The aspect of legends is a key part of the Native American or the Indian American history. These stories were told and handed down from generation to generation to better explain certain phenomena that Indian Americans at the time considered to be strange. In most instances, these tales were told in relation to the things that happened around the various Indian American tribes. Among these legends were the plant, animal and creation myth. This essay therefore seeks to examine the relationship between Indian American myths and nature.
Long ago, before there were ant people, the world was young and water covered everything. The earth was a great island floating above the seas, suspended by four rawhide ropes representing the four sacred directions. It hung down from the crystal sky. There were no people, but the animals lined in a home above the rainbow. Needing space, they sent Water Beetle to search for room under the seas. Water Beetle dove down deep and brought up mud that spread quickly, turning into land that was flat and too soft and wet for the animals to live on. (Andrews, 1988:196+) Grandfather Buzzard was sent to see if the land hardened. When he flew over the earth, he found the mud had become solid; he flapped in for a closer look. The wind from his wings created valleys and mountains, and flat is why the Cherokee territory has so many mountains today. (Andrews 1988:196+)
As the earth stiffened, the animals came down from the rainbow. It was still dark. They needed light, so they pulled the sun out from behind the rainbow, but it was too bright and hot. A solution was urgently needed. The Shamans were told to place the sun higher in the sky. A path was made for it to travel from east to west so that all inhabitants could share in the light. The plants were placed upon the earth. The Creator told the plants and animals to stay awake for seven days and seven nights. (Andrews 1988:196+)
Only a few animals managed to do so, including the owls and mountain lions, and they were rewarded with the power to see in the dark. Among the plants only the cedars, spruces, and pines remained awake. The Creator told these plants that they would keep their hair during the winter, while the other plants would lose theirs. People were created last. The women were able to have babies every seven days. They reproduced so quickly that the Creator feared the world would soon become too crowded. So after that the women could have only one child per year, and it has been that way ever since.
Looking at the Native American myths of creation we see that, the basic premises of Native American creation mythology are intertwined with the natural world and frequently include animals that act as creators, messengers, protectors, guardians, and advisers. (Andrews, 1988:196+) They were often thought to possess human qualities and had the ability to speak, think, and act like humans. Animals such as the coyote, bear, raven, spider, and turtle are often found in stories recounting the origin of a tribe. (Andrews, 1988:196+)
They were thought of as spiritual guides or important players in the community’s daily existence. In some instances they try to justify what nature had created. For instance, The Mojave, for example, believe that long ago, people lived underground. When their food diminished, they sent a hummingbird to the upper world to search for more. The bird found much food, and the people climbed out of the ground and moved into this new world
Also, according to the lore of numerous tribes, animals walked the earth prior to man. They helped to Shape, teach, feed and spiritually nurture the people who later lived with them. Animals played a vital role in the life of the Native people, and honoring their spirits could bring blessings, life balance, and abundance. (Ella, 1966:112) Many Native Americans believed in the special medicine, or power, that each animal held. The mythic beasts were often given the highest respect that could be bestowed on a spirit: the role of creator. When an individual or tribe needed assistance, it called upon an animal’s knowledge, power, and spirit. To this day, animals are considered sacred by the Native American peoples and are appealed to in times of need. (Ella, 1966:112)
According to the Coyote myth common to Nez Perce, who lived in Idaho, Washington, and Oregon, they trace their ancestry back to the tricky Coyote. In the beginning, Old Man Coyote stood alone with water surrounding him. Two ducks swam by, and Coyote asked if they had seen anyone else. (Andrews, 1988:196+) The ducks said no but thought that something might exist under the water. Coyote asked if they would travel underwater for him and report on what they saw.
The ducks did as they were asked, finding nothing. He asked again, and the ducks returned with a root. On the third try, they found mud and Coyote was happy. He told the ducks that they could build with it, and he began to shape and mold the mud into an island. He blew on it, and it expanded. He blew again, and it grew into the earth. The ducks said they did not like the earth’s emptiness, so Coyote created grass and trees out of the roots that came from the water. (Andrews 1988:196+)
Coyote and the ducks loved the earth, but it was fiat. They wanted rivers, valleys, mountains, and lakes. So it was done. Soon Coyote and the ducks made a perfect earth, but they grew lonely, with only the three of them to sit and enjoy the land. So Coyote molded dirt to form men and then more mud to create many types of male ducks. Soon, they realized that without women, the males could not have children. So with more dirt he made women and female ducks to populate the earth. (Andrews 1988:196+) This myth does not explain the origin of water, the two ducks and the mud. This probably could be linked to nature.
