Native American Mythology

Native Americans, or the indigenous tribal people of north America, developed a variety of traditional narratives, varying from tribe to tribe, many providing an explanation for the creation of the world or the lives of gods and heroes. Although there was no single unified mythology, certain motifs and characters reappear in various Native American myths.

Native American myths incorporate religion, history and rites, define Native Americans' identity and explain phenomena in their life. This mythology provided cosmological arguments about the structure of the world as well as ideas for the origin of the world. Before the end of the 19th century, few myths were recorded, as Native Americans did not have a written language. Myths were passed from generation to generation by word of mouth.

Myths demonstrated that Native Americans held nature in great respect. Their myths promote the idea that spiritual forces are present in all elements of the natural world, including living creatures and inanimate objects. Animals play a central role in Native American mythology. Often they are able to speak, personalize spiritual archetypes and embody particular spiritual powers.

The four directions also played a crucial role in Native Americans' mythical world. Sometimes they are represented by colors or animals. Myths insist that the well-being of people can be achieved only if the four directions are in balance. The point of balance is considered to be the fifth direction, which is in the center.

Native American myths cover a wide range of themes, such as creation narratives or stories about heroic journeys, as well as trickster myths. The stories about the introduction of ceremonies and customs in the life of the tribe also constitute a major part in mythology. Usually they are centered on the so-called culture hero, who gives the attributes of civilization to the people, such as fire or language, or who teaches them crafts and arts.

One of the famous creation myths comes from California and is known as the Earth-Maker Story of Creation. The myth explains how the Earth-Maker created day and night and how the creator used tears to make the sea and soft clay to make men and women: "In the beginning there was no land, no light, only darkness and the vast waters of Outer Ocean where Earth-Maker and Great-Grandfather were afloat in their canoe... Earth-Maker took soft clay and formed the figure of a man and of a woman, then many men and women, which he dried in the sun and into which he breathed life." (Kroeber 1968)

Another recurrent motif in Native American mythology is the transformation of the world, or how tricksters and heroes change the world by killing monsters or releasing animals from evil spirits. These narratives aim to explain the world's organization and phenomena. Storytellers could tell myths about sacred rituals at a strictly defined moment and in line with established rules. Other myths were told in a more relaxed atmosphere. They look like folk tales as they are ordinary people rather than gods and their goal was primarily to teach a lesson about proper behavior.

In many Native American myths there is a creative life force, known as the Great Mystery or the Great Spirit, which is believed to be present in all people, animals, plants. This life-force has taken part in the creation of the world. However, often other deities are also involved in the creation process. Gods and heroes in Native American myths establish or restore order. Tricksters, on the other hand, can manifest either positive or negative qualities. They can be entertaining or funny, but their behavior can be also misleading and aggressive. Common tricksters are the Coyote, the Rabbit, the Raven or the spider Iktomi. Many of the myths revolve around real tribe members or clans. The boundaries between the different categories of mythological characters appear to be blurred as a culture hero can be a trickster or an animal.

Selected full-text books and articles on this topic

Native American Religions: An Introduction
John Tully Carmody; Denise Lardner Carmody.
Paulist Press, 1993
Myths and Legends of the Pacific Northwest
Katharine Berry Judson.
University of Nebraska Press, 1997
Myths and Legends of California and the Old Southwest
Katharine Berry Judson; Katharine Berry Judson.
University of Nebraska Press, 1994
Myths and Tales of the Southeastern Indians
John R. Swanton.
United States Government Printing Office, 1929
The Trickster: A Study in American Indian Mythology
Paul Radin.
Philosophical Library, 1956
Myths and Legends of the Sioux
Marie L. McLaughlin.
University of Nebraska Press, 1990
Myths and Traditions of the Crow Indians
Robert H. Lowie.
University of Nebraska Press, 1993
The Pawnee Mythology
George A. Dorsey.
University of Nebraska Press, 1997
Myths and Tales of the Chiricahua Apache Indians
Morris Edward Opler; David French.
University of Nebraska Press, 1994
Myths and Tales of the Jicarilla Apache Indians
Morris Edward Opler.
University of Nebraska Press, 1994
Mythology of the Blackfoot Indians
Clark Wissler; D. C. Duvall.
University of Nebraska Press, 1995
Traditions of the Arapaho
George A. Dorsey; Alfred L. Kroeber; Jeffrey D. Anderson.
University of Nebraska Press, 1997
Traditions of the Caddo
George A. Dorsey.
University of Nebraska Press, 1997
Lakota Myth
James R. Walker; Elaine A. Jahner.
University of Nebraska Press, 2006 (New edition)
Seneca Myths and Folk Tales
Arthur C. Parker.
University of Nebraska Press, 1989
FREE! The Mythology of the Wichita
George A. Dorsey.
Carnegie Institution of Washington, 1904
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