Native American Mythology
Native American Mythology in Context
The Native American peoples of North America do not share a single, unified body of mythology. The many different tribal groups each developed their own stories about the creation of the world, the appearance of the first people, the place of humans in the universe, and the lives and deeds of gods and heroes. Yet, despite the immense variety of Native American mythologies, certain mythic themes, characters, and stories can be found in many of the cultures. Underlying all the myths is the idea that spiritual forces can be sensed throughout the natural world—including clouds, wind, plants, and animals—which they shape and sustain. Many stories explain how the actions of gods, heroes, and ancestors gave the earth its present form.
According to the mythologies of most Native American cultures, people originated in the places where their ancestors traditionally lived. Some tales speak of ancient migrations. Native Americans are descended from hunting and gathering peoples of northeastern Asia who migrated across the Bering Sea into North America during the most recent Ice Age. During that Ice Age, which ended around 8000 bce, the level of the oceans was much lower, and a bridge of land linked Siberia and Alaska. Some groups may also have reached Alaska from Siberia by boat or by walking on ice. Over thousands of years, the population of North America grew and diversified into the peoples and cultures that Europeans encountered when they began to colonize the continent in the 1500s ce.
Before the arrival of Europeans and the spread of European influence, most Native Americans did not use written languages. As a result, many myths and legends were passed from generation to generation in oral Page 738 | Top of Articleform, usually by special storytellers who sometimes used objects such as stone carvings, shells, rugs, or pottery to illustrate the tales. Mythology, religion, history, and ritual were not separate things for Native American peoples. They were strands woven together in the various tales and stories that defined people's identity and gave order and meaning to their lives. The most serious of these were myths about how the gods created and ordered the universe, and about the origins of important things, such as humans, landforms, food, and death.
Certain myths could not be told lightly. They formed the basis of sacred rituals, including ceremonies in which participants acted out traditional sacred stories. Many Native Americans believed that some myths could be told only at certain times, often during winter nights. A dire fate—such as an attack by snakes—awaited those who told the stories at the wrong time. Other myths resembled folktales. They could be told for fun or to teach a lesson about proper behavior, and those who told them were free to change or add elements to the basic story. Many such tales involved tricksters.
Core Deities and Characters
Native American mythology contains a great many gods, tricksters, heroes, and other mythical beings. The creator gods and heroes usually establish or restore order. Characters such as tricksters and animals can have either positive or negative qualities. Sometimes they are helpful and entertaining; at other times, they are unpredictable, deceptive, or violent. Mythic figures do not always fall into just one category. A trickster may act as a culture hero, a culture hero may be an animal, an animal may be a creator figure, and a creator may also have a capacity for destruction.
Creators, Gods, and Spirits Many Native American mythologies have a high deity—sometimes referred to as the Great Spirit—who is responsible for bringing the universe or the world into existence. Often, however, the Great Spirit merely begins the process of creation and then disappears or removes itself to heaven, leaving other gods to complete the detailed work of creation and to oversee the day-to-day running of the world. In many Native American mythologies, Father Sky and Mother Earth, or Mother Corn, are important creative forces. The high god of the Pawnee people, Tirawa (pronounced TEER-uh-wuh), gave duties and powers to the Sun and Moon, the Morning Star and Evening Page 739 | Top of ArticleStar, the Star of Death, and the four stars that support the sky. The Lakota people believe that the sun, sky, earth, wind, and many other elements of the natural, human, and spiritual worlds are all aspects of one supreme being, Wakan Tanka (pronounced WAH-kuhn TAHN-kuh). The secondary gods are often embodiments of natural forces, such as the wind. In the mythology of the Iroquois people, for example, the thunder god Hunin is a mighty warrior who shoots arrows of fire and is married to the rainbow goddess.
Not all creators are universally good. Napi (pronounced NAW-pee), the creator god of the Blackfoot people in the Plains region, appears as both a wise sky god in creation stories and as a trickster in his actions toward humans. The character Coyote is a trickster in some tales, and in others is a creator whose actions benefit humankind.
Kachinas (pronounced kuh-CHEE-nuhz), spirits of the dead who link the human and spiritual worlds, play an important role in the mythologies of the Pueblo peoples of the American Southwest, including the Zuni and Hopi. In Hopi mythology, the creator deity is a female being called Spider Woman. Among the Zuni, the supreme creator is Awonawilona (pronounced uh-woh-nuh-wee-LOH-nuh), the sun god. The mythology of the Navajo Indians—who live in the same area as the Hopi and Zuni but are not a Pueblo people—focuses on four female deities called Changing Woman, White Shell Woman, Spider Woman, and First Woman.
Culture Heroes and Transformers Central to many Native American myths is the culture hero who makes the world a suitable place for humans and teaches people how to live. Such a character might form the earth and sky, create people and animals, or kill monsters or turn them into stones. These figures might also release animals that evil spirits have imprisoned, establish social structures for humans, or teach people crafts, arts, and ceremonies.