Among the Coyote tales also, is one in, which it is told how the Coyote visited the Porcupine, who scratched his nose until blood flowed freely out over it; he then roasted it until it turned into a piece of fine meat. Coyote invited his host to return the visit in two days. He tried to imitate the Porcupine, but failed ignominiously. He next visited the Wolf, who roasted two arrow points that were transformed into minced meat. (Bruchac 1999:5-9)
Again the Coyote tried to imitate his host, but failed. Compare with this the tradition of the Chinook, who tell how Bluejay tried to imitate his host; that of the Comox, Nootka, and Kwakiutl of Vancouver island, and of the Bella Coola and Tsimshian of Northern British Columbia, who tell the same story of the Raven; that of the Ponca, who tell the same story of Ictinike, and that of the Micmac, who relate how the Rabbit tried to imitate his host. Although the peculiar method of producing food by magic is not always the same, the whole stories are identical to all intents and purposes. (Bruchac 1999:5-9)
Later on it is told how the Coyote was playing with his eyes, tearing them out of their sockets and throwing them up; then they fell back into their sockets. We find the identical incident among the Shuswap in the interior of British Columbia and among the Blackfeet. Once upon a time the Coyote met the Brown Giant. He proposed to him that they should vomit. He placed a large piece of pine bark before each as a dish, and bade the Brown Giant keep his eyes shut till he was told to open them. (Bruchac 1999:5-9) Coyote vomited bugs and worms, while the Brown Giant vomited fat venison. Coyote exchanged the dishes, and then told the Giant to open his eyes. The Shuswap ascribe the same trick to Coyote when he met the Cannibal Owl. (Bruchac 1999:5-9)
The people sought to divine their fate. (Clements 1986:220) They threw a hide scraper into the water, saying, “If it sinks, we perish; if it floats, we live.” It floated, and all rejoiced. Then Coyote repeated the same test with a stone. It sank, and therefore people die. Among the Black feet, the first woman asked the “Old Man” if people would be immortal. In order to decide this question he threw a buffalo chip into the water, saying that if it floated people would resurrect on the fourth day after their death. It floated. Then the woman took a stone, saying, “If it floats, we will always live; it sinks, people must die.” It sank, and therefore people died. (Clements 1986:220) This again tends to explain the mystery of death thereby emphasizing the point that, Native American myths are closely tied to nature as death is natural.
There also existed the myth of plant among the Indian Americans. This specifically was the corn myth and was common among North Carolina-Cherokee Indians. It held that, many years ago there was an old woman who lived happily with her grandson until the boy turned seven years old. On his birthday she gave him a bow and arrow with which to hunt. (White 1993:164) On his first expedition he came back with a small bird. She was very proud of him and told him so.
The Grandmother went out to her storeroom behind the lodge in which they lived. She soon came back with corn in a basket. She made a delicious soup with the corn and the little bird. (Bruchac 1999:5-9) Everyday that the boy brought home the fruits of his hunt his grandmother would go to the storehouse and bring back the corn to make the meal. The boy became very curious and decided to follow her. He watched her as she stood in front of her basket and rubbed her hand along the side of her body. As she did this the corn filled the basket. He became afraid and thought that she might be a witch. He hurriedly returned to the lodge. (Bruchac, 1999:5-9)
When the Grandmother came in she knew that he had seen what she had done. She told him that because of this she must die and leave him. She would tell him what to do so that there would always be food for their people. She said, “When I die, go to the south side of the lodge and clear the Earth until it is completely bare. Then drag my body along the Earth seven times and bury me in the ground.” (Bruchac, 1999:5-9)
The boy did as he was told. He dragged her body over the Earth and wherever a drop of her blood fell to the ground a small plant would appear. He kept the ground cleared around each plant and soon they grew very tall with long tassels of silk at the top which reminded him of his Grandmother’s long hair. Eventually ears of corn grew and his Grandmother’s promise came true. Even though the Grandmother has passed from this Earth she is still present as the corn plant to feed her people. (Bruchac, 1999:5-9)
Native American Indian also had the horse myth, which was part of the animal myths. This myth was generally known as the sky dog myth as it holds for other animals. This myth holds that, a long, long time ago we had to walk and walk from sky to sky, from camp to camp. (Dutton, 1996: 94) Our dogs carried our rawhide bags and pulled our travois sleds. We walked so much that we wore out many moccasins going across the plains. Of a sudden, one day, coming from Old Man’s sleeping room, west of the mountains, we saw some strange looking beasts. (Yolen, 1990:62) They were as big as elk and they had tails of straw.
Lying across the backs of these beasts were two Kutani men. One beast was pulling a travois sled. We became afraid because we did not understand. My best friend, Jumps-Over-the-Water hid behind his mother’s skirt. The bravest of all of us known as Running Bear, ran behind the nearest tipi to hide. I was so frightened I could not move. I was away from the safety of my father’s tipi. The men in our tribe yelled that we were not to be afraid that we were the mighty Piegans who took the land sway from the Kutani. As I looked around I saw that they were afraid. They all had big eyes and four of them had their hunting bows aimed. Then our chief Long Arrow laughed. He said, “These are from Old Man. They are a gift like the elk, antelope, buffalo and bighorn sheep they are called Sky Dogs”. (Yolen, 1990: 62)
To wrap up this discussion, it worthy to note that most Native American myth were a bid to provide an explanation for what nature had created. It is for this reason that we have the creation myth, the sky dog myth, and the plant myth, to name these. Thus the contention that, literary analysis of Native American myths emphasizes a bond with nature.
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