Oyaron Fictions – Implications of Mythological Mistakes

Retractions are painful, but it appears that in my faithful re-copying of documents about Oyaron and Hartwick College, I have participated in perpetuating an account that is almost entirely fictional.

My thanks to Professor Robert R. Bensen for pointing to the research of the late Professor Richard L. Haan, and for putting me in contact with William A. Starna, Professor Emeritus of Anthropology at SUNY Oneonta and who will be NEH visiting professor in history for 2014-2015 at Hartwick.

Here’s Professor Starna on the matter:

JNB Hewitt, whom many of us believe made things up, equates oyaron with oki or oqui, a malevolent power among the Hurons first reported in 1632. But Hewitt’s oyaron does not appear in any of the literature on the Iroquois until he wrote about it in the early 1900s! Morgan is silent on the word, that is, he doesn’t seem to know anything about it. The gloss of oyaron contains the root “pouch, bag, sack,” anything more being speculation. Yager is responsible for its application to the “hill of dreams,” i.e., it’s fiction.

[Note and Update: Please see the appended update for a full discussion from Professor Starna.]

To unpack this a bit, Hewitt was the one who wrote the long entry in the 1912 Handbook of American Indians North of Mexico, Vol. 3 which I used in my previous post. Roland B. Hill’s 1937 article for The Hilltops of Hartwick copies almost word-for-word from Hewitt. Hill claims Lewis Henry Morgan wrote about oyaron, but as I noted I had been unable to find such a reference, which is certainly because–as Starna writes–it does not exist. Wrapping up Oyaron Hill with invented mythologies in the 1920s-1930s appears to have been the work of Willard E. Yager, whose collection was moved to Hartwick’s Yager Museum in 1967.

There are perhaps here lessons of caution for the age of digital scholarship. The ability to “look things up” on the digitized internet can be wonderfully illuminating, but documents can lose their context and be pulled from surrounding materials. When not done carefully, this perpetuates myths that may have been debunked long ago, but in accounts which were not similarly digitized.

But does it really matter? Perhaps we can simply chalk this up to another one of those foundational fictions, a relatively harmless tale that leads to new traditions, new rituals, and first-year seminar hikes to Table Rock.

Perhaps. But there are several pernicious possibilities that result from perpetuating such fictions–and I again thank Professor Bensen for his e-mailed thoughts.

First, the idea of harmless ritual and appeal to tradition is surely at the base of the anger and refusal to change team names, mascots, and other appropriations of Native American custom. Recently, the Oneida Nation is again appealing for a Washington Redskins name change. Hartwick College dropped “The Warriors” in the 1990s and became the Hartwick Hawks.

Second, in mythologizing and white-washing the deeds of forebears, we potentially feed into an elitist vision. Braves seeking wisdom and visions on a hill become mythical precursors for Eurocentric liberal arts curriculum. As Bensen notes, the college has traditionally done little to attract Native American students. This may have been good business sense through the 1970s, but with all that has happened around cultural and language revitalization, I wonder what might have been had Hartwick been in collaboration all those years.

Third, and this is important when thinking about college strategic plans, the myth of a 1797 founding and continual line from Hartwick Seminary disguises the real fact of founding in the 1920s-1930s in Oneonta. This more-recent founding helps us understand just how much Hartwick has been able to accomplish, set against other small liberal arts institutions with at least a hundred years of alumni (and their donations).

Finally, and as an attempt to tie this together with our first-year seminar reading “When ANT meets SPIDER: Social theory for arthropods,” it’s important to have a bit of humility in all this. To be able to admit being completely wrong, or that maybe there is nothing there:

Theorists, the emperors of the academic world, are prone to self-aggrandizement, dressing their disputations in sumptuous verbal apparel the meaning of which neither they nor those who flatter them can see. It takes a fool to recognise that nothing’s there.
–Tim Ingold, Being Alive (2011:64)

Appended Update 11 October 2013
A further discussion on Oyaron and Orenda from Professor Starna:

Let me offer some further thought on Hewitt and his oyaron, along with the related concept of orenda.

To begin, there is no doubt about Hewitt’s linguistic skills and knowledge of Iroquoian. However, there do exist real questions about his reporting on Iroquois ethnology.

The first mention of oyaron in the literature is by Hewitt in BAE Bulletin 30(1910), 2:178-80. I have not found the word or its equivalent in Sagard, the Jesuit Relations, Lafitau, Morgan, Schoolcraft, Fenton, or any other relevant sources. Hewitt offers no particular linguistic analysis of the word, a red flag, but he does provide an extensive disquisition on its meaning. How his narrative might comport with ethnographic reality is anyone’s guess, but in a consideration of such things when weighed against the extensive literature on the Iroquois, Hewitt’s interpretation of oyaron appears overblown, very much seen through a Victorian lens. In her Ethnography of the Huron, Tooker concludes that “Hewitt’s distinction between otkon (bad power) and oyaron (good power) is a recent one among the Iroquois and perhaps one influenced by Christian thought” (1964, 78n), which obviously explains why it exhibits no detectable time depth. Again, linguists have proposed that oyaron contains the root -yar ‘pouch, bag, sack’. The initial o- is the neuter, signaling that the word is Iroquoian. The remainder is unclear. It is noteworthy that other than Tooker’s mention in 1964, I don’t think oyaron has been used since. Except at Hartwick.

This brings us to orenda, also discussed first by Hewitt, a word that he linked ethnographically to oyaron. Linguists identify the orenda word as transparently Huron (Wendat). The earliest documented appearance of orenda is traceable to Father Julien Garnier, who lived among the Senecas before and after 1700, producing a Seneca-French, French-Seneca dictionary. However, linguists have remarked on the strong Huron features in his wordlists that clearly confirm, not surprisingly, a significant presence of Hurons among the Senecas. That orenda is in Garnier’s dictionary is related to the fact that he either learned about Iroquoian first in Huron, as virtually all of the missionaries did, or that he was in a town of refugee Hurons in the Seneca homeland, another truism.

Garnier wrote that orenda meant ‘dance, song, ceremony, spell, feast, prayer, medicine’. In Seneca today, linguists point out, the meaning is limited to ‘dance, song’. The word does not refer to supernatural power, as Hewitt maintained, but to performances of several kinds that invoke supernatural power–mainly songs, dances, and various ceremonies in which songs play a central role. Thus, Hewitt was exercising some creativity in interpreting orenda as supernatural power. Closing the circle, linguists have also proposed that orenda is a word that Hewitt coined as the predicted Huron form of the word for ‘song’ in the Iroquois languages, equating it with the Algonquian concept of ‘manitou’. There is every indication that Hewitt was trying to come up with a name for what he thought to be a real concept in Iroquoian culture. And as such, he exaggerated its significance, along with any number of other ethnological reportings, such as that on the word oyaron.

Postscript: Scholars of Hewitt’s generation, and often those following in his path, were much more interested in the art of writing–elegant, evocative, expansive prose, the “humanities” writ large–than in doing “science.” Anachronisms abound and there are wonderful stories to be told, the sources of which have been obscured by time or perhaps will never be discovered.