Native American Creation Stories Essays

Southwest

The Native Americans of New Mexico and Arizona, along with a few small tribes related to them in southern California, have cultural traditions with some features in common. In the folklore of the Southwest, the emergence and migration myths show the indigenous peoples emerging from an unpleasant underworld at the time when the Earth is not yet completely formed. They start a long trek southward, some looking for a sacred spot and others looking specifically for the centre of the Earth. In some instances they are led by a pair of culture heroes, the Twins, also called the Little War Gods, who help stabilize the surface of the Earth and teach the people many features of their culture, including ceremonials. When the people were weary during the migration, powerful spirit-beings known as kachinas came and danced until someone made fun of their peculiar faces and insulted them. The kachinas allowed the people to copy their masks and costumes and then returned to their home in the underworld. Since that time the men from the kivas, the ceremonial chambers to which all the men belonged, have made these costumes and masks and have performed the dances necessary to stimulate and protect the harvest, bring rain, and promote general welfare.

The Twin Gods of the Pueblo villages are a combination of the helpful god and the trickster. They sometimes behave like unruly children and tease their grandmother to death. Coyote, in the Pueblo literature, is always sly and is often caught in his own wiles. A group of very crude and vulgar tales about him exist. They have been transcribed from Spanish-colonization days and surround two characters who travel together named Djos and Ley, a corruption of “God” and “King.” Certain European tales, such as the Cinderella stories, have been added to the collections of Pueblo folklore.

The Athabaskan-speaking tribes of the Southwest are the Navajo and the Apache. Nowhere in America are mythology and ceremonial more closely associated than among the Navajo, where the myths are poetically expressed through great chants (seeBlessingway). The principal characters are the gods of the wind, the rain, the dawn, the Sun, the semiprecious stones, the sacred plants, corn (maize), tobacco, squash, and the bean. The ceremonials are intended to cure sickness, both mental and physical, and protect people on dangerous missions rather than to inspire any sense of worship. All the arts are combined in the ceremonies: the story itself, the poetic expression of it, the painting of the masks, the beautiful combinations of feathers in the headdresses, the sand paintings illustrating the story while the chants are sung, and, finally, the dancing of the characters who wear the regalia. This is one of the most inspiring ceremonials devised by the American Indian.

The other Athabaskan-speaking people, the Apache, are divided into several groups, of which the Lipan are particularly interesting. The southernmost of North American tribes, they live partly across the Mexican border. They have an emergence myth and share with all southern Athabaskans the culture hero known as “Killer-of-Enemies” and his younger brother “Child-of-the-Water” (comparable to the Twin Gods of the Pueblos). One of the monsters in the tales is Big Owl, a destructive cannibal in the form of a large owl. The story of the man seeking spiritual power from the gods who goes down the Colorado River in a hollow log to reach the holy places where the spirits live is almost identical to its Navajo version. There is a Lipan Coyote cycle, but there are no Spanish-derived tales.

The White Mountain Apache tell stories only between dusk and dawn and during cold weather. They have two major cycles: the creation myths, in which something is created out of nothing, and the Coyote myths surrounding the trickster par excellence of that name. Two minor cycles centre on Big Owl and Gain, a supernatural being who lives in mountains and caves and underground worlds. The White Mountain Apache learned some European stories from captives in Spanish and Mexican towns in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

The Jicarilla Apache divide their didactic stories into sacred and secular, telling them at night during the winter, with a break at midnight for a festive meal. The Jicarilla are seriously engaged in their mythology, into which they inject objects of modern life such as the telegraph and the automobile. They also have creation stories and the legend of the man who went down the Colorado River in a hollow log. Among the trickster stories, the Coyote cycle is well developed.

The Colorado River tribes, which are closely affiliated with the people of southern California, constitute the last division of the Southwest cultures. These tribes were Christianized by missionaries so early that little of their mythology was recorded. It is known that Coyote played an important part in their sacred stories and that he was also portrayed as a deceitful trickster. Like the Pueblo tribes, the Luiseño also migrated, looking for the centre of the world, where their god, Wiyot, had died. His death was the first among the people, and they lost their immortality. Wiyot later returned as the new moon. There are many stories about the stars, which were regarded as the souls of the dead. The Chungichnich cult was also known here but may have come within the mission period.

