North American Indian Religions: Mythic Themes
NORTH AMERICAN INDIAN RELIGIONS: MYTHIC THEMES
The very broad subject of mythology among traditional peoples is often juxtaposed with "history" in the modern, Western sense. However, this confluence presents problems for both traditional indigenous communities and Western modernity. There is a dichotomy between these subjects that generally rests on the issue of veracity, so that the broad class of narrative known as myth, along with such subgenera as legend, folktale, fable, and the like, is easily subsumed into one broad "false but relevant" classification with semiotic significance to the narrative's home culture.
However, it is also possible to view aspects of "historic" events and their retelling from one generation to the next through the same lens with which we view myth. In this approach, the mythic narratives of a culture have many levels of significance, both for their culture of origin and for those who analyze them. It is assumed here that both of these positions are valid. However, the Western terms myth, tale, and legend will be employed at times as this designates the esoteric nature of certain aspects of these sacred histories.
In the case of American Indian sacred narrative, those communities for whom the stories are culturally relevant view these tales in ways which cross, and often transcend, the Western category of history. These "sacred histories" serve to orient their communities in time and space in ways that operate within the logic of the universe they inhabit, and in turn provide outsiders with insight into the ethos and worldview of their home cultures.
Western historical narratives tend to rely upon a linear pattern in which one event transpires after, and sometimes due to, the one preceding it, which also makes specific dates and actors the key issues in these tales. American Indian sacred narratives operate in a different way, developing within the specifics of the producing culture based on the logic of their universe. This logic is often cyclical, or rhythmic, in nature, and the focus is not on linearity but on the maintenance of ongoing natural rhythms.
There usually exists, in each Native American community, various categories of story, each with a specific purpose and appropriate use. The Hopi, for example, distinguish between four types of narrative: navoiti, or knowledge to which the speaker has a direct link, even if that link is from a very distant past; tutavo, or stories about the Sacred; wuknavoti, which is usually translated as "prophesy" but includes all sorts of prognosticative stories; and tuuwutisi, the term most often translated as "myth" but also considered a historic accounting of events that occurred in sacred time. This is distinguished from navoiti in that the connections to the events and actors in the story are secondhand or happened in the esoteric realm of the before-time.
There is a Chumash term, timoloquinas, often translated as "stories generally thought to be true," that also describes this category of tale, where "truth" is a very slippery concept and relative to the overall meaning of the tale to its intended audience. It is via these orally transmitted tales that the entirety of a people's history is conveyed—spiritual, economic, and political. These tales represent a body of knowledge the continuity of which is only recently beginning to become apparent to non-Indian minds.
This knowledge is passed from generation to generation through oral narratives that encode both pertinent and proper behaviors for the edification of future generations. In the telling of these tales, both the narrator and the audience have active roles: the teller of the tale is expected to maintain the story's integrity from telling to telling, and the audience holds the storyteller to task with their own memories of the stories. These tales are told at events bound by communal dictates, which must be supported by the audience. The young people learn the importance of these events and come to give them the kind of attention and respect that facilitates those dictates. The telling of stories, then, provides opportunities for the truths contained in them to be practiced as well as learned.
Stories about the community's sacred history also allow the people to examine specific ideas that the community considers important. Some narratives relay information about the origins of a particular Native American people, as well as their indelible links to their sacred past. Others revolve around pertinent political, economic, and social issues or explore themes of community membership and identity.
Prior to the devastating effects of colonialism, these stories were the key link between members of particular tribal groups, as well as that group's link to their land. Elders serve as repositories of the knowledge and wisdom that makes the people a people, transferring moral precepts and appropriate community parameters to the next generation. When the U.S. government attempted to assimilate Indian children, they did so by taking them away from their families and placing them in boarding schools, in hopes that separating them from their elders and storytellers would destroy their cultural identity.
Fortunately, much of the imagery, humor, pathos, and personality of the tales was nevertheless passed along to the boarding-school generation, and the translation of the stories into English, especially due to the rising discipline of ethnography around the turn of the last century, guaranteed that most of these tales, and the cultures that they encode, would not be lost. Though these are properly oral traditions, many tales have been transcribed by non–Native Americans and, more recently, written down by American Indians themselves. The shift to written form should, however, be seen as archival in nature, as the pressures of modernity make the regular telling of these tales difficult for some Native American communities. This is not, therefore, a shift away from the oral tradition, but a response to the challenges presented by current conditions.
Given the cultural continuity and thematic integrity that these tales have displayed, it is somewhat counter-intuitive to say that they remain dynamic tales for which there is rarely a definitive version. However, the changes in the narrative flow or differences in details are often due to the shifting needs of the audience, rather than omissions or transformations designed by the narrator. For example, in the Ojibwe tales of Nanabush, the trickster/creator and cultural hero reacts to European invasion by moving west, and sleeps as a large promontory at Thunder Bay. Nanabush sleeps there still, waiting for the time when the Ojibwe can bring about a resurgence of Ojibwe culture and religion. Some contemporary Ojibwe speak of a recent stirring in Nanabush, as his people are working to realize this resurgence.
