A Northeast Woodlands Story as Retold by Anne Jennison
The Iroquois and Abenaki peoples of the Northeast Woodlands have many stories about what they call “The Three Sisters.” The Three Sisters are the sustainers of life. These Three Sisters, called Corn, Beans and Squash, are central to the cultures and food ways of the Northeastern tribes.
It is said that, a long, long time ago, Corn Spirit was so honored by being allowed to be one of the Sustainers of Life that she asked Creator what more she could do for her people, the human beings. Creator told Corn Spirit that she could make a doll from the husks of corn, to make the children happy and keep them safe so the adults could do their daily work.
Corn Spirit set to work making the doll, giving it beautiful clothing and long golden hair made from corn silk. Finishing her work, she gave the doll a beautiful face and sent her to play with the children – to make them happy. The beautiful Cornhusk Doll went from village to village, playing with the children and doing whatever she could for them.
Cornhusk Doll knew the best games to play, songs to sing, dances to dance and stories to tell. The children loved her, and the parents knew their children would always be safe and happy whenever Cornhusk Doll came to visit their villages.
Everywhere she went everyone would tell Cornhusk Doll how beautiful she was, but she never thought much about it – until one day she happened to be playing with a little girl near a pond and noticed her own reflection in the still pond waters. “Oh I AM beautiful! Corn Spirit did a good job in making me!”
From that moment on, she kept looking for her reflection in all the water she passed by. So, after a while she became vain – and spent more time decorating her clothing and hair than she did playing with the children. Finally Creator sent Owl to speak to Cornhusk Doll, to tell her that this was not the right kind of behavior, and she agreed not to be this way anymore.
But Cornhusk Doll soon forgot Owl’s warning. Every time she passed a pond, a lake, a stream, a puddle, or even a birch bark container of water, Cornhusk Doll would stop to admire herself. She didn’t have time for the children anymore, because she was too busy thinking about how to make herself even more beautiful.
Creator sent Owl – again – to warn Cornhusk Doll about her behavior. Two times, three times, Owl told Cornhusk Doll that Creator would punish her if she continued with this selfish behavior, but he did not tell her what the punishment would be. Each time she was warned, Cornhusk Doll agreed not to act that way again – and things went well for a while.
But one afternoon Cornhusk Doll was walking by a creek, with some of the children and happened to glance at her reflection in the water. As she admired herself, she couldn’t help thinking how beautiful she was, because indeed she was beautiful. Then she got distracted again, admiring herself, and forgot all about the children.
And then… finally… Creator sent Owl to swoop down to snatch Cornhusk Doll’s reflection as she was gazing at herself in the water. When she looked again, her face had disappeared! She had no reflection, no face. This was the reminder Creator gave her to help her remember what she was supposed to be doing.
It has become tradition that when an Iroquois or Abenaki mother or grandmother makes a doll for a child, she won’t paint a face on it, but instead will often tell them a version of this story instead. This is to remind us that it’s more important to think of ways to help other people than it is to worry about how we look or how people see us, and that Creator has given a special gift to everyone – but those gifts must be used in a good way.
And that’s the end of the story.