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Niagara Falls, indigenous mythology and tourism

The Iroquois have lived for millennia on lands that today go from New York to Ontario (Canada).

Niagara Falls - Canada

Throughout history, at a given moment, several ethnic groups or indigenous nations joined in a Confederation (Iroquois or Haudenossaunee) and they began to live democratically under a same government. They were the people Seneca, Cayuga, Onondaga, Oneida, Mohawk and Tuscarora. Benjamin Franklin even drew inspiration from the Iroquois Nation model to draft the Constitution of the United States of America.

These people lived from hunting and gathering, farming and fishing in the region's rivers, including the Niagara River. Their cosmologies include myths linked to these waters and especially to Niagara Falls, home of the Thunder God.

There is controversy over who would have been the first "white man" to see the Niagara Falls. It could have been Samuel de Champlain in 1604, or many others that followed in 1669, 1679, 1688 and 1721, men who left their amazement written about the strength and beauty of the Niagara River Waterfall. Those were years of conflict over territorial domination: the natives, the English and the French fought for hegemony in the region, and so we have the context to understand the manipulation that the European conquerors made of the image of the Native Americans they were conquering. They had to pass on the idea that they were savage, just savage people who did not deserve sympathy and thus spread a misrepresented version of the most famous myth connected to Niagara Falls, a myth that has been disseminated to the present day by active tourism agencies.

The Maid of the Mist Company, the leading tourist company of Niagara Falls, launched its first boat in the mid-XIX and operates until today taking tourists in boat rides at the base of the Falls, counting the legend of Princess LeLawala, the Princess of Niagara or the Maid of the Mist.

Niagara Falls - Canada

The myth of Princess LeLawala

In the European version of the myth, LeLawala was offered to God Thunder in a ritual of human sacrifice performed by the Iroquois Indians. She was thrown into the waterfall of Niagara River to satisfy the God who, otherwise, would bring misfortunes to the natives. This version was created in the 17th century to pass on the idea, in the European society, that the Indians were savages who practiced human sacrifices and that, therefore, deserved to be conquered and civilized.

The Iroquois have another version of this myth - one of the most important of their cosmology - and have always protested against the distorted and perpetuated version by the local population and the tourism industry.

The version of the natives

Princess LeLawala became a widow very early, she did not accept the death of her husband and was submerged in immense sadness, until one day she decided to commit suicide. She went to Niagara Falls and threw herself into its waters. The God of Thunder - who lives inside the Cataract - saved her and took her to his abode, behind the waterfall. There, he and his sons took care of her wounds and taught her about the life of Gods and humans. After a while, LeLawala fell in love with his youngest son and married. When necessary, she returns to her people ashore, carrying the acquired knowledge.

There are several versions of this myth among the natives, with slight variations, but none mentions human sacrifice.

This legend is considered sacred to the Iroquois Peoples. For anthropologists who study their cultures, it is the demonstration of the central role of women in the Seneca (Iroquois) culture. Women hold critical and accountable roles in government and community. The Iroquois have deep respect for the sanctity of women's role in the creation of life and this has motivated them to be one of the first people to treat both men and women alike. Human sacrifice or sacrifice of maidens is unthinkable in the Iroquois worldview.

Recently, a delegation of Iroquois Indians and anthropologists have succeeded, in the Court, in getting the Maid of the Mist company to disclose the erroneous and "europeanized" version of this myth that is sacred to them.

Niagara Falls is probably the most visited waterfall around the world. Its extension and the beauty of its waters has attracted the western world in the last 300 years, just as it has attracted the natives for millennia. Some estimates say that around 5,000 bodies have been found at the foot of the Falls since 1850. About 40 people are drowning there each year and many of them due to suicide (some studies indicate that 70% of the deaths are due to suicide).

The governments of the United States and Canada promote - on-site - programs of accident prevention and guidance to visitors. They are rigorous in that, managing to face the huge contingent of people who visit Niagara Falls annually (they're in the millions).

Seneca woman & LeLawala Princess (Myth)

Maid of the Mist boat at Niagara Falls

Niagara Falls - on the Niagara River, the border between the United States (New York) and Canada (Ontario), consists of 3 falls. Besides tourism, it is a source of energy (hydroelectric) and holds a vigorous environmental preservation project.

Illustrations: private pictures & under CC0 License

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