There are also smaller, subtler changes in the tales, such as when Nanabush gets tangled up in telephone wires, in contrast to the ropes found in older versions. This dynamic quality reinforces the ability of Native American myth to remain relevant and meaningful throughout the whole of the community's experience. And it illustrates the fact that American Indians, while they remember the sacred stories from many generations past, are not themselves mythic figures trapped in antiquity.
For the American Indian communities, the world is populated not only by humans, but by other beings as well. These beings include the natural world and all that is in it, as well as spiritual or other-worldly beings who have the ability to communicate with, to do harm and good to, and generally act within the human realm. The most important aspect of this arrangement is the other-than-human beings' ability to form relationships, with each other as well as with the people. It is important to stress that these beings are not simply natural forces or unknown events that have become personified, but fellow inhabitants of the world—neighbors and relatives—who require respectful attention of one kind or another. The other-than-human realm interacts with its human cousins and neighbors in Native American sacred histories in many different ways, sometimes benevolently, sometimes malevolently, all due to the fact that they are nearly always more powerful and erudite than humans.
This system of sacred narrative and the actors, events, and lessons contained therein can be divided into tales of creation, theories about the natural world, and stories that place the people within their tribal sacred history. The following sections will look at some examples of these myths.
Creation stories not only tell the people how the universe came to be, but also set in motion the logic within which it operates. Origin myths, those that draw upon the creation of all things (as opposed to the post-creation establishment of a feature of the landscape or a ritual complex), effectively frame the ways in which all that comes after is possible. Like the origin myth found in the first part of the book of Genesis, the world subsequently responds in ways that are in keeping with its initial creation, such as the dynamics of male–female or human–animal relationships or the hierarchical theme found in subsequent Hebrew and Christian mythologies.
The Navajo origin myth
The Dinée (Navajo) origin story is an example of a creation story from Native America. In this tale, the present world of the Dinée comes about only after three preceding worlds have emerged, one from another, on the surface of the earth. First Man ('Altsé Hastiin) and First Woman ('Altsé 'Asdzáá) were two of the beings from the First, or Black, World. First Man was made in the east from the meeting of the white and black clouds. First Woman was made in the west from the joining of the yellow and blue clouds. Spider Woman (Na ashje'ii 'Asdzáá), who taught Navajo women how to weave, was also from the First World, as was Begochiddy, a creator figure who made and ordered all that was in the First World. The Black World produced many creatures, and it became a crowded place of quarrelling and strife, necessitating the move into the Second, or Blue, World. In some variations of the tale, this movement was facilitated by a reed which allowed some of the First People to climb into the Blue World, bringing with them all that Begochiddy had made.
There were creatures already inhabiting the Second World, and as Begochiddy continued the task of creation, those beings hampered the process, and strife, fighting, and killing made the Second World an undesirable place. So some of the inhabitants climbed upward into the Third World. The Third, or Yellow, World was where sexual desire was created. The essences of maleness and femaleness had been part of the creative endeavor, and Begochiddy created a class of people, not yet the Dinée, who were male and female. Tensions arose between them that were ultimately resolved by bringing about an inexorable connection between them. Problems within the Yellow World, of different types and origins depending upon the telling, necessitated the move into this, the Fourth, or Glittering, World. This is when the Dinée were created, along with the original Hogan. The Hogan, the archetypal house and sacred space for the Dinée, held the first Beauty Way, the girls' puberty ceremony. This first Beauty Way was for Changing Woman, the ultimate creatrix of the Dinée and scion of feminine creativity. Young Dinée women undergo a ritual transformation into Changing Woman in the course of their initiation, and it is during this ceremony that the Dinée creation story is told in its entirety, culminating in the ritual reenactment of the first Beauty Way.
The Dinée origin narrative contains the deeply held existential truths of Dinée culture. Changing Woman creates the Dinée using elements found in the Glittering World along with flakes of her own skin; thus their very bodies are made up of the place the Dinée call home. Nothing in the logic of Dinée culture derives from outside the place of their emergence.
The balance that in all three subsequent worlds was upset by human foibles must be maintained in this world, lest the Dinée bring about their own destruction. The creation story, then, also serves as a cautionary tale, and with it is passed along the traditional wisdom that, when dutifully employed, helps the Dinée maintain that balance. This includes the elements of the story that speak of the importance of corn, which, in addition to being an important food staple, is also a symbol for what is truly important for the universe and how one is to behave in it.
The Hopi, Zuni, Tewa, Keres, Tiwa, and Jemes, have a similar creation epic in which the world known to the Pueblos is created after they have migrated upward through a succession of worlