Hasgę:na:ˀgo:wah       (The Vampire Skeleton)

Celebrating 120 Years of storytelling

The series of books, The Vampire Skeleton, is very loosely inspired by a legend with a similar name. We say similar, because in some of the versions we found the title of the story is also recorded as being 'The Vampire Corpse'.

In researching the collection of vampire skeleton stories that exist we came across a number of versions. The earliest version we found (although there may well be an earlier one), was recorded by JNB Hewitt in November of 1896. Titled, “The Vampire Skeleton”, the story was related to him at the Grand River territory in the Mohawk language. 

The next versions of the story we found were in the unpublished Frederick Wilkinson Waugh Collection. There were three stories in all and each collected in the month of August in the years 1912, 1915, and 1918, respectively. Additional versions of the story are found in Legends of the Longhouse, by J.J. Cornplanter and Arthur Parker’s Seneca Myths & Folk Tales.

JNB Hewitt also includes an English translation of the story in the 32nd Annual Report of the Bureau of American Ethnology to the Secretariat of the Smithsonian Institute. This version is different from the others in a couple of ways. Firstly, it does not just relay the story but also includes three paragraphs at the conclusion of the story describing an evolution of burial practices, lending some credence to the idea that the story may have been used as a means to reinforce a change in practice or as a reminder for why practices had to change. We cannot confirm that this was the case and as always, it is important to note that these writings should be viewed with a critical and thoughtful lens. For example - Who is the principal author or gatherer of these stories? What unintentional biases or assumptions might be present in their recording and interpretations of these stories? What else might we need to consider when reading them? We've attempted to use a critical, thoughtful lens here, but have no doubt there is more that we can do. 

As part of our work, we also conducted a broad comparison of the two versions recorded by JNB Hewitt (in so much as we were able), to determine if they were the same story as told by the Mohawk storyteller from the Grand River in 1896. We think they are, as there were several similarities between the two versions. (The Mohawk version also mentions changing burial practices, for example). Unfortunately, Hewitt does not credit the original teller of this story (at least as far as we could tell), and so we were unable to determine who the Mohawk storyteller was.

Another interesting detail not included in the other versions of the story, but was included into the Hewitt version, was that the vampire skeleton would yell something aloud, at which time, the person he was pursuing would stumble and fall. (Depending on which version you read, the person the vampire skeleton is pursuing changes). 

“And that every time the eskenko’wa (the great vampire) hollered, they fell down.” 

We thought this was interesting and so we included this element in our adaptation.


A Study in Language


One of the reasons we chose this story was because an original version of it existed in the Mohawk language and since we are making an effort to learn stories and relate them in the language, it seemed like a good place to start. Also, we wanted to share what we had learned with others. 

This said, the Smithsonian Institute does not allow you to post manuscripts on social media sites. It also does not allow you to add manuscripts to public collections or use the materials outside of certain research parameters. Our task then became to find ways to work with those guidelines (as we are definitely grateful to be able to access the stories and with them, a glimpse into the vibrant storytelling ways of our people over the last century and more) and at the same time, share what we learned. 

One of the ways we thought we might be able to achieve this, was by sharing what we discovered in an original artistic medium, specifically through a short movie and comic that was based on the story, but written and produced in the Cayuga language. To accomplish this, we had to rewrite the original manuscript into a contemporary dialect (the original writing was using a linguistic form of Mohawk) and then translate it/retell it in the Cayuga language. In our next post, we will share a Q & A with writer and translator Roronhiakehte Deer, as well as the transcript for the movie. Stay tuned!