By Terry Duffy
Last month, the Town of Lewiston took part in a special presentation with the Tuscarora Nation. Held Aug. 28 at the Nation House on the Tuscarora Reservation, the event celebrated the life of Lelawala, daughter of Eagle Eye, chief of the Ongiras, a native tribe long extinct, as the Maid of the Mist.
According to a historical account found online at www.firstpeople.us, “Long ago, the peaceful tribe of the Ongiras lived beside the Niagara River. For an unknown reason, Indians were dying and it was believed that the tribe must appease the Thunder God Hinum, who lived with his two sons at the base of the Falls.
“(At) first, the Indians sent canoes laden with fruit, flowers and game over the Falls, but the dying continued. The Indians then began to sacrifice the most beautiful maiden of the tribe, who was selected once a year during a ceremonial feast. One year, Lelawala, daughter of Chief Eagle Eye was chosen.
“On the appointed day, Lelawala appeared on the river bank above the Falls, wearing a white deerskin robe with a wreath of woodland flowers in her hair. She stepped into a white birch bark canoe and plunged over the Falls to her death. Her father, heartbroken, leaped into his canoe and followed her.”
According to the account, Lelawala found that a water snake that had been lying at the bottom of the river would return on a yearly basis and kill her people.
“On spirit, Lelawala told her people to destroy the serpent. Indian braves mortally wounded the snake on his next yearly visit to the village. Returning his lair to the river, the snake caught his head on one side of the river and his tail on the other, forming a semi-circle and the brink of the Horseshoe Falls. Lelawala returned to the cave of the God Hinum, where she reigns as Maid of the Mist.”
Town of Lewiston Historian Marjorie L. Maggard recalled past celebrations by the Tuscarora Nation presented in Lelawala’s honor.
“A contest (was) held for a maid to be selected, and a costume was made for each maid,” she said. “Most of the activities were at Goat Island and a parade was held in Niagara Falls with many floats. For the year of 1969, the Falls was dried but the celebration still went on.”
The annual Tuscarora celebration moved to the Niagara Falls Conference Center (now Seneca Niagara Resort & Casino) in the early 1970s; a maid was selected each year and costumes created for the annual celebrations.
Maggard said the very first maid chosen back then was Minerva Mt. Pleasant. Others selected in the years that followed were Claudia Miller, Gretchen House Broderick and Marjorie Radogna.
“Their duties included educating various outside groups on the Maid of the Mist legends and its various functions; also, to participate in a local parade presented by Falls-area Jaycees,” Maggard said.
The Tuscarora Maid of the Mist celebration was since discontinued, but its connection to the Town of Lewiston remains to this day.
Maggard said Barbara Bracalello Cich, a former secretary to the town supervisor, designed a costume for an earlier event that ended up in her possession. Cich contacted Maggard and asked if she had any interested in taking possession.
“Barbara didn’t want it anymore,” Maggard said. “I found a mannequin and displayed it at Town Hall a few times. It was in very good condition, made of white leather and beadwork all intact.”
Maggard said she felt a more appropriate setting was needed for this unique piece of the Tuscarora Nation’s past.
“I’ve been to the Native House on the reservation many times and realized this is the proper home for this beautiful garment,” she said.
After receiving approval from Cich, Maggard contacted Vince Shiffert, who serves as historian for the Tuscarora Nation.
“He came to the Town Hall to take pictures and presented to the historian group. They wanted the costume and were excited” to take possession, Maggard said.
A transfer of the garment occurred last month.
“This outfit was given to them for display in the Nation House by Barbara Cich, along with the Legend of the Maids. That day, all of us were happy the right decision was made,” Maggard said.
A close-up of this unique costume of the Tuscarora Nation’s history. (Submitted photos)