Northeast

The northeastern Algonquin were the first groups of American Indians north of Mexico to have protracted contact with Europeans, so their own ways of living were disrupted at a very early date. Some of their culture traits can still be found among the Central Algonquin to the west, and some of the most elementary stories are known to all groups in this region. This mythology centres on a culture hero known as GlusKap to the Mi’kmaq and as GlusKabe among the Algonquin; his consistently altruistic character and humanlike appearance distinguish him from many other culture heroes. He carries out the usual exploits, one of the most popular being the episode in which he kills Monster Frog, who has been impounding the water. Though he revels in the trickster adventures of all American Indian characters, he appears somewhat exempt from the crude buffoonery of other culture heroes.

To the west, the Central Algonquin developed the Midewiwin, or the Grand Medicine Society—shared by the Eastern Sioux—whose activities revolved around the quest for a vision that would bring them in direct contact with supernatural beings who instructed them in curing ceremonies. The members of the society were not shamans, had no individual powers, and were effective only when they acted together. In its use of certain mnemonic devices containing a series of symbols used for instructing initiates, the society foreshadowed an approach to writing.

The Iroquois, who developed one of the great confederacies of American Indians, had a strong religious and mythological background for their folklore. In their creation story, which is the basis of their religious beliefs, they acknowledge a supreme being “beyond the conception of man.” This “being” sent from heaven is a woman who in her descent fell on a big turtle imbedded in mud. She gave birth to a daughter conceived with the turtle; this daughter in turn bore two sons. The good one was born first; the other was born through the mother’s side and killed her. The sons grew up and helped their grandmother finish the formation of the Earth. The Iroquois had curing societies similar to the Midewiwin; their members were not shamans, and they cured in a group rather than as individuals.

Many tribes in the Southeast exhibited cultural systems very similar to those of the northeastern tribes; others, especially in the lower Mississippi Valley, had a more elaborate religion and mythology that divulged a definite relationship to the higher cultures of Mesoamerica.

Plains

The expansive area of North America between the Mississippi River and the Rocky Mountains, extending from the Gulf of Mexico to the American subarctic, embodied many cultures whose various rites and ceremonies emerged from a common background. Many tribes were seminomadic and depended more on buffalo hunting than on agriculture for their living. The more sedentary groups, the village tribes, included the Mandan and the Hidatsa. Marginal groups, which seem to have continued an older form of Plains culture before the advent of the horse, lined the borders of the Plains area.

The Sioux narrate the following creation story: the Old Man, Waziya, lived beneath the Earth with his wife. Their daughter married the Wind and bore four sons, the winds North, East, South, and West. Together with the Sun and the Moon, the winds controlled the universe, and a series of very involved stories tell of their powers. As the world was being formed, Iktoma the trickster made trouble wherever he could. The usual plots are found in this collection of trickster stories. In order to reach the supernaturals, or “controllers,” rituals and ceremonies had to be conducted. The most important ritual was the Sun Dance, because the Sun was one of the principal powers.

In contrast to the Sioux, the Crow are a bit more lighthearted about their approach to the universe. Their culture speaks of a creation myth in which Old Woman’s Grandchild, the son of an Indian woman and the Sun, destroys monsters. He then goes to the sky and becomes Morning Star. The genealogy of this character very closely resembles the Navajo myth of Changing Woman, the Sun’s mistress who bore the children Monster-Slayer and Child-Born-of-Water. This concept of change into an astral body is quite widespread in the Plains. In a Cheyenne version of the Dog Husband story, the mother and her children go to the sky and become the Pleiades constellation. The Crow liked to express themselves poetically, and often they recited in song. The military societies have many songs that express their high aims and others that are songs of bravado. In many of their amusing stories, there are plays on words that are often difficult to translate.

The Comanche, another of the Plains tribes, believe that the Great Spirit created some people but that there were white people existing before them. A flood washed these white people away, and they turned into white birds and flew away. A secondary spirit was then sent to create the Comanche. But they were not perfect at first; therefore, the spirit came a second time, giving them intelligence and showing them how to make everything. There are the usual trickster stories, with Old Coyote as the central figure, as well as many stories based on war exploits.

Native American Oral Narrative

Contributing Editor: Andrew Wiget

Major Themes, Historical Perspectives, and Personal Issues

Some very important themes evolve from this literature. Native American views of the world as represented in these mythologies contrast strongly with Euro-American perspectives. Recognizing this is absolutely essential for later discussion of the differences between Anglo-Americans and Native Americans over questions of land, social organization, religion, and so on. In other words, if one can identify these fundamental differences through the literature very early on, then later it becomes easier to explain the differences in outlook between Native American peoples and Anglo-American peoples that often lead to tragic consequences.

