American Indian Mythology
Beings with supernatural powers, heavenly bodies and animals are all part of American Indian mythology, the myths were recorded by anthropologists who had the tales relayed to them via English speaking Indian interpreters. Over time the tales were written in the Indians language and in English. Stories were passed down from generation to generation, those who listened to the stories were transfixed by the imagery they conjured. Often the story tellers were as colourful as they tales they relayed to their rapt audience. Depending on the story teller there are many interpretations of the traditional myths, there are also differences associated with the various tribes who recount the mystical tales. You have the original home of the Tsimshians and Tlingits who inhabited the Northwest Coast of Alaska, they are quite different from the Blackfeet and Cheyennes who lived in a vast region which extended from central Texas in the south, to southern Canada in the north. For generations wonderful tales have been told much to the delight of their audience, there are stories of death, love and the continuity of life.
RAVEN STEELS DAYLIGHT FROM THE SKY
In the world that was as black as Raven, Animal People lost their children in the perpetual darkness, Frog People prayed for the stars to light up the sky, Raven tormented the people as they attempted to spearfish in the darkness. He swooped down and took their fish, he toyed with the people who just wanted to get on with their lives. Soon Raven grew tired of his game and flew to the place he had come from, the sky, he stole the box which held daylight so that he and the Animal People would be able to see where to find food.
After flying through a hole in the sky, Raven came to the Sky Chief’s house, there he waited beside the spring until the chief’s only daughter came to fetch water. Raven shape shifted into a tiny cedar leaf floating on top of the water. When the chief’s daughter arrived she put her hand into the spring and scooped up some water to drink, as she did this she inadvertently drank the small leaf.
After a short time she told her parents she was with child, they were thrilled to hear the news as they dearly wanted a grandchild and after a few months the chief’s beloved daughter gave birth to a healthy son. He had jet black hair, dark eyes and fine aquiline features, he was loved by his grandparents and his mother, but no matter what they did he could not be pleased. He cried constantly and no-one could work out what was wrong with him, they bathed him several times a day, dressed and undressed him, fed him, he was inconsolable.
The baby’s grandfather decided to consult the elders, the Sky Chief invited the tribal elders to meet at his home. The Sky Chief’s grandson crawled among the elders crying continuously, one elder picked up the crying babe and stroked his hair trying to pacify him, he asked him what was wrong, the baby continued to cry and the elder put him down. Another elder asked the baby “why do you cry,” the chief’s grandson went to the elder and cried even louder, the elder pulled some cloud material from his bag and plugged his ears. Finally one of the elders who had been carefully scrutinizing the child said, “the boy wants the box you have hanging in the corner.” This was called the ma, and it held the daylight. It was the duty of the chief to protect what it contained. The chief said that his grandson could not have the ma. His grandson then moved to where the box was hanging, lifted his head and started to cry again. The elder said the child will continue to cry until he is given the box.
Sky chief turned to his daughter and said that he was afraid. He told her that no one had ever played with the ma before, he was worried about what would happen if the box was opened. The child’s mother was exhausted, and the chief against his better judgement took down the box and placed it on the floor near the fire. The child stopped crying immediately and wrapped his arms around the box, the room at once became silent. For the first time since the child was born there was peace in the house, the child’s grandfather, grandmother and mother, all breathed a sigh of relief. The elders all removed the stuffing they had placed in their ears to block the piercing cries of the boy.
The boy tipped the ma over three times, he then tipped it back the other way another three times, as he did this he sighed contentedly. The chief was then certain it was safe to leave the ma with his content grandson, the household relaxed and went back to work. The child was completely content turning the box over and over and each day the box was moved closer to the door. Then one day like a lightning bolt the child darted out the door carrying the box on his shoulders. The Sky People screamed for someone to stop the child running away with the ma.
The chief’s grandchild disappeared and vanished through the hole in the sky which is where he had come from a long time ago. He changed back into the Raven before he reached earth, taking the ma off his shoulders and placing it in his talons. He flew up the Nass River until he heard the voices of the Frog People. The Frog People waited in their dugout canoes for the stars to come out so they could see the fish they wanted to spear. Raven said he was hungry and pleaded with them to throw him a fish. The wise fishermen knew Raven wanted others to feed him and told him to catch his own fish. Raven again asked for a fish and the fishermen continued to say no to him they didn’t realize Raven only wanted something to eat before he returned the daylight. He then threatened the fishermen, telling them if they did not feed him they would be sorry, he said he had something precious that they wanted and needed. He told them he was very hungry and needed food first.
