Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Mesingwe, the Hunter Spirit

I can't let a second reference to BigFoot in "Rock Piles" go by without posting an old piece I wrote about ten years ago called
"Mesingw and Bigfoot."

Left: Lenni Lenape ceremonial Mesingw mask.

The Lenni Lenape Homeland is what is now known as New Jersey and Eastern Pennsylvania, from the Delaware River to the Hudson River. Their "brothers" are said to be the Nanticoke, Mahican, Munsee and Iroquois. Their "Grand-Children" are said to be the Shawnee, Potawami, Sauk and Fox, Ioway, Tonkawa, Sioux, Ottawa, Kickapoo, Miami, Peoria, Chippewa, Menomoni, and Winnebego.These People refer to them as Delawares, Wabanaki, Lenape, and "Grandfathers." Descendants of the "Original People" migrated westward away from European settlements and exist as Lenni Lenape in Okalahoma, Wisconsin, and Canada.

"Ku-les-ta! Listen! One time long ago there were three boys about your age who weren't treated very well; in fact their parents did not seem to care whether they lived or died. They were out in the forest one day thinking about their troubles when they saw a strange-looking hairy person with a big face half red and half black. This person said: "I am Mee-sing haw lee kun; I have taken pity on you and I will give you strength so that nothing can ever hurt you again. Come with me and I will show you my country!"
"He took one boy up in the air to the place where he came from; it was a great range of mountains up in the sky reaching from north to south. While he was showing the boy his country, he promised he should become stout and strong and should gain the power to get anything he wished. Then he brought the boy back to earth again.
"Afterwards when the boy grew up and went hunting he used to see Mee-sing-haw-lee-kun riding on a buck, herding the deer together and giving his peculiar call 'Ho-ho-ho.'
Harrington in Dikon Among the Lenape (Indians of New Jersey)
Mee sing, Mesingw, Mee-sing-haw-lee-kun, Misinghalikun, and Wsinkhoalican are all various recorded forms of the Lenni Lenape word translated as meaning "The Mask Being" or "Living Solid Face." This Manitou or Spirit Being, also called "The Game Keeper," lived in the woods, guardian of the deer and all game animals. This concept also appears among the Montagnais-Naskapi of Labrador in the form of Caribou-Man , who in turn is very similar to the antlered Celtic Spirit Cerranos.
The word can also mean Mesingw's human impersonator. In a well researched fictional work called The Indians of New Jersey: Dikon Among the Lenape: Dr. M.R. Harrington (as the captive English boy who narrates the story) writes:
"...I was really enjoying the fun, when I heard a queer noise behind me, a sort of rattling and a sound like a horse neighing. I looked and nearly died from fright. There stood a creature as big as a man, but covered with hair; it had a great moonlike face, half red and half black, and it carried a staff and something that made a rattling noise. It saw me looking and jumped straight up in the air; then it made a dive for me.


"That terrible creature chased me all over the village, making great leaps and bounds and jumping over everything that came in the way. I escaped only by pushing out into the river in a canoe. Even then I thought for a moment it would follow me there, but it finally turned back toward the Big House, whinnying and rattling. Not until next spring did I learn that it was a man wearing a mask and a bearskin suit. He always appears at the Gamwing, representing a spirit called Mee-sing-haw-lee-kun, supposed to be the guardian of the deer and all other game animals..."
Dr. Harrington began his career as an amateur who amazed the staff of the Museum of Natural History by finding a great number Native artifacts on the outskirts of New York City. He eventually became curator of the Southwest Museum in Los Angeles.
I don't really know if in fact Mesingw and Bigfoot are one and the same, and certainly don't mean to offend anyone. I'm just noting some similarities that occur to me. My recent interest in Bigfoot was sparked when my new neighbor told me that a 'Mumohne' (Monster in Italian?) lives in the woods near the Sacred Waterfall by my house in Connecticut. At the time I was photographing some pecked and polished (possible) "Respectful Hunter's Tobacco-offering Stones Shaped Like Bears and Deer " and knew something of the Lenape Big House and Mesingw, but not much about Sasquatch. Later I typed that S-word into a search engine and soon found that there were various Native names for Bigfoot-like creatures of legend such as "Spirit of the Woods," "Stick Indian,"" Wood Man," and "Wild Man of the Woods" that made me think of Mesingw.
I learned that in some places he even wears a bearskin robe, like Mesingw.
Just the name "Owl Woman Monster" also reminds me of the description of Mesingw's call of "Ho-ho-ho," very much like a Great Horned Owl's call. Other legends from other places also describe an owl-like call. At one point in the Gamwing (also Cantiko, Xingwikaon) or Big House (or in this part of CT, Long Wigwam) Ceremony, deer are hunted for a ritual meal as part of the renewal rites. It's considered good luck to hear (what may or not be) the Great-Horned Owl's call.
Perhaps it's Mesingw herding deer together for respectful hunters.
Dr. Frank G. Speck in The Delaware Big House Ceremony is told by his Okalahoma Delaware informant Witaponxwe (Walks With Daylight):
"And it is said that our grandfather (Mesingw) is believed to walk around early each morning. Now here he goes frightening unruly children. When the "one who is our grandfather begs," the child is taught that he shall pay a plug of tobacco so that he will not scare them.
"If the person who assumes the mask is able to see clearly for a long distance it is said that he is a man of power. He carries a (snapping) turtle rattle and a staff of twisted wood ( an 'ala-houn' or walking staff similar to that carried by the Great Spirit). When he makes his utterance it resembles a horse whinnying, and when he makes signals using his turtle-rattle, they give him tobacco. Customarily he kicks at persons. Here in a pouch he carries that tobacco. Every child customarily is taught that he gathers snakes and throws them into that pouch in order that no one may steal our grandfather's tobacco. And it is said that our grandfather keeps guard over all so that none may be overcome by disease. That is also the teaching in reference to the spiritual doctrine of the Mask-Image."
Children were told to behave or they could end up in that snake-filled pouch (or basket), reminiscent of certain Bigfoot legends.
Mesingw briefly appears at the Gamwing as a dancer. The songs that accompanied the dance were not completely known by Witappanoxwe in 1928, although he thought that they mention the fact that he rides on the back of a deer. Sometimes no one volunteers for the part of Mesingw , and the Mask-Spirit dance or 'Mesingkentcke' is omitted.
The prayer to the Mesingw, however, was recorded in Speck's Big House:
"Here now my kindred, we have come to the fourth day since we began, in this place to perform the ceremony. And each and everyone of us knows the ruling of this our form of Prayer-Worship. Now we are using the tobacco our grandfather, while we are pleading earnestly with the Manitou (Great Spirit /Great Mystery). And the Mask-spirit also, when we are giving thanks to him our grandfather fire. This is how it is done by the Bringer-in, "I thank all the Manitouwak (Mysterious Forces) on top of the Earth and all the Manitouwak above. Wherefore we earnestly plead with grandfather when we give to you to eat this red man's tobacco. Have pity on us your grandchildren. They are begging you, oh Mask-Spirit, that we may have success. Give us the wild animals since you control them, all the wild animals because we need that we may be blessed with this meat. And that one our mother the corn, because all of the food given us I thank you Spirit Forces that we are given the blessing of your spirit-power. Now give us all we ask of you Manitou that you are and, our Creator, think of your children."
The Hunters then leave to bring in deer, supplied with tobacco that they continue to offer in the fire.
In Dikon, Mee-sing, as the People of Turtle Town call him, joins the people who stay behind at a meal after the hunters leave. The adopted English hero of the story feeds him sapan, cracked corn meal mush, through the mask.
There is a story of a man named Ben Horse who was overcome by the power of the Mask, "performing the antics of the Mask dancer to the point of dementia," according to Speck, as did an unnamed woman. Both required a Healer to free them from the Mask-Spirit. The Ojibwa Windigo is recorded to have possessed people in the same way.
I've seen photographs and drawings of what I guess is a Healer or Shaman's rattle (according to Harrington who, incidentally, purchased and excavated many a Spirit-mask that became part of many a Museum collection) that is topped with Mesingw's face.



