Friday, May 14, 2010

The Legend of the Spirit Lodge

Lake Hopatcong photo from the Lake Hopatcong Commission

From the time the Lenape (Delaware) first discovered the waters of Lake Hopatcong some 12,000 years ago, it was a special place. A deep spring-fed lake formed by glaciers, it was an idyllic spot for a Native American community. Its wooded shores provided rich soil and ample game while the lake teemed with fish.

In the 1600's, the Nariticon clan of the Lenape lived on the eastern shore of Lake Hopatcong, in a large village on Halsey Island in northern New Jersey. The island was then connected to the mainland before the lake was dammed in 1750 for a forge and in 1831 for a canal.

Quaquahela, the clan's chief, decided to visit another tribe, and rowed his canoe across the lake. He reached shore, when suddenly he heard roaring and thrashing in the woods. A huge bear was charging at him.

The chief was brave, and armed with a war club and knife. But his totem was the bear; it was taboo for him to kill one. Someone should have told the bear!

Despite the tribal sanction, Quaquahela had no option but to engage the beast in combat. The chief finally dispatched the bear in a bloody contest, but lay dying on the forest floor, realizing by his deed that his spirit would never be accepted into the Happy Hunting Ground.

His body was never recovered, claimed by a wolf pack, but a friendly chieftain found the bear's body and Quaquahela's blood-crusted weapons, added two and two together, and after a fruitless search sent a messenger to the Nariticon to tell them the sad news.

About a month later, during a full moon, Quaquahela's clan saw an eerie mist spiraling up the side of a nearby hill, like the smoke from a fire. The haze formed into an unmoving cloud, despite gusty winds, and hovered over the hillside. The clan was mystified by the strange sight, and wondered why it had appeared to them.

That night, Quaquahela appeared in a dream to his medicine man. "It is I," he told him, "who have appeared in the mist on the hillside. I have killed the great bear who took my life, and so am forbidden forever to enter the spirit realm. Rather than roam the earth, I have determined to stay near my clansmen, and so have erected a spirit lodge on the hillside in the place which you saw tonight."

The chief promised the medicine man that he would be with his people on all their travels to watch over them. If they ever doubted his presence, all they had to do was look to the hillside. The mist was the smoke from his spirit lodge, and if they ever called to him, he would answer.

And while the Lenape remained by Lake Hopatcong, a call to Quaquahela was always answered by an echo in response.

Life for the Lenape would change with the arrival of the European settlers. Most of the Delaware people had died from disease or were chased from the area by the time of the American Revolution. But many Lenapes still came to the lake to drink from its waters before their ceremonies.

(The lake is now part of Hopatcong State Park, bordered by four different residential communities and a thriving recreational site.)

The legend goes that to this day, if you hail Quaquahela on the River Styx bridge towards the hillside, he will answer. But many have tried to reach him without success.

Maybe it's because they're not his clansmen. But we like to think it's because he's moved his spirit lodge to wherever the Nariticon call home, and can be found there as long as his clan needs him.

His lore is preserved by Henry Charlton Beck in Tales and Towns of Northern New Jersey and S. E. Schlosser in American Folklore.

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