“HOW THE SNAKES GOT THEIR POISON”
“HOW THE SNAKES GOT THEIR POISON”
By Jamie K. Oxendine, Lumbee/Creek
Director, Black Swamp InterTribal Foundation
This is truly a tale of the South East Woodland Culture of Native America. Although the snakes in this story do appear in others parts of Native America, their origin and togetherness is intrinsically bonded in the South Eastern Woodlands. It is an ancient story and thus its time period is considered to be shortly after The Creator made The People.
THE STORY: SOUTHEAST WOODLANDS (As told by the Author)
Long ago their lived a very lovely and quite beautiful vine plant. She loved to live in the woods, but her favorite place to stay was along the water by branches, creeks, ponds and lakes as well as the swamps. She loved The People very much and enjoyed playing with them on warm summer afternoons as they would swing from her and into the cool waters. The People loved her also and gave her the names Lovely Vine and Vine of Play. Over time they came to call her just Vine.
But as time went by Vine noticed, just as the many other plants did, that The People would get sick from being with her and playing with her. It grew so bad that some of The People even died from being with her. Eventually The People stayed away and would not even go near her. In her great grief she called out to all The Beings for help. Her cries were heard and a Grand Council was convened on her behalf. The Grand Council consisted of all The Beings of The Creator outside of The People. It was made up of The Kingdoms of The Earth: The Plants, The Birds of The Sky, The Fishes of The Waters, The Insects, The Reptiles and The Four-Legged.
Vine expressed her sorrow to the Grand Council. She begged and pleaded for help. The Grand Council was able to express to her that The Creator had made her poisonous for a reason and there was nothing that they could do about that outside of The Creator. She was very sad and cried heavily as she could not understand why God would make her poisonous.
Being aware of this Grand Council (as He is aware of all things) The Creator came down and spoke to all The Beings, “If any of the Kingdoms would like to help Vine and take upon them some of her poison then so be it. Poison must be taken from her a total of four times. But whoever takes it must live a life of solitude from The People. I shall leave the decision up to you.” The Grand Council all nodded their heads in agreement and respect as God left their presence.
A huge announcement was made by the Grand Council for all that could help Vine to come forth and take some of her poison. Although all The Beings assembled, no one came forth to help Vine for all loved the people and did not want to harm them much less live a life of solitude.
There was a long wait but finally The Reptiles agreed that they would help Vine and the first to come forward was Diamond Snake. He was a lovely creation of The Creator with beautiful geometrical diamond shapes all over his body. He took some of Vine’s poison and put it in his mouth. The Grand Council then inquired, “How will you let The People know that you are now poisonous?” Diamond Snake thought and thought and finally came up with a most brilliant idea. He took a rather large rock that was nearby and threw it up in the air and allowed it to fall on the end of his tail. The rock landed with a pounding sound and crushed the end of his tail. Upon pulling his tail out from under the rock it rattled. Diamond Snake then said, “If Man bothers me I will rattle my tail as a warning for him to leave me alone. Should he leave me alone and move on I will rattle my warning until he is gone. If Man does not leave me alone I will then and only then strike.” The Grand Council agreed and changed his name to Rattlesnake. Later The People combined his first name with his new name and sometimes referred to him as Diamond Back Rattlesnake.
Second to come and help Vine was one of the Brown Snakes. He was a not as lovely as Diamond Snake but he was a consistent brown all over his entire body. He was liked by The People and always helped them. Brown Snake went up to Vine and took some of her poison and put it in his mouth. The Grand Council addresses him, “How will you let The People know that you are now poisonous?” Brown Snake really liked the idea that his cousin Diamond Snake had and felt that he could do the same but sacrifice even more of his body in the process in hopes of a great blessing from The Creator. So he threw the same rock that Diamond Snake used way up in the air. Brown Snake moved quickly under the rock and allowed it to land on his head. The rock landed with a mighty thud and all The Beings could hear the sound of crushed bone and other parts of Brown Snakes’ head. When Brown Snake emerged from the rock his head was long and flat and the same color as that of the red and brown metal in the Earth. The rock had crushed many blood vessels and caused this to mix with his own brown color to spread along his head and body. Brown Snake then proclaimed, “Man will see my crushed reddish brown head and know that I am dangerous. If he heeds my color, I will leave him alone, but if he does not I will strike.” The Grand Council agreed and since his head now looked like the red and brown metal of The Earth they change his name to Copper Head.
