Esau was an Indian
by Stella Stacy
obtained by Nancy Oestrich Lurie
Mrs. Lurie gives the background of this story. For this account and a great deal of other valuable data and personal kindnesses I am indebted to Mrs. Stella Stacy, a sister of Radin's famous informant, Crashing Thunder [Sam Blowsnake]. Mrs. Stacy lives at the Indian Mission, Black River Falls, Wisconsin. One evening during a summer field study in 1946, she and her young granddaughter dropped by at my shack for an informal visit as they were in the habit of doing. As we were drinking coffee and talking over recent events around the Mission, "Aunt Stella" suddenly began the following story with: "You know, Esau was an Indian." Then she explained she had once heard a man tell of this in a peyote meeting and although the details were vague as to who had told the story and when and where, the narrative had made quite an impression on her, and she often thought about it during the many years since she had heard it. You will note actual discrepancies with the Biblical version in addition to the unique interpretation of the events. Whether these discrepancies, which are common in such stories, are in this case due to retelling or translation into English I cannot say; they may just as easily have occurred in the original form. "Aunt Stella" has a fine command of the English language and is a most entertaining story teller, so here is her own account.
"Esau had a brother, Jacob, and I think their father's name was Abraham. Esau used to go out hunting. When the boys were born, they were twins, and Esau came out first — just a hand and the mother tied a red string on the finger and then the hand pulled back in again, and Jacob came out first altogether. But the mother knew it wasn't the first one because there was no red string on the finger. Then Esau was born. The mother liked Jacob best. He was a farmer, and he had kinda funny skin. The father liked Esau. Long ago people used to live for hundreds of years and the father was three hundred years old. He was so old he was blind; his skin was all loose and hung down over his eyes, so he had to push it up to see. He knew he was going to die, so he said, 'I will bless the one who brings me the food I like best. I will give him the first born.' You know, the first born blessing was important in those days. The mother knew the father liked deer meat and would bless Esau. She said to Jacob, 'Son, go out to the pasture and kill a goat and I will cook it for you and you can say it is Esau, and he will bless you.' Jacob said, 'No, mother, I'm afraid, it would be a sin.' But the mother said, 'Do it, son, and I will be the one to take the blame.' So he did it and the mother took the skin on the smooth side and wrapped it around Jacob's arm. She cooked the meat real nice and Jacob took it to his father. 'Here, dad, here is some nice meat, now bless me with the first born.' Abraham felt his arm and took the meat. 'The voice is Jacob's but the feel is Esau,' — so he blessed him with the first born. Then Esau came back from hunting and he cooked the meat and brought it to his father and his father began to cry. 'I have blessed your brother. He fooled me.' Then Esau began to cry too, 'But you promised me the first born. Please, dad, isn't there anything you can give me?' Abraham said, 'No, son, Jacob will always be rich and his children will have everything.' And they both cried and then Abraham said, 'I will bless you too. You and your children will be able to speak to God.'
And that's how it is, the white people have everything, but the Indians can pray. They got peyote. You should see in meetings; young ladies get up and they bring her corn and she gives thanks and blesses it, and water, and gives thanks. No one teaches her how, she can just pray and pray."1
Commentary. "Abraham" — it was actually Abraham's son Isaac.
"a red string" — this replaces the Hebrew version in which Esau was born with a coat of red hair.
"Jacob came out first" — this shows an aversion to the idea that Jacob actually stole his brother's birth right and that his mother was implicated in the plot. In the Hočąk version, the mother knows that Jacob is really entitled to the birth right, and therefore is acting righteously. However, the question comes up as to how Esau had ever been thought to be the eldest under these circumstances.
"the smooth side" — this is the opposite of the Hebrew version, and may represent the general aesthetic aversion to body hair in males seen in most Indian cultures.
"you and your children will be able to speak to God" — this is a Hočąk innovation. The Hebrew merely gives Esau prosperity in his own right, but this did not seem likely to be the outcome for Indians in 1946 when this version was told. The Hebrew also adds that Esau is blessed to be able, some day, to break off the yoke of his brother. This would have been the view of the Ghost Dance of the late XIXᵀᴴ century, which ended in disappointment. The peyote rites of the Native American Church were a more realistic response to white repression. To have retained the Hebrew ending would be to have suggested a rebellion on exactly the lines of the Ghost Dance.
"peyote" — an hallucinagenic cactus extract whose active ingredient is mescaline. The use of peyote brought an authentic Native American element to Christianity, since the purpose of taking the drug is to gain visions, which is the normal way in which people had communicated with the spirits.
