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The legend of The Three Sisters as told by Nibii Green

“Okay, I’ll start with the Three Sisters. Now, in most traditions, this story is totally given over to an agricultural theme. The “three sisters” are typically described as three of the major cultivated crops of the tribe. My grandfather spurned these versions. According to him, Three Sisters legend has nothing to do with agriculture and the “three sisters” are Aki, Kumag and Moz. When telling this story, my father always explained that all three of these words are problematical. My grand father claimed that they meant seal, salmon and elephant.”

I was surprised. “Elephant?”

Nibii tried to explain the way her father had. “Moz is a word that some tribes use for ‘moose’. But my grandfather insisted that the original moz was a much larger animal. My father assumed that the Three Sisters legend originated when there were still mammoth quadrupeds in North America, maybe as recently as 10,000 years ago.”

I clicked off my flash light and the tent became dark. A brisk wind shook the fabric of the tent producing an occasional flutter. I asked, “Could an oral story telling tradition preserve a legend for 10,000 years?”

Nibii replied, “Does it matter?”

Her question sounded innocent, as usual. I decided that it did not matter and that I had better control my analysis and give Nibii a chance to talk. I snuggled deeper into my sleeping bag and resolved to shut up.

Nibii was quiet for a long time and I started to wonder if she did, after all, want me to reply to her question. But the she spoke, at first tentatively, and then as if swept up in the story and her memory of it. “Moz was of the middle. Moz did not like the low places. Moz did not like the high places. Kumag would sing, –come with me my sisters, to the sky we go, swim this silver river, we will touch the sky!”

“But Moz did not like the high places and would not climb. Aki would taunt Moz, –come with me my sisters, to the sea we go, swim the salty water, return home with me!”

“But Moz did not like the deep water and would not swim in the sea. Kumag noticed that while Aki could swim, she would not climb to the sky. –Aki, you must see the sky! Come with me, my sister, you must know the sky!”

“But Aki did not like the river and stayed by the sea. Moz realized that Aki could not climb or swim to the sky. Moz started to tease Aki. –Aki, come with me. Walk with me. If you come with me, I will try. I will try to reach the sky!”

“Aki would have none of that. –Silly Moz! When you can swim in the sea with me then I will walk with you.”

“Moz feared the deep sea, but she called upon the Sea Spirit, -I am Moz. I will honor you with a swim.”

“For two days the sea crew calmer and calmer. It was a good omen. Moz went to the sea and swam. Moz boasted to Aki, –See! I can swim. I can do anything if I try. Come with me to the sky. Aki, won’t you try to reach the sky?”

“Aki wanted to touch the sky and the brave deed of Moz lifted Aki’s spirit. Aki swam into the mouth of the Great River, –Yes, Moz, I will try! Let us go and touch the sky!”

“Moz and Aki started their journey to the sky. Aki swam up the river and Moz walked. Kumag sang, -Here we go! Oh Sky Spirit, pour forth your golden blood, fill us with love, for my sisters come with me to touch the source of life!”

“The journey was long and began with much joy and sisterly love. The Three Sisters had never before had a chance to do something together. But then Moz grew fearful in the steep places and Aki could not pass the white water. Aki wailed, -Kumag, bring the sky a little lower, we have come as far as we can come. Help us touch the sky!”

“But there was nothing Kumag could do. Kumag swam in circles around Aki and chanted, –Silly girl, the sky does not move!”

Just then, Sky Spirit crackled and thundered and spoke to Kumag, -Why do you torment your sweet sisters? Not even you can touch the sky.”

“Kumag knew she had been wrong to provoke her sisters into making this trek. She tried to send them back down river, –Enough, my brave sisters. You tried, but now you should go back! Sky Spirit commands it!”

Aki left the white water and returned to the sea.

But Moz was both fearful and enthralled by the high places. Moz did not listen to the voice of Sky Spirit echoing through the gorge. Moz would not turn back. –Fear is not as strong as I, I will touch the sky, fear is not as big as I, Kumag does not own the sky.”

At this point, Nibii paused the story and asked, “Are you still awake?”