The third reptile to come forth was White Snake. Now this is not the albino snake that appears only during certain generations of all snake families. This was pure White Snake. His entire body was white including his eyes. He was very well liked by The People and because of his pure white color they saw him as an omen of good luck. White Snake took some of Vine’s poison and put it in his mouth. The Grand Council questioned him, “How will you let The People know that you are now poisonous?” Well White Snake was very proud and had no desire to destroy any part of his body as his previous fellow snake brothers did. He loved his white color but felt that maybe he wanted some other color. So he thought long and hard and finally came up with his own rather unique idea. He went and wallowed in the mud and while still wet went and wallowed in the pollen. After this White Snake went to the sea to wash off. While there he also rubbed his body against the coral of the sea. He knew the salt water would burn in the shades of the mud and the pollen and the coral on his body. When he returned to the Grand Council he was a colorful snake of bands of black, yellow, red, and white. He was quite handsome he thought and even better looking than before. He announced, “If Man sees my many colors he will know that he should move on and leave me alone. If he does not take my colors as danger and bothers me I will strike.” The Grand Council was very impressed with the lengths that White Snake went to accept this responsibility. Because red was his brightest color and it was obtained from the sea they changed his name to Coral Snake.
As The Creator had said that four must take from Vine, The Beings waited for a fourth volunteer. At first there was no one to come forth. It seems nobody else wanted poison and a life of solitude. Finally after a wait Water Snake came forward. Now Water Snake had a very interesting personality. He was extremely playful but also a loner as he tired easily. No one ever knew what they would get from Water Snake from one day to another. But Water Snake was very tired and wanted a new life, so he went to Vine and took some of her poison and put it in his mouth. The Grand Council asked him, “How will you let the People know that you are now poisonous?” Water Snake did not even have to think about this. He loved the water and wanted to stay by it all his life not just for enjoyment but for need. So he went over to a cotton plant and swallowed heaps and heaps of cotton. It made him very dry and he desperately needed water then and for the rest of his life to keep the cotton he swallowed moist. He vowed to the council, “As I have taken much cotton I must live by the shores of water. If Man bothers me I will shake and open my mouth wide and my white mouth will be a sign to leave me alone. My presence by the water will also be a sign. If man does not follow these signs I will strike.” The Grand Council agreed and changed his name to Cotton Mouth because the cotton he took turned his mouth pure white. The People also know him as Water Moccasin because he always stays at the Foot of the Water.
Vine was very grateful but she still had some poison. It was a very small amount though and she knew now how to use it if needed. She could now play with The People and enjoy much fun with them. She only used her poison when she was hurt and not respected.
The Creator had been watching all of this from a distance and he was very pleased with The Beings that he made. He made his presence known and granted a life of solitude to each of the four snakes and all their generations to come. God also awarded each a special gift for the sacrifice they made and even gave special attention to that of Copper Head. The gifts were secret and are only known by The Beings.
Thus is the story of how the Great Poisonous Snakes of the South East Woodlands came to be.
Each of the snakes and even Vine became powerful symbols for many Nations of the South East. Because of coming forth first, Rattlesnake became known as a Great Warrior also and his likeness was used all across the South East on accoutrements, adornment, clothing, jewelry, pottery, tools, weapons and more. He can be found among the art of the South East Nations from the Ancient Mound Builders to present day.
In time The People were joined on Turtle Island by the coming People From Across the Great Water. These new comers learned of the snakes and their poison. But instead of respecting them and their sacrifice, these new people hated the four snakes and Vine. They were mean to the snakes. These White Men were also mean to Vine and instead of seeing her great beauty and use they saw only bad and called her Poison Ivy.
The People however were kind and gentle to the four snakes and Vine. They knew that they would only get hurt from each if they did not show respect.
Cooper, Vernon. Lumbee Elder, Mentor & Teacher to the Author.
Cypress, William. Seminole Elder, Leader & Mentor to the Author.
Hudson, Charles. 1976. The Southeastern Indians. University of Tennessee Press.
Klauber, Laurence, M. 1972. Rattlesnakes: Their Habits, Life Histories, and Influence on Mankind, Volume 1. University of California Press.
Lawson, John. 1967. A New Voyage to Carolina. University of North Carolina Press.
Littleturtle, Ray, C. Lumbee Elder, Leader, & Mentor to the Author.
Naylor, Maria, Ed. 1975. Authentic Indian Designs. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications.
Oxendine, Early. Lumbee Elder, Grandparent, Teacher and Mentor to the Author.
Swanton, John R. 1929.. Myths and Tales of the Southeastern Indians. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution.
The Art Institute of Chicago. 2004. Hero, Hawk, and Open Hand: American Indian Art of the Ancient Midwest and South.
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