The fishermen didn’t believe him thinking all he wanted was free food, he told the Frog People he had brought them a precious gift of daylight in his box. He said he had made a long and dangerous journey to bring the light to earth so that people would never again be hungry. He told them that if they did not give him something to eat he would not give it to them, the Frog People laughed at the Raven.
When the stars came out and the Frog People fished by the light of the stars, Raven issued his last warning. He told the Frog People he had run out of patience and would wait no longer, he said if they threw him a fish all would be well, but if they didn’t they would be very sorry. The Frog People continued their spear fishing and ignored Raven’s threat.
They did not notice as Raven flew high up into the sky, he then dropped the box and as it broke light flew out in all directions flashing out over the mountains, whirling through the valleys, slicing the freshwater rivers and streams. Animal people were delighted, the Frog People who had not believed the Raven held the box containing daylight, were not, they were frightened. After the light had left the box, North Wind blew violently against the tiny boats the Frog People were in, sweeping them out to sea, slamming their fragile canoes into the side of a rocky island. As the Frog People attempted to climb cliffs, North Wind froze them in place.
Raven had saved all the people ensuring no one would ever go hungry again, he was hailed as a hero by the people.
THE MOON EPIC
The daughters of old Moon were devoted to each other, sharing everything, digging wild camass bulbs in the meadows together and sharing all their secrets with each other. One day after digging in the mountain meadows and talking, darkness came upon them and it became too dark for them to return home. The sisters settled amongst the tall blue and white camass flowers and tried to fall asleep. The sisters found they couldn’t sleep and stared up at the black sky watching the twinkling stars. The younger sister said that she would like to marry the shiny white star in the sky, the older sister said she would like to marry the bright little red star.
When the sisters woke the following morning they were no longer lying in the field, they were in the sky seated next to their chosen star husbands. The older sister looked lovingly at her strong young husband with long black hair and bright red eyes. The younger sister was aghast when she found she was seated next to her husband, a gnarled old man with long white hair and tangled beard. The sisters were surrounded by star people, men, women and children of all shapes and sizes, some beautiful, some handsome, some less attractive, but they were all very kind. The star women took the sisters to a meadow in the sky that was covered in camass flowers just like the meadow on earth. They gave them digging sticks and told them to dig up small bulbs not the ones that grew too deeply.
The sisters dutifully went out each day and filled their baskets with bulbs just as they were instructed to do. They were both very homesick and missed their life on earth, their family and friends. Their husbands did all they could to make them happy but were unable to stop them feeling sad. The younger sister was especially unhappy and wanted a man her own age.
After a day of digging the older sister told her younger sibling that she was with child, the younger one wept with happiness but knew that sadly she would never have a child of her own. The younger sister tried to keep her unhappiness from her sister.
The sisters continued going into the fields each day digging bulbs, until one morning before they began their day’s task the younger sister asked her older sibling why they could not dig the bulbs that grew deeply. The older sister said she didn’t know and they should try and see what happens, they searched until they found one rooted long and deep. The younger sister dug gently around the bulb removing the dirt as she dug. When the bulb was pulled out a blast of cold air rushed up through the hole allowing the sisters to see their family and friends below. The sisters then realized why they were told not to dig the deeply rooted bulbs, they began making plans to escape deciding to make a ladder and drop it down through the hole and climb down to earth.
The next day while they were in the meadow the sisters dug lightly rooted camass bulbs part of the time and spent the rest of their time collecting long tough vines fashioning them into a long ladder. Each time they dropped it through the hole in the sky it was too short.
When the older sister’s baby boy was born they named him Young Moon, they sisters yearned for the child to grow up among his own people on earth, giving then greater impetus to complete their ladder. They took turns caring for the baby, digging roots and collecting vines. Finally the younger sister completed the ladder she threw it through the hole and it touched earth, the older sister told her sibling to go first she then handed her Young Moon and followed. Before they climbed to earth the older sister pulled some cedar boughs over the hole so that a forest would grow over the meadow and their husbands would not know where to find them.
When the daughters of Old Moon and his wife returned the villagers celebrated their triumphant return, the blind grandmother of Young Moon said she would take care of her grandchild while his mother celebrated with the villagers and her sister. The older sister placed her son in his cradle again a large tree and thanked her baby’s grandmother.