In the mythologies of some Indian groups of the Northeast, the culture hero Gluskap (pronounced GLOOS-kahb) creates humans, returns from death to defeat evil, and protects people from natural and magical disasters. In Navajo mythology, warrior twins named Monster Slayer and Child of Water—sons of Sun and of Water, respectively—play a similar role. The myths of some California Indians tell of the Attajen, who teaches the first people how to make rain and how to fill the earth with plants and animals, and of Chinigchinich (pronounced chi-NICH-nich), who teaches the wise Page 740 | Top of Articlemen how to perform ceremonial dances that will summon him when they have need of help in the future.
Tricksters Tricksters appear in nearly all Native American mythologies, but they generally have a greater place in the folklore of hunter-gatherer peoples than of settled agricultural groups, possibly because people who lived on wild resources were more keenly aware of the uncertain nature of life. The trickster, who is almost always male, represents uncertainty. He loves to upset things and spread confusion.
Sometimes the trickster's acts are comic pranks, but they often have a cruel side as well. They might involve sexual trickery, as when the trickster disguises himself as a woman so that he can marry a man or marries his own daughters while in disguise. A trickster can also be a devilish figure who eats babies or leads other creatures to harm themselves. His behavior often stems from impatience or from uncontrollable appetites.
Occasionally, the trickster ends up being tricked himself. The Eye-Juggler story, for example, tells how the trickster saw birds tossing their own eyes into the air and then putting them back in their heads. He tried to do the same thing, but once he had taken out his eyes, he could not put them back.
The trickster appears as a culture hero when his pranks—such as stealing fire or the sun—benefit humans. Stories from the Northwest Coast region tell how a distant chief had stolen all the light, leaving the earth in darkness. The trickster Raven flew to the chiefs land and turned himself into a tiny seed in water, which the chiefs daughter swallowed. In time the girl gave birth to the chiefs grandson, who was really Raven in disguise. The boy begged the chief to give him the stars and moon as toys, and when the chief gave them to him, the boy released them into the sky. Finally the young boy tricked the old man out of his dearest possession, the sun. He then turned back into Raven and flew away, taking the sun with him.
Animals Tricksters are often animals. Common trickster figures in Native American mythology include Rabbit in the Eastern regions, Coyote and Spider in the Plains and the Southwest regions, and Raven in the Pacific Northwest. Although animals appear in many myths and legends, they seldom have purely animal characteristics. They talk and interact with people and often change between human and animal form.
According to tradition, in the “myth age”—before people and animals became fixed in their present forms—animals could change their appearance whenever they wished.
Some stories tell of an Animal Wife or Animal Husband, as when a human marries a deer who is disguised as a person. Often the animal spouse is a bear. Many Native American cultures regarded bears as close relatives of people or as people wearing bear coats. A myth from the Northwest Coast region tells of Rhpisunt, a chiefs daughter who met two young men while gathering berries. She went with them to the home of the bear chief and married his son. Some time later, Rhpisunt's brothers found their sister in the den of her bear husband and took her and her twin cubs back to their home village. Under the cubs' bear coats were two fine boys, who lived with the people until Rhpisunt died. They then returned to bear life. However, Rhpisunt's family never forgot their kinship with the bears, who brought them good luck in the hunt.
Despite the great number and variety of Native American myths and legends, certain themes and subjects occur again and again. One of the key concepts of Native American mythology is creation, the steps by which the world and everything in it took on their present forms.
Creation Native American creation stories fall into several broad categories. In one of the oldest and most widespread myths, found everywhere but in the Southwest and on the Arctic coast, the earth is covered by an ancient sea. A water creature—such as a duck, muskrat, or turtle—plunges to the depths of the sea and returns with a lump of mud that becomes the earth, which is often supported on the back of a turtle. This Earth Diver myth also exists in northern Europe and Asia, which suggests that the Native American versions may be survivals of ancient myths shared with distant Asian ancestors.
The creation myth of the Iroquois peoples combines elements of the Earth Diver story with the image of a creator who descends from the heavens. Creation begins when a sky goddess named Ataensic plummets through a hole in the floor of heaven. This Woman Who Fell from the Sky lands in the primeval sea. To support her and give her room to move about, the animals dive deep into the sea for bits of earth. The goddess spreads this earth on Great Turtle's back to create the land, and the daughter she bears there becomes known as Earth Woman.
The Navajo and Pueblo peoples, as well as some Plains groups, have a different image of creation, one in which life emerges from the earth like a sprouting plant rising from the soil. The Navajo emergence myth tells how insects climbed up from their First or Red World to the Second or Blue World, the realm of birds. When the Second World became too crowded, the insects and birds flew up to the Third or Yellow World, where they found animals and people. All lived together until food became scarce. Then the people, animals, birds, and insects flew up again into the Fourth or Black and White World of day and night. They found people created by the gods already living there, and these people taught the newcomers how to farm and live in their new world.