If culture is a system of beliefs and values by which people organize their experience of the world, then it follows that forms of expressive culture such as these myths should embody the basic beliefs and values of the people who create them. These beliefs and values can be roughly organized in three areas: (1) beliefs about the nature of the physical world; (2) beliefs about social order and appropriate behavior; and (3) beliefs about human nature and the problem of good and evil.

The Zuni "Talk Concerning the First Beginning" speaks directly to the nature of the physical world. If we look closely at the Zuni "Talk," the story imagines the earth as hollow, with people coming out from deep within the womb of the earth. The earth is mother and feminine and people are created not just of the stuff of the earth, but also from the earth. They are born into a particular place and into a particular environment. In the course of this long history, imagined as a search for the center (a point of balance and perfection), they undergo significant changes in their physical appearance, in their social behavior, in their social organization and in their sense of themselves. By the time they have arrived at Zuni, which they call the center of the world, they have become pretty much like their present selves. It is especially important to follow the notes here with this selection and with the Navajo selection. Both of these stories talk about transformations in the physical world. The world is populated by beings who are also persons like humans; all of the world is animated, and there are different nations of beings who can communicate with each other, who are intelligent and volitional creatures.

Both the Zuni story and the Iroquoian story of the origins of the confederacy also talk about how society should be organized, about the importance of kinship and families, about how society divides its many functions in order to provide for healing, for food, for decision making, and so on. The Iroquoian confederacy was a model of Federalism for the drafters of the Constitution, who were much impressed by the way in which the confederacy managed to preserve the autonomy of its individual member tribes while being able to manage effective concerted actions, as the colonists to their dismay too often found out. The Navajo story of Changing Woman and the Lakota story of White Buffalo Calf Pipe Woman are important illustrations not only of the role of women as culture heroes, but also of every people's necessity to evolve structures such as the Pipe Ceremony or the Navajo healing rituals to restore and maintain order in the world.

The Raven and Hare narratives are stories about a Trickster figure. Tricksters are the opposite of culture heroes. Culture heroes exist in mythology to dramatize prototypical events and behaviors; they show us how to do what is right and how we became the people who we are. Tricksters, on the other hand, provide for disorder and change; they enable us to see the seemy underside of life and remind us that culture, finally, is artificial, that there is no necessary reason why things must be the way they are. If there is sufficient motivation to change things, Trickster provides for the possibility of such change, most often by showing us the danger of believing too sincerely that this arbitrary arrangement we call culture is the way things really are. When Raven cures the girl, for instance, he does so to gain her sexual favors, and in so doing calls into question the not-always-warranted trust that people place in healing figures like doctors. The Bungling Host story, widespread throughout Native America, humorously illustrates the perils of overreaching the limits of one's identity while trying to ingratiate one's self.

Significant Form, Style, or Artistic Conventions

Perhaps the most important thing that needs to be done is to challenge students' notions of myth. When students hear the word "myth," they succumb to the popular belief that mythology is necessarily something that is false. This is a good place to start a discussion about truth, inviting students to consider that there are other kinds of truth besides scientific truth (which is what gave a bad name to mythology in the first place). Consider this definition of myth: "The dramatic representation of culturally important truths in narrative form." Such a definition highlights the fact that myths represent or dramatize shared visions of the world for the people who hold them. Myths articulate the fundamental truths about the shape of the universe and the nature of humanity.

It is also important to look at important issues of form such as repetition. Repetition strikes many students as boring. Repetition, however, is an aesthetic device that can be used to create expectation. Consider the number three and how several aspects of our Euro-American experience are organized in terms of three: the start of a race ("on your mark, get set, go"); three sizes (small, medium, and large); the three colors of a traffic signal; and of course, three little pigs. These are all commonplace examples, so commonplace, in fact, that initially most students don't think much of them. But there is no reason why we should begin things by counting to three. We could count to four or five or seven, as respectively the Zunis, the Chinooks, and the Hebrews did. In other words, these repetitions have an aesthetic function: they create a sense of expectation, and when one arrives at the full number of repetitions, a sense of completeness, satisfaction, and fulfillment.

