the night and the wolves became calm and peaceful lying down about the base of his perch. While he had to vigorously exercise to stay warm, he played through the night quieting the wolves. Just before the light of dawn, the wolves gathered together and moved peacefully atop a nearby hill within sight of grandpa where the leader turned to howl mournfully one last time before moving away. At sunrise, grandpa Charlie left his perch and walked home to the Buzzard Rock.
When I was a small boy, this story about wolves traveling in our mountains used to fill me with delight. Later in life my excitement shifted to admiration and respect for the wildness which grandpa Charlie had embraced and known with the wolves of Hico. Although it might be supposed that he would have gladly killed the wolves had he the means, this conclusion is not consistent with the way he spoke about his life in the mountains. Indeed, he was of the opinion that someone had stirred those wolves up and therefore caused a breach of reciprocity with them. His playing the "violin" throughout the night was, I believe in his mind, a way of restoring respect for these wolves—"our mother's brothers"—who had long been our teachers and benefactors in the mountains about Hico.
Brown, W. Norman. "The Stickfast Motif in the Tar-Baby Story." Publications of the Philadelphia Anthropological Society (1937): 1-12.
Easterly, Harry W. Jr. "The Indian Rock Carvings at Westham." Quarterly Bulletin, Archaeological Society of Virginia 45.2 (June 1990): 61-74.
Espinosa, Aurelio M. "Notes on the Origin and the History of the Tar-Baby Story." The Journal of American Folklore 43: 168 (Apr.-June 1930): 129-209.
Hudson, Charles. The Southeastern Indians. Knoxville: U of Tennessee P, 1982.
Radin, Paul. The Trickster: A Study in American Indian Mythology (1956). New York: Schoken Books, 1972.
Strachey, William. The Historie of Travell into Virginia Britania (1612). Edited by Louis B. Wright and Virginia Freund. Liechtenstein: Hakluyt Society, Kraus Reprint Co., 1967.
Vest, Jay Hansford C. "From Bobtail to Brer Rabbit: Native American Influences Upon Uncle Remus." American Indian Quarterly (forthcoming).
Wright, J. Leitch Jr. The Only Land They Knew: The Tragic Story of the American Indians in the Old South. New York: The Free Press, 1981.