The Hopi emergence myth centers on Spider Woman, a powerful earth goddess and creator who is the mother of life. Together with Tawa, the sun god, Spider Woman sang the First Magic Song. This song brought the earth, light, and life into being. She then shaped and wove Tawa's thoughts into solid form, creating birds, fish, and other creatures. After people were created, Tawa rose into the sky, but Spider Woman moved among humans, dividing them into groups, leading them to their homelands, and teaching them how to live and worship the gods. Spider Woman then disappeared from the people's sight, drawn back down into the earth in a whirlpool of sand.
Death A number of Native American myths explain how death came into the world, usually to prevent the earth from becoming overcrowded. The Shoshone people say that long ago Wolf and Coyote got into an argument. Wolf said that people could be brought back to life after they died. Coyote argued that if people returned from death, there would soon be too many of them. Wolf agreed that Coyote was right, but then he arranged for Coyote's son to be the first to die. Coyote asked Wolf to Page 743 | Top of Articlebring his son back to life. However, Wolf reminded Coyote that he had insisted on death, and so his son must remain dead.
Pairs and Opposites A number of Native American mythologies feature paired or opposing characters or qualities as a recurring theme. Twins or sets of brothers appear in many myths and legends. For example, in Iroquois mythology, Earth Woman gives birth to the twin brothers Good Twin and Evil Twin. Good Twin creates light, forests, and food plants, while Evil Twin creates impassable mountains, mosquitoes, and a toad that drinks all the water. After a long struggle, Good Twin finally kills Evil Twin. However, Evil Twin's soul and creations survive to make life difficult for the people that Good Twin brings into being.
The main heroes of Navajo myth are the warrior twins Monster Slayer and Child of Water. Monster Slayer is associated with bright light, and Child of Water with rain clouds. While traveling to see Sun, the warrior twins notice smoke rising from a hole in the ground. Climbing down, they find themselves in the home of Spider Woman. She warns them of dangers they will face on their travels and gives them magic feathers for protection. After many adventures, the brothers reach the house of Sun, who tests them by trying to spear them, boil them, and poison them. With the help of their magic feathers and a friendly caterpillar that provides magic stones to protect them from the poison, the twins survive these ordeals. Sun finally recognizes them as his sons and gives them weapons to use to protect the Navajo people.
Key Themes and Symbols
Scholars have divided North America into different regions based on patterns of Native American mythology. Although each region contains many different peoples and languages, some elements of mythology are shared across the region, and some themes are particularly important in each region.
In the eastern part of the Arctic region, the myths of the Inuit or Eskimo people focus on Sedna, a deity known as the mistress or mother of sea animals. In the western Arctic, tales about Igaluk, the moon god, and trickster stories are common. The peoples of the subarctic region of inland Alaska and western Canada have myths about tricksters and heroes who transform the world into its present state. Such characters also play an important role in the Coast-Plateau region of the Pacific Page 744 | Top of ArticleNorthwest. Stories about the origins of groups called clans, found in many regions, are widespread among peoples of the northwest coast from Puget Sound to southern Alaska.
In addition to trickster and “transformer” myths, the California region produced various myths about animals and about the deities who started the process of creation. The Great Basin region, located east of California, has a number of myths about female heroes and about gods who die and are reborn. Myths about a “dying god” also appear in the Midwest region, which stretches into central Canada. Clan and trickster myths are important in the Midwest as well.
Between the Great Basin and the Midwest is the Plains region, where legends of heroes and tricksters predominate. Such tales appear also in the Southeast region, along with stories about councils of animals. Myths from the Northeast cluster around culture heroes.
Stories about dying gods appear among peoples of the Southwest, such as the Hohokam, as well. The tales are similar to Aztec and Mayan legends from South and Central America. Myths about migrations, heroes who rid the world of monsters, and the origins of humans within the earth are also important in the Southwest.
Native American Mythology in Art, Literature, and Everyday Life
Although many early European explorers noted the beliefs of the Native Americans they met, Americans and Europeans did not begin recording and collecting Indian myths in earnest until after the 1820s. By that time, many Indian societies had already been disrupted and some of the ancient traditions lost. Between the 1880s and the 1930s, scholars made great efforts to record the words of Native Americans who still knew traditional myths, legends, and folktales. Modern scholars, both Indian and non-Indian, are still studying those texts, as well as gathering old lore and exploring new interpretations of familiar myths.
Today Native American myths and legends occupy a significant place in the study of world mythology. More importantly, they remain a living spiritual foundation for Native Americans who practice their traditional religions. The stories help explain the origins of ceremonies and customs, provide tribal and clan histories, and inspire Native American artworks, such as the sand paintings of the Navajo and the totems and other carved wooden objects of the Northwest Coast peoples.
Read, Write, Think, Discuss
Many Native American myths are not just stories that are told aloud. They are incorporated into songs, rituals, and other aspects of daily life. Research your own culture for myths that still hold meaning for members of your group. How are these myths expressed? How are they passed on from generation to generation?