Original Audience

The question of audience is crucial for Native American literature, in that the original audience for the literature understands the world through its own experience much differently than most of our students do. As a result, it's important to reconstruct as much of that cultural and historical context as possible for students, especially when it has a direct bearing upon the literature. So, for instance, students need to know in discussing Zuni material that the Zunis, Hopis, and Navajos are agricultural people and that corn and moccasins figure prominently as symbols of life. Rain, moisture, and human beings are imagined in terms of corn, and life is understood as an organic process that resembles a plant growing from a seed in the ground, being raised up, harvested, and so forth. Historically it's important to realize too that visions of one's community and its history differ from culture to culture. So, for instance, the Hopi story of the Pueblo revolt imagines the revolt as a response to a life-threatening drought that is caused by the suppression of the native religion by the Franciscan priest. This way of understanding history is very different from the way most of our students understand history today. Its very notion of cause and effect, involving as it does supernatural means, is much more closely related to a vision of history shared by Christian reconstructionists, seventeenth-century Puritans, and ancient Hebrews.

At the same time, students should be cautioned about the presumption that somehow we can enter entirely into another cultural vision, whether it be that of the Lakota during the Ghost Dance period of the 1880s or the Puritan Separatists three centuries earlier. This is not only a matter of translation and transcription. As both Murray and Clifford point out, what is sometimes blithely called "the need to understand" or "the search for knowledge" is not a neutral quest, but one determined in great measure by the often unarticulated aims and attitudes of the dominant society that structures fields of inquiry and creates the need for certain kinds of information. Although most contemporary students often assume that all differences can be overcome, the facticity of difference will remain.

Questions for Reading and Discussion/ Approaches to Writing

1. The number of works addressed in this section is so great and the material so varied that particular questions would not be useful. A good lead-in to all of these works, however, would focus on motivation of characters or significance of action. I would want students to identify some action in the narrative that puzzles them, and would encourage them to try to explain the role of this action in the narrative and what might motivate it. They will not necessarily be successful at answering that question, but the activity of trying to answer that question will compel them to seek for meaning ultimately in some kind of cultural context. There is, in other words, a certain kind of appropriate aesthetic frustration here, which should not necessarily be discouraged, because it prepares the student to let go of the notion that human behavior is everywhere intelligible in universal terms.

2. I usually have students write comparative papers. I ask them to identify a theme: for example, the relationship between human beings and animals, attitudes toward death, the role of women, or other similar topics, and to write comparatively using Native American texts and a Euro-American text that they find to be comparable.

Bibliography

Babcock-Abrahams, Barbara. " 'A Tolerated Margin of Mess': The Trickster and His Tales Reconsidered." Journal of the Folklore Institute 9 (1975): 147-86.

Fenton, William. "This Island, the World on Turtle's Back." Journal of American Folklore 75 (1962): 283-300.

Geertz, Clifford. "Religion as a Cultural System." In The Interpretation of Cultures. New York: Basic Books, 1973.

Holland, Jeanne. "Teaching Native American Literature from The Heath Anthology of American Literature." CEA Critic 55 (1993): 1-21.

Krupat, Arnold. Ethnocriticism: Ethnography, History, Literature. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992.

Murray, David. Forked Tongues: Speech, Writing, and Representation in North American Indian Texts. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990.

Radin, Paul. The Trickster. New York: Schocken, 1972.

Reichard, Gladys. "Literary Types and the Dissemination of Myths." Journal of American Folklore 34 (1914): 269-307.

Ruoff, A. LaVonne Brown. American Indian Literatures: An Introduction, Bibliographic Review, and Selected Bibliography. New York: MLA, 1990.

Sturtevant, William, ed. Handbook of North American Indians, 15 vols. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press.

Swann, Brian, ed. Smoothing the Ground: Essays on Native American Oral Literature. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987.

-- and Arnold Krupat, eds. Recovering the Word: Essays on Native American Literature. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987.

Toelken, J. Barre. "The 'Pretty Language' of Yellowman: Genre, Mode, and Texture in Navajo Coyote Narratives." Genre 2 (1969): 21-235.

Wheeler-Voegelin, Erminie and R. W. Moore. "The Emergence Myth in Native America." Indiana University Publications in Folklore 9 (1957): 66-91.

Wiget, Andrew. "Oral Narrative." In Native American Literature. Boston: Twayne, 1985. Chapter 1.

--. "Reading Against the Grain: Origin Stories and American Literary History." American Literary History 2 (1991): 209-31.

--. "A Talk Concerning First Beginnings: Teaching Native American Oral Literatures." The Heath Anthology of American Literature Newsletter IX (Spring 1993): 4-7.

--. "Telling the Tale: A Performance Analysis of a Hopi Coyote Story." In Recovering the Word: Essays on the Native American Literature, edited by Brian Swann and Arnold Krupat, 297-336.

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