Comparative Material. This is the Hebrew version (Genesis 25:21-28, 27:2-40). (25:20) And Isaac was forty years old when he took Rebekah to wife, the daughter of Bethuel the Syrian of Padan-aram, the sister to Laban the Syrian. (21) And Isaac intreated the LORD for his wife, because she was barren: and the LORD was intreated of him, and Rebekah his wife conceived. (22) And the children struggled together within her; and she said, If it be so, why am I thus? And she went to inquire of the LORD. (23) And the LORD said unto her, Two nations are in thy womb, and two manner of people shall be separated from thy bowels; and the one people shall be stronger than the other people; and the elder shall serve the younger. (24) And when her days to be delivered were fulfilled, behold, there were twins in her womb. (25) And the first came out red, all over like an hairy garment; and they called his name Esau. (26) And after that came his brother out, and his hand took hold on Esau’s heel; and his name was called Jacob: and Isaac was threescore years old when she bare them. (27) And the boys grew: and Esau was a cunning hunter, a man of the field; and Jacob was a plain man, dwelling in tents. (28) And Isaac loved Esau, because he did eat of his venison: but Rebekah loved Jacob. ... (27:1) And it came to pass, that when Isaac was old, and his eyes were dim, so that he could not see, he called Esau his eldest son, and said unto him, My son: and he said unto him, Behold, here am I. (2) And he said, Behold now, I am old, I know not the day of my death: (3) Now therefore take, I pray thee, thy weapons, thy quiver and thy bow, and go out to the field, and take me some venison; (4) And make me savoury meat, such as I love, and bring it to me, that I may eat; that my soul may bless thee before I die. (5) And Rebekah heard when Isaac spake to Esau his son. And Esau went to the field to hunt for venison, and to bring it. (6) And Rebekah spake unto Jacob her son, saying, Behold, I heard thy father speak unto Esau thy brother, saying, (7) Bring me venison, and make me savoury meat, that I may eat, and bless thee before the LORD before my death. (8) Now therefore, my son, obey my voice according to that which I command thee. (9) Go now to the flock, and fetch me from thence two good kids of the goats; and I will make them savoury meat for thy father, such as he loveth: (10) And thou shalt bring it to thy father, that he may eat, and that he may bless thee before his death. (11) And Jacob said to Rebekah his mother, Behold, Esau my brother is a hairy man, and I am a smooth man: (12) My father peradventure will feel me, and I shall seem to him as a deceiver; and I shall bring a curse upon me, and not a blessing. (13) And his mother said unto him, Upon me be thy curse, my son: only obey my voice, and go fetch me them. (14) And he went, and fetched, and brought them to his mother: and his mother made savoury meat, such as his father loved. (15) And Rebekah took goodly raiment of her eldest son Esau, which were with her in the house, and put them upon Jacob her younger son: (16) And she put the skins of the kids of the goats upon his hands, and upon the smooth of his neck: (17) And she gave the savoury meat and the bread, which she had prepared, into the hand of her son Jacob. (18) And he came unto his father, and said, My father: and he said, Here am I; who art thou, my son? (19) And Jacob said unto his father, I am Esau thy firstborn; I have done according as thou badest me: arise, I pray thee, sit and eat of my venison, that thy soul may bless me. (20) And Isaac said unto his son, How is it that thou hast found it so quickly, my son? And he said, Because the LORD thy God brought it to me. (21) And Isaac said unto Jacob, Come near, I pray thee, that I may feel thee, my son, whether thou be my very son Esau or not. (22) And Jacob went near unto Isaac his father; and he felt him, and said, The voice is Jacob’s voice, but the hands are the hands of Esau. (23) And he discerned him not, because his hands were hairy, as his brother Esau’s hands: so he blessed him. (24) And he said, Art thou my very son Esau? And he said, I am. (25) And he said, Bring it near to me, and I will eat of my son’s venison, that my soul may bless thee. And he brought it near to him, and he did eat: and he brought him wine, and he drank. (26) And his father Isaac said unto him, Come near now, and kiss me, my son. (27) And he came near, and kissed him: and he smelled the smell of his raiment, and blessed him, and said, See, the smell of my son is as the smell of a field which the LORD hath blessed: (28) Therefore God give thee of the dew of heaven, and the fatness of the earth, and plenty of corn and wine: (29) Let people serve thee, and nations bow down to thee: be lord over thy brethren, and let thy mother’s sons bow down to thee: cursed be every one that curseth thee, and blessed be he that blesseth thee. (30) And it came to pass, as soon as Isaac had made an end of blessing Jacob, and Jacob was yet scarce gone out from the presence of Isaac his father, that Esau his brother came in from his hunting. (31) And he also had made savoury meat, and brought it unto his father, and said unto his father, Let my father arise, and eat of his son’s venison, that thy soul may bless me. (32) And Isaac his father said unto him, Who art thou? And he said, I am thy son, thy firstborn Esau. (33) And Isaac trembled very exceedingly, and said, Who? where is he that hath taken venison, and brought it me, and I have eaten of all before thou camest, and have blessed him? yea, and he shall be blessed. (34) And when Esau heard the words of his father, he cried with a great and exceeding bitter cry, and said unto his father, Bless me, even me also, O my father. (35) And he said, Thy brother came with subtilty, and hath taken away thy blessing. (36) And he said, Is not he rightly named Jacob? for he hath supplanted me these two times: he took away my birthright; and, behold, now he hath taken away my blessing. And he said, Hast thou not reserved a blessing for me? (37) And Isaac answered and said unto Esau, Behold, I have made him thy lord, and all his brethren have I given to him for servants; and with corn and wine have I sustained him: and what shall I do now unto thee, my son? (38) And Esau said unto his father, Hast thou but one blessing, my father? bless me, even me also, O my father. And Esau lifted up his voice, and wept. (39) And Isaac his father answered and said unto him, Behold, thy dwelling shall be the fatness of the earth, and of the dew of heaven from above; (40) And by thy sword shalt thou live, and shalt serve thy brother; and it shall come to pass when thou shalt have the dominion, that thou shalt break his yoke from off thy neck.
Stories: about two brothers: The Two Children, The Twin Sisters, The Captive Boys, The Twins Cycle, The Two Brothers, The Two Boys, The Twins Retrieve Red Star's Head, The Children of the Sun, The Lost Blanket, The Man with Two Heads, Bluehorn's Nephews, Snowshoe Strings, The Old Man and the Giants, The Brown Squirrel.
Themes: the skin of an old man is so wrinkled and loose that he cannot see unless he pulls it up above his eyes: The Dipper.
1 Nancy Oestrich (Lurie), "Esau was an Indian," Badger Folklore, 3, #1 (January, 1951): 9-11.