Sunday, May 5, 2019

Native Americans and Their Legends

The legends believed by the Native American tribes were / are very expansive, and involve everything from birds and animals to spirits and shadow beings.

With thousands of years of myths and story telling, our Native Americans have kept many of their legends alive even to this day. When we were visiting Alaska back in the 1990's, I became interested in the customs and stories told by the Tlingit (pronounced klink-it) and Haida tribes people we came in contact with. And for those who remember the TV series called "Northern Exposure," you may have also become interested in the ways of the their culture as portrayed by several members of the cast, where many of their tribal customs and legends regarding bears, ravens, eagles, foxes, and even frogs were brought to light.

I'm glad to see that the Native American culture has been kept alive in places like the California San Juan Islands, Oklahoma, New Mexico, Alaska, and other areas of the US. Statistics show that we still have 573 federally recognized American Indian and Alaskan Native tribes and villages in the United States. We need to honor them by learning something about their cultures and by remembering the sorrows that they have suffered through.

I have selected a few legends and stories that caught my eye when I was searching this topic online. I hope you will also find them interesting and informative.

The Choctaw tribes are known to share some very dark tales regarding some of the birds. Even the common horned owl, which they called Ishkitini, had a foreboding reputation. The Choctaw stories have it that Ishkitini is responsible for (or linked to) the deaths of men and animals. When the Choctaw heard the screech

The Hopi Indians

of the owl, they believed that a child of seven years or younger would die. If the owl hooted from the trees, it was feared that death was stalking their close adult relatives.

One variety of Paiute mythological figures from the dark side are called Nimerigar. They have been described as a race of small, but violent, magical people who are cannibalistic in nature.

But many legends among the tribes in America regarding birds, animals, and other creatures were more uplifting, or even humorous.

This Cherokee legend goes into great lengths to explain why rabbits have short tails. It seems that back when the world was young, tsi-s-du (the rabbit) had a very long bushy and beautiful tail. And he was always bragging about it to the other animals. Then one day, tsu-la (the fox) became very weary of hearing the rabbit's boasting, and he decided to put an end to it.

So, when the lake waters were frozen, the fox cut a hole in the ice and tied four a-tsa-di (fish) to his tail and waited there for the rabbit to come by. When the fox saw the rabbit come hopping over the hill, he he quickly dropped his tail into the cold water. The rabbit asked the fox, "what are you doing?" The fox replied, "I'm fishing."

The story goes on to some length as they banter back and forth until the fox pulled his tail out of the water to show the rabbit the fish that he had supposedly caught. The fox told the rabbit that he was going to take all the fish that he caught to the village and trade them for a set of combs. Then the fox left the rabbit alone at the cold frozen lake.

The rabbit then decided that he was going to try this fishing idea and grab some combs for himself. So he put his big long bushy tail through that hole into the cold water and stayed there all night, waiting to catch some fish. The next morning the fox came back and asked the rabbit what he was doing. With his teeth chattering from the cold, the rabbit said, "I'm ffffishing." The fox then asked him if he had caught any. When the rabbit tried to get up to see if he finally had caught any fish, he found that his tail was stuck in the ice. So he asked the fox to help him pull it out from the frozen lake.

So the fox, with a big grin on his face, got behind the rabbit, and with one big mighty shove, knocked the rabbit out of the ice and sent him sliding all the way across the frozen lake. But most of the rabbit's tail remained stuck in the ice, back on the other side of the lake.

And that's why to this day, tsi-s-du (rabbits) have such a very short tail.

The raven and Other Birds of a Feather

While the white people regard the raven with little esteem, many Native American legends lend credible importance to it. In some tribal cultures, the raven is regarded as a trickster, in the same way as the coyote is referred to. But other tribes tell of the raven's image as a hero. Among the south eastern Alaskan tribes, the raven is credited with finding water, and taking part in Earth's creation.

The Tlingit and Haida tribes in Alaska have provided many raven stories that depict him as talented and full of magic. And they give the raven equal status with the eagle, in many instances. Within these two tribes, their clan crests commonly come under one or the other of these two iconic birds.

The Pueblo tribes also have some birds in their legends, but identify animals such as the bear, coyote, antelope, and even mice as playing a part in great battles and other significant events.

Legends of America
The Kickapoo Indians recognized mythical figures such as Kehcimaneto, (a great spirit) and the Nenemehkia (thunder beings) who created violent storms with lightening and thunder, and were also called upon by the people to protect them from the Great Serpents. These serpents were common figures of their culture. One of which were the Manetoa, a breed of giant water serpents that could hypnotize people with their gaze, and then drown them.

The Nez Perce Indian folklore even includes battles between insects, as told in the story of a coyote punishing a yellow jacket and an ant for fighting. But their folklore also has many more traditional animals represented, such as the bear, raccoon, beaver, and in at least one story, a porcupine who punished a coyote for his greed.

Arapaho mythological figures
The Arapaho mythological figures included various spiders, powerful monsters, and spirits. But their symbol of the Thunderbird is one that many of us recognize today. To the Arapaho and most Plains Indian tribes, the Thunderbird was a huge bird of prey who also created thunder storms. The owl was another one of their predominant birds of lore, as it represented the winter season.

And it appears that it is the Blackfoot people who claim the honor of discovering the use of tobacco, their legend says that there were some medicine man brothers of whom the eldest had a vision and heard a voice telling him of a sacred herb to be found, and that he should pick it and burn it. So he followed the vision, found the herb and went home and tossed it into the fire, which then produced smoke with a pleasant smelling aroma. The second brother was told in a dream to chop up the herb and put it in a bag made of hide. He then also noticed how pleasant it smelled. Then a third brother was told in a vision to make some pipes out of bone. So he made four of them for himself and his brothers.

Then there was one more brother who's vision told him to put the herbs in the pipes, light them, inhale the smoke from them and let the exhaled smoke rise up into the clouds. The legend states that the brothers were also taught songs and prayers in their visions to go along with their smoking ritual. Then the brothers had more dreams telling them to spread the word about their new ritual to all their people.

Hmm... I wonder how long it took their big brother tribal council to levy a tax on their smokes?

Final Words

The more we delve into these Native American legends, the more intriguing they become. Their legends include accounts of creation and even the great flood which may seem to be pretty far out for most of us to accept or understand. But someone or something had to have put those thoughts and visions into the minds of these early inhabitants of our continent. Let's face it, even in this day and age, there are events and things that happen that we just can't quite explain.

Happy Trails,
Gary Miller

Additional Reading: Native American Indian Legends and Folklore

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