Thrashing about beneath the bushes waiting to steal the child was an ugly salmon named Dog Salmon, as the old woman dozed, Dog Salmon took Young Moon out of his cradle and hid him under his brown jacked, leaving a rotten log in place of the child. After Young Moon’s mother returned from celebrating she found her son gone, she beseeched Woodpecker, Bluejay and Raven to help her find Young Moon.
Bluejay was very wise and new that Young Moon had great powers, he was also the only one who knew where to look for the stolen baby. He leapt into the air and called, “Sassy. Sassy. Sassy.”
Woodpecker bobbed his head up and down eager to join Bluejay. Raven was the cleverest bird of all, thought there may be some meat for him if he joined the search. Flapping his huge wings he flew off to join the others.
After the birds had gone in search of the boy his mother went to the river’s edge and while there she heard a noise, she turned and saw a beautiful dark haired boy standing by the river’s edge. He said “I have come to console you. I am Sun, brother of Young Moon.” “Be patient and do not worry, Bluejay will find him.”
Bluejay had flown to where sky and earth met, he flew back and forth in search of a hole to fly through, finding one at last he was unable to squeeze through as the hole was too small, he persisted crushing his blue feathers. Raven attempted to force his way through by sticking his beak in the hole and pushing but to no avail. Woodpecker then attempted to peck a hole in the earth, that did not work either as the sky and earth were locked together. Woodpecker and Raven flew home discouraged.
Bluejay was determined not to give up, waiting years until he found a large enough hole to go through. He travelled far and wide until he found Young Moon who he found living in the sky with the Dog Salmon People. Bluejay told Young Moon that he must come home and with his power transform things for people.
Young Moon did not think he could convince the Dog Salmon People who had always lived in the sky to follow him to earth. Young Moon told Bluejay he needed time to think and would come when the time was right. He contemplated for many days before calling the Dog Salmon People together and asking them to come home with him. He promised them great clear-water rivers that flowed out of the mountains and into the Pacific Ocean along the Northwest Coast if they would agree to be food for his people.
The Dog Salmon People agreed, they first swam downriver, Young Moon then showed them how to swim upstream against the current. Young Moon then travelled over the land changing many things along the way on his journey home.
Young Moon encountered strange-looking creatures who were fighting, he turned them into birds and stones. The next group were little birds running around stupidly, he made them into sandpipers. A group of fishermen in a canoe on a lake he turned into sawbill ducks, others he saw standing in shallow water he made into mallard ducks. The last group of people who he couldn’t indentify he turned into clams.
After changing everything he encountered on earth, Young Moon created a great waterfall in order to challenge the Dog Salmon as they made their way upstream. Finally he arrived home and was embraced by his family.
He wanted to show his family his powers, he asked his family who would like to be Sun by day and Moon by night. Raven tried for Moon but failed, Woodpecker tried for Sun and failed. Young Moon then decided he and his brother would have to do the job. He called his brother Sun and asked him to give people bright warm light during the day, Sun was a great success and the people were happy. Moon rose after Sun was gone making a slow journey across the night sky, the people loved the moonlight.
Before Young Moon took his place in the sky forever, he finished his work on earth. He created human and placed them along the rivers and streams of the regions, and ever since they have fished for Dog Salmon.
TOLOWIM – WOMAN AND BUTTERFLY – MAN
Tolowim-Woman was a dutiful wife and mother, but she became restless spending so many hours of darkness indoors. In the spring when her young husband went to fish for salmon she stayed home to care for their young son. One day while the women of the lodge were busy she picked up her son Aki and slipped out the door. She then secured her son’s cradle on her back and walked along the narrow path that led to the hills.
Spring was Tolowim-Woman’s favourite time of the year she felt free and happy out in the open. She pointed out the sparrow hawk soaring through the sky to her son. Even though her son was only nine moons old and was unable to speak Tolowim-Woman knew he understood what she was saying to him. By afternoon she had become tired and placed Aki’s cradleboard down against a giant oak tree and sat down next to it. Tolowim-Woman spoke to Aki about how beautiful it was in the hills, she then began to twirl around like a leaf blowing in the wind. Aki watched transfixed as his mother danced.
As Tolowin-Woman twirled a large black butterfly fluttered around her and brushed against her arm, first one arm then the other. The butterfly then fluttered in front of Aki’s face making him smile. Tolowin-Woman stopped dancing and watched the butterfly and noticed the reddish crossbars outlined on its wings she told the butterfly how lovely it was. Tolowim-Woman tried to grasp the butterfly but it flew away.
