Native American Myths background notes

Native American
Story Background and Story Explanation
Introduction –
Even before scientific innovations people asked the same basis questions that we ask
How did the earth come into being?
Why do the seasons change?
Why am I here?
Native American myths provide insight into early people’s thoughts on the origins of the
earth and humans place in it.
Because of the need to explain how life began myths and traditional stories were passed
down from generation to generation – they are called origin myths
These myths explain:
Religious rites
Natural landmarks
Events beyond people’s control
Animal and Nature play a large role
Passed down orally – oral tradition
Captures ideals
Songs, poems, stories, convey values, concerns and history
We should ask:
What does each culture value and fear?
Cultural details present?
- Objects, animals
Myths, Oral traditions, personification, origin myths, cultural details, descriptive language,
exploration narrative, slave narrative, emotional appeals
The Earth on Turtle’s Back – Page 16
BG – From the Onondaga People
This is their idea of the creation of the world. They believe in the Great Spirit – an invisible
power that is the source of life and good for humans. Animals are highly revered and
respected, numbers are important – 12 is used a lot. They believe that the earth is formed
from a celestial place called Skyland.
ST – The ancient chief’s wife has a dream that the great tree is up rooted and when she
awakes she shares her dream with her husband. He believes that they must do whatever is
necessary to make her dream come true, so they help to uproot the tree (this shows their
belief in dreams and honor). This leaves a great big hole in the ground. The wife leans
over to look in the hole and falls down it. On the way down she grasps some seeds. The
water animal see her fall and say that she can not live in the water because she has no
webbed feet, (this shows the animals concern for her well- being).
The water animals decide to bring the land from under the water up so that she can live on
the land.
The order of the animals that try to get the land:
1st the duck
2nd the beaver
3rd the loon
4th the muskrat – who grasped the earth with her paw and pulls a part of it up. The turtle
helps by putting it on his back. The piece of earth continues to grow until the whole earth is
formed. The wife steps onto the land/earth and drops her seeds – from those seeds the
grass, trees, plants grow.
Cultural Details:
Respect for animals and age
The role of dreams
World belongs to animals
Plain names symbolize archetypal figures that embody ideals of culture
When Grizzles Walk Upright – by Modoc – Page 19
BG – Origin of Native American people. This story provides entertainment and also serves
as an explanation for the unexplained natural phenomenon of a volcano, and also the
formation of mountains, animals, trees, rivers, etc.
ST- The chief of the sky spirit makes his home in the mountains. When his daughter
disobeys him he leaves her on the mountainside. She is found by grizzly bears and they
adopt her. When she grows up she marries a grizzly bear and they have children. The
mother grizzly bear that adopted her goes to her father and tells him of his daughter. At first
he is very excited to know that she is alive, but when he realizes what his daughter has
done, he curses the bears to walk on all fours instead of two feet. The daughter’s children
are ancestors of Native Americans.
The giant pieces of the chief sky spirits stick formed the animals, the largest piece forms the
grizzly bears
Cultural details:
- Native American women wear their hair long
- There is guilt over wrong actions and responsibility to the gods/spirits for our actions. This
is similar to the puritans too.
From the Navajo Origin Legend – Pg. 22
BG - This is a creation story from the Navajo that explains how the first man and woman
were created through wind and corn and deer skins. The wind represents life because it
takes breath to survive. The deer and corn show a source of sustenance, the wind is
sacred. These are important elements/beliefs of society.
ST – On the 12th day the spirit people wash themselves to cleanse themselves and call the
gods to them. The gods appear and lay out the corn, feathers, and buckskins. Then the
people circle the skins and the wind blows transforming the corn, into the first human
beings. The white ear of corn becomes the man and the yellow ear the woman.
Cultural details:
The power of the wind is hard to understand and it is magical to the Navajo people, so it
gives life. The Navajo rely on a sense of order and rituals in life.
From The Iroquois Constitution – pg. 24
BG – talks of how and why the representatives should hold formal councils to discuss and
decide on issues of concern.
Dekanawiah and his great/forward thinking (his Great Law of Peace) led to far reaching
political unity among the people (the five nations). His desire to unite people with mutual
respect, cooperation and rituals helped serve as a model for the Constitution of the
United States of America.
NOTICE: how oral tradition shows values and ideas that are held important/dear to the
civilization. Word choice and descriptive language help the listener to visualize the text.
ST – Tree of Great Peace and its roots spread out in each of the 4 directions (north, south,
east, and west). They represent peace and strength.
The eagle on top of The Tree of Long Leaves is there to watch for evil and danger against
the people of the confederacy (the 5 nations). The fire burns for all allies to see. All “lords”
of the 5 nations must be honest and value honesty and truth, as well as, pledge allegiance
to the confederacy of nations if you want to join – a sigh of respect and truth and honesty.
They must present a sting of four shells – by presenting these shells a leader is showing
strength/determination and pride. The Great Peace – shows no anger, only peace and
goodwill in your heart and mind wanting the welfare of all (endless patience is held in high
regard) – don’t be interested in yourself; you must have compassion for all.