Special forked drumsticks, used only after the ninth night of the ceremony, and the posts of the Big House, a symbol of the Universe, are among other places that the Spirit's face appears. The drumsticks are held so that the drummers or 'cranes' face the carvings which are both grandmothers and grandfathers. The posts support the sky, while the central post represents the walking staff of the Creator which reaches to heaven.
Hunters also made or traded for a small carved wooden Mesingw-face either carried in a medicine bag or worn around the neck for good luck.
During Gamwing, all the Mesingw faces are repainted red and black .It seems that the colors have several meanings: good and evil, joy and sorrow, male and female, and possibly more. Charcoal is used for the black; crushed Bloodroot for the red. It's interesting to note that that Lenape and many other Native Peoples used bloodroot mixed with bear grease as a sunscreen and insect repellent, from which some say the term "Red-Skin" comes.
Perhaps the ritual painting is reminiscent of an ancient friendly gesture toward the Bigfoot-like Mesingw, comparable to lending your Cutter's or Skin-So-Soft to a friend who has none and just snakes, unruly children, and tobacco in his wallet...
References cited
1938 Harrington, M.R. The Indians of New Jersey; Dikon among the Lenape ISBN: 0-835-0425-2 (Illustrations by Clarence Ellsworth)
1931 Speck, Frank G. The Delaware Indian Big House Ceremony PA Historic Commission?
(Scans stolen from the above.)





1991-1996 Personal Communications: the late MoonFace Bear, Paugeesukg Nation, in reference to the local "Long Wigwam Ceremony"; in our last conversation, told me that the Naskapi language is very close to the language that appears in the form of Native place names here in Western CT along the Housatonic and Naugatuck Rivers.
11/11/96 Personal Communication with Barb at the corner store: " You never heard that Big Foot story before? That story's been going around for thirty years or more. Ask some of the old timers."
Tim MacSweeney

4 comments:

  1. Nice piece on Mesingwe. Thank you.

    I have heard descendants of native people equate Mesingwe with Bigfoot. They said Bigfoot is real, but the white men will never find his den or the place where he sleeps because he walks at will between the worlds. I thought it was an interesting thing to say.

    That Mesingwe ruled the game animals and presumably made them available or unavailable to the hunters according to whether he was pleased with them means that some sites in traditional hunting areas may have been dedicated to him. That's what brings the whole rockpile/chipmunk/Bigfoot/Mesingwe issue into play for those studying the stonework sites.

    The sign that he has been present is supposed to be a mix of several kinds of tracks--as at a place where you see deer tracks, raccoon tracks and fox tracks together. Or so I was told at one time.

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  2. do you have any information on NE native celebrations traditions for winter solstice

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  3. "Another feast occured "especially" in the winter "for then (as the Turke saith of the Christian, rather than the Antichristian, they run mad once a yeare) in their kind of Christmas feasting" (Roger Williams 1936: 127)," writes Kathleen Bragdon in Native People of Southern New England, 1500-1650. She says "public and calendrical" rituals were "cosmological principles of the cycle of renewal."

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  4. For sure...The stone mask the wood spirit the Chief of the Woodlands Spirit of the Deer. The wooden The stone the water the air the animal. Understandably it is waking up on Turtle Island.

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