The Owl and the Maiden
The night Onacona was born, her father saw a white owl in flight, so it became her name. Some Native American tribes regarded owls as unwelcome souls of the night. The seven tribes of the Cherokee people thought otherwise.
In the Cherokee creation tale, the animals inhabited the upper world called Galuntai. Their god ordered them to watch over the Earth’s creatures for seven days. Only two animals could remain awake, the owl and the cougar. Both can see in the dark. The owl’s eyes are like humans, and the Cherokee revered them. They believed the owl’s connection to the spirit world brought medicine to the sick, and they feared its appearance because it signified an impending death. Healers with owl medication brought comfort and visions of the future to those on their deathbeds.
This would be the fate of Onacona, the ultimate visionary for her people as their healer. She’d be the one to support them in the soul realm.
Seven Cherokee societies of families followed a maternal line of kinship descent. Therefore, seven turned into a lucky number for their nations. They prohibited marriage within a clan. Since her name meant ‘white owl,’ many adolescents from other tribes avoided her. She discovered the whispers of their elders as they warned them to stay away from the ‘witch.’ This confused her as a child.
Onacona heard the tale of her birth hundreds of times, and her tribe considered the owl a positive omen, one that carried wisdom, knowledge, and protection for their warriors. Ona understood that wasn’t the case for the other societies.
She grew into a budding, gorgeous maiden. Her long, black, thick mane that shined in the sunlight accentuated her brown skin and strong cheekbones. The other girls were envious. Ona studied the ways of the medicine woman. The young girl learned how to weave baskets and studied the powers of herbs and plants to produce poultices. An expert dancer, she created exquisite costumes from buffalo hides, owl feathers, and turquoise beads.
The elders granted a spirit-seeking journey for her to take rather than the usual female coming-of-age ceremony. Vision quests only went to young male fighters. Onacona’s great-grandmother noticed how the other inexperienced girls treated her. The thought of being locked away during her first menses, hair braided, and taught by elder wives the processes of being a dutiful companion to a warrior didn’t appeal to her.
During her spiritual journey, her soul guides came to her—a snowy white owl with huge talons perched on her outstretched arm. Though the claws were sharp as razors, the owl never broke her skin. A young cougar sauntered over and lay by her feet, offering his body heat. Simultaneously, they shared their vision.
The owl informed her the tribes would travel on a pilgrimage. “Many will die from starvation and thirst. Your babies left on the doorsteps of the white man in hopes they survive. We shall shed a thousand tears. Historians will reference it as ‘The Trail of Tears.’ But your kin make the best of their situation and thrive again.”
Tears filled her eyes as she saw her people’s decline. It saddened her she didn’t have the power to revive them.
“Ahh, but you do.” Said the cougar. “You will guide them through their medical, personal, and sacred concerns. You won’t bed down until you reach your destination. We’ll be with you the entire time. Remember, your role as a medicine mother is important in Cherokee society. Their survival is on your shoulders.”
With that, the owl stared into Onacona’s eyes, expanded its enormous wings, and glided into the forest. The cougar rose, “Remember, oh great one, what we told you? We won’t be far from your thoughts.” Turning away, he headed in the direction he had come. Both soon departed from sight.
Ona was trying to understand what the owl and cougar had shown her. How can I warn my communities?
“You can’t,” she heard the cougar’s voice in her mind. “It has already begun. You must run now.”
On her way down from the ridge, she saw federal soldiers herding her people. The screams and cries caused her stomach to turn. As mothers, fathers, and children gathered up what little belongings they could carry, Onacona’s eyes brimmed with tears.
She ran to her teepee and discovered her mother sitting inside as if in a trance. Her father was gathering up herbs and medicine stored in leather hide pouches. When he saw her, they embraced. “You learned this in your vision?” he asked.
Ona nodded her head. “It was horrible, father, but we survive as a nation and grow stronger because of it. I will watch over everyone.”
“It’s an immense burden for one so inexperienced.” He responded.
“I’ll have my soul guides to support me, they promised.” Ona smiled at her dad.
“Did they explain what happened to us?”
“Only positive deeds are rewarded, and hateful acts are punished. When the natural order is upset, and awful things happen to good people, they attribute the cause to a dangerous individual or a witch using evil medicine to generate trouble.”
“Did they show you who it was?”
“No, father. Only that I will not languish until we make it to our destination. They may reveal who it is.”
They picked up her mother and placed her in the makeshift caddy created from cedar poles and buffalo hide to begin their long migration from Georgia to a place called Oklahoma.
It took them one year, through the fall and winter months of 1838 to 1839, when they arrived at their new homeland.
Despite the destruction of one-fourth of its population on the Trail of Tears, the Cherokee nation remained committed to its sovereign nationhood.
The route the government forced the tribes to embark on from the Southeast portion of the United States was disastrous. Poor weather, disease, disorganization, and famine plagued the tribes as they traveled to their new land. At least 4,000 First Nations people died when the Indian Removal Act of 1830 became law authored by President Andrew Jackson.
Though the elders knew in their hearts the evil was President Jackson, they called for someone closer to blame. The men formed a campaign against Onacona. The rumor circulated through the seven tribes she was a witch, an evil presence, who led this upon their nations. After all, wasn’t she on her ‘spirit guide mission’ when the mercenaries appeared? A passage meant only for men? The god’s punishment was harsh.
For generations, strife continued to plague the Cherokee nation. During the Civil War, they fought with the South to protect their settled land and their rights to own slaves. No matter what Onacona told her people, they stood up to the United States government. They lost more lives to selfishness and ego. It was then she understood the message from her soul guides. “Only honest deeds are rewarded, and evil acts punished.”
When the Cherokee nation surrendered to their greed and ego, peace and prosperity returned to their people. They set their laborers free and recognized them as brothers. Rather than control, they worked together.
* * * * *
On July 7, 1977, they unearthed a skeleton in the sand during an excavation expanding the highway. An archeological team dispatched to the site stopped production. They needed to determine whether the bones were ancestral to continue the work. The discovery was the remains of Onacona. One hundred years prior, the Cherokee medicine mother vanished while on a spiritual quest.
She had dedicated her entire life to her customs. On the day she departed, her warrior husband and three children begged her not to leave. They felt some clan members still blamed her for their past troubles, and they worried about her safety. She reassured her household she would be safe from harm because the owl and the cougar were her protectors. Onacona’s family never saw her again.
As they removed the bones from her informal grave, a white owl circled high above them, screeching a song of sorrow. As the chief and representatives of her people glanced up, they realized her soul was free at last, and Onacona became a part of the Seven Nations’ lucky creation legend.