Tolowin-Woman tried to follow the butterfly and catch it, but the butterfly kept fluttering from bush to bush and stayed just beyond her reach. The butterfly drifted higher and higher into the hills. Tolowin-Woman kept chasing it, she pleaded with the butterfly to wait for her and offered to go away with it if it did.
The butterfly stopped for a moment, it then drifted downward and rested on a manzanita bush. Tolowin-Woman reached again for the butterfly and it flew out of her reach. She climbed over rocks, walked through brambles, tripped over tree stumps, her legs became bloody, her hair tangled with grass and twigs and her dress was torn. She became so tired she was unable to follow the butterfly any further, the beautiful butterfly then flew to where Tolowin-Woman was sitting. She did not reach for the butterfly this time she just sat quietly watching it, when it landed next to her it was no longer a butterfly but a handsome young man. The young man was wearing a small apron held on by a narrow band of red around his waist. Tolowim-Woman told him he was the most handsome man she had ever seen.
The Butterfly-Man smiled and sat beside Tolowin-Woman, taking her in his arms, they laid down together on the warm grass and there they remained until morning. When they woke, Butterfly-Man asked Tolowin-Woman to come home with him. She said that she would follow him wherever he wanted her to go. Love blinded her to the fact that she had a loving husband and a child in a cradleboard leaning against an oak tree far away. She could only think about her Butterfly-Man and freedom.
Butterfly-Man wanted to take her to the land of his people, he told her it would be a perilous journey as they walked through the Valley of Butterflies where they would all want to take her away from her Butterfly-Man. Butterfly-Man man said “you must not let them.” He wrapped her fingers around the band of red that circled his waist, telling her that he would lead her through the valley safely. He told her she must not look at any of the butterflies and not let go of him, if she did he would lose his power to protect her.
Tolowim-Woman held on to her Butterfly-Man with both hands as they set off toward the Valley of Butterflies, before they were halfway down the valley, butterflies of every shape, size and colour surrounded them. With eyes focused downward Tolowin-Woman held Butterfly-Man tightly, butterflies fluttered in front of her face, circled her head, brushed against her hair but she steadfastly looked downwards.
Through swarms of butterflies they travelled, until a bold black and orange, monarch butterfly, larger and stronger than Butterfly-Man, would not go away. Flying back and forth in front of Tolowim-Woman’s face trying to catch her eye, when she would not look at it the butterfly landed on her lower lip. Tolowin-Woman reacted and looked at the butterfly, the butterfly then brushed against her nose and she reached for it, before she could close her grip it flew away.
Tolowim-Woman was mesmerized by the black and orange butterfly and could not stop reaching for it, Butterfly-Man then increased his pace. Soon hundreds of butterflies, each stronger and more beautiful than the one before, began to swarm around them, Tolowim-Woman could not resist, reaching for one then the other. She was transfixed by the beauty of the butterflies and let go of Butterfly-Man’s waist as she grasped at butterflies in all directions, each time she thought she had captured one it escaped.
Butterfly-Man continued walking faster and faster and Tolowim-Woman kept reaching for the elusive butterflies. “Wait,” she cried, “I am coming.” “Wait for me.” Tolowim-Woman ran and called for Butterfly-Man, as she ran she kept calling for Butterfly-Man but he did not slow down, nor turn around. Soon Tolowim-Woman’s hear was gone away.
GLOOSCAP THE TEACHER
Glooscap was the hero of the Micmac people, he came from across the sea and took the form of a wise old man, his task was to teach the Micmacs, (bands who came together to fish during the summer months), all they needed to know. The eldest son of a powerful family usually became the band’s leader (sagamore), sagamores controlled specific fishing and hunting territories and exchanged gifts with other. This was done to make sure there were no disputes and everyone was happy with the arrangements. Council meetings were held during the summer to discuss treaties drawn up and signed for the good of all the people.
The teacher Glooscap taught the people to hunt moose, elk and caribou when the animals came to feed. The animals were used for meat, the bones made into antlers to fashion needles, awls, fishhooks and scrapers. The men were taught by Glooscap how to make arrows and knives using deer or elk antler. After Glooscap introduced the people to the animals of the forest, he taught them how to build fish weirs, or stone nets across the mouths of rivers in order to catch the spawning sturgeon, salmon, smelt and herring.
Glooscap set out to sea in a heavy granite canoe and along the way he picked a young woman having difficulty in the water, he took the woman on board and was about to head for the shore. Suddenly a fierce storm rose and huge waves swept over Glooscap’s canoe. Glooscap accused the woman of being a witch and blamed her for the storm and said that she was trying to drown him. The woman did not speak she just watched as Glooscap paddled furiously to get the canoe to shore, once he reached safety he placed one foot on dry land. As the woman tried to follow he held her back pushing her out to sea, he told her. “Become anything you desire.” Glooscap proved to the people that he had power over witches. The young woman drifted out to sea and became a large ugly fish, the people came to know her as keeganibe, the great fish.
Glooscap wanted to help the Micmacs visualize life after death so he described a beautiful land far away to the west. Glooscap was describing his home and told the Micmacs that it would be there home also one day. He urged them to live a good life and told them that the journey to the west was long and difficult, he then warned that the way back was very short and easy. Glooscap described the journey of seven young men who had travelled west, he then described the obstacles that had confronted them during their journey.
The first obstacle was a huge mountain they had to climb on the tip of an overhanging cliff. The men were forced to struggles over the edge of the cliff and descend a steep stone wall into the valley below. Fearful men would be unable to complete the journey, but brave men would do so with ease. After the mountain the men had to step between the fangs of two huge serpents, guarding either side of a narrow valley. Good men would be able to do this easily, bad men would be destroyed. A thick dark cloud separated the real world from the beautiful place beyond, this was the final obstacle. As the cloud rose the fell indiscriminately it was difficult for the men to tell when it was safe to pass beneath it. Good men would be able to run beneath the cloud while it was up and avoid being crushed, but evil men would be crushed to death when the cloud landed on top of them. The seven men overcame all the obstacles and completed the journey safely.
Glooscap told the people the story of the young men’s journey to the beautiful land beyond the thick dark cloud. He told them how the men visited his wigwam and the wigwams of Coolpujot and Kuhkw. Glooscap warmly welcomed the men but Coolpujot didn’t have any bones and could not move, he had to be rolled over each spring and autumn. In the autumn he was turned west, in the spring he was turned east. Coolpujot was responsible for the seasons, breathing cold air and icy winds in the autumn, chilling frost and snow in winter, rain in spring and warm sunshine in the summer.
The wigwam of Kuhkw was large and dark, Glooscap called him earthquake as he traveled beneath the earth kicking his feet and making the land tremble and shake, he was very powerful. After praising the seven men on the completion of their journey, Coolpujot offered to grant each man any wish he may desire.
As Glooscap was telling the Micmacs his story he urged them to pay special attention to the fate of the men who had made their wishes. One of the men asked that he be allowed to live forever and remain in the beautiful place. Coolpujot picked him up and planted him in the ground where he became a tall cedar tree. Coolpujot blew wind through his boughs scattering cedar seeds in all direction, where they landed cedar groves grew throughout the northeast.
The men who remained asked that they be allowed to return home once their wishes were granted. Glooscap wrapped their wishes in packages and the men were instructed not to open their wish-packages until they arrived home, they were then sent on their way. Some returned home, two failed as they did not obey Glooscap’s instructions. One man had wished for a cure for a disease he would not reveal, but on his way home curiosity compelled him to open his medicine package. As he did this a stream of liquid poured onto the ground, spreading over the earth, it disappeared along with the man.
The second man had wished for the love of a young woman as he had tried in vain to find a wife for years. Glooscap conferred with Coolpujot and Kuhkw, the three men agreed that the man was far too ugly for them to find him a wife, he was also very bad mannered. After much though Glooscap thought he had found the answer to the man’s wish, he went into his wigwam and returned with a sealed container which he handed to the man. Telling him that under no circumstances must he open his wish package until he had returned home. The happy young man began his journey back to his village, fantasizing about the contents of his package and picturing himself as a handsome and charming man. Again curiosity overtook common sense and the night before he reached his village he broke the seal, hundreds of beautiful women flew out floating around him and over his head. The man was overwhelmed with happiness until the women began to fall on him, one after the other, stacking higher and higher until finally he was crushed under their weight. The following morning the women had vanished and all that was left were tiny pieces of the man.
After Glooscap told the Micmac people this story, he reminded the people that they each had much to learn before undertaking their own journey to the beautiful land in the west and he promised to return another day as there was more to teach them. Glooscap then stepped into his granite canoe he began rowing to the west and disappeared from sight leaving the people with much to think about.