I was caught up in her narration and annoyed that she had stopped the story. “Of course.”

She chuckled, “This is as far as I got last night, before you started snoring. I did it better tonight. It had been a long time since I had told this story.”

I speculated, “It sounds like Moz is getting herself into trouble.”

Nibii tried to excuse the faults in her version of the story. “This is the condensed version. My father never bothered to remember all of the original embellishments. My grandfather knew dozens of Moz stories, they are part of what I think of as the Before People corpus.”

I asked, “Before people?”

Nibii explained, “There are many stories of Moz and her family that do not contain any human characters. Normally the listener would know all of the character traits of the beasts and Spirits and each particular story would be full of sly inside references to the events in other stories.”

We were silent for a while as she regained the rhythm of the story. “Moz continued to climb to the top of the river, staying close to Kumag, who was swimming. Kumag was afraid for Moz, but Kumag had an idea. Kumag knew that they were approaching a cave in the side of the mountain. Maybe this was a way to get Moz to return to the lowlands. Yes, Mountain Spirit would help. Kumag told Moz, -We are almost to the sacred lodge!”

"Moz did not know about any sacred lodge. –Show me this sacred lodge.”

"They climbed a treacherously steep stretch of the river and then Kumag told Moz, -The lodge is there, behind the square rocks.”

“Moz left the stream bed and lumbered over the pile of square rocks. Behind the rocks, Moz found a cave entrance.”

“Mountain Spirit spoke to Moz from the mouth of the cave, -Why are you here, beast of the plains?”

“Moz bowed down before the mouth of the cave. Moz explained, -I want to touch the sky.”

“Mountain Spirit chastised Moz. –Only I touch the sky!”

“Moz tried to argue with Mountain Spirit. –My sister brought me on this long journey so that I could touch the sky. Will you lower the sky for me, please great Mountain Spirit?

“Mountain Spirit decided to put the foolish Moz in her place. –If I give you the gift of touching the sky, you must do something for me. Go into the cave.”

“Moz was afraid. Moz hesitated and complained, –It is dark in there.”

“Mountain Spirit tried to trick Moz. –Well, let me tell you about that. I’m making a new sky; Night Sky. Go in the cave and I will let you touch Night Sky.”

“Moz had her heart set on touching Day Sky. –But I do so love blue Day Sky. I do not know Night Sky.”

“Mountain Spirit shook the ground ominously, “Do not be impertinent! Let me tell you about the gloriously decorated Night Sky. It is beautiful with stars, more stars than can be counted. Now hurry, or I’ll shake down more of these square rocks and close the cave and you will never touch the sky, Day or Night.”

“The ground shook again and a large rock above the mouth of the cave trembled. Moz rushed into the cave and then stopped, unable to see. –Where are these wondrous stars? Where are the stars?”

Outside, the rock slab slid down in front of the cave, sealing Moz in. Mountain Spirit said to Moz, -Move forward a little more and you will reach Night Sky.”

“Moz walked deeper into the cave and walked through the wall of the cave, emerging as a new constellation in the sky. What remained on the wall of the cave was the image of Moz.”

“Kumag swam back to the sea. Aki asked her sister, -Where is Moz?”

“Much later, Kumag and Aki got to see Moz again, painted in stars. After Mountain Spirit trapped the Moon in his cave he released Night Sky from the cave. But that is another story.”

For a while I let myself slowly emerge from the story space that Nibii had created with her words. Only the cold of night kept me from going outside the tent to search for Moz in the sky. I said, “That’s what you are looking for.” Nibii said nothing. I asked, “Do you really think there is cave in New England with a mammoth painted on the wall?”

At that point Nibbi slipped out of her role as a teller of ancient legends and returned to her role as a modern professor of archeology. It was clear that she was searching the New England mountains for something, even if it was not described in any particular legend.

It was not until six months later that I realized how close we had come to resolving the mystery right then in May, a mystery that linked her past with my own search to understand my family history. I already had the magic word that I could have uttered. But that lucky event, an event which had patiently waited for centuries in the currents of time, was in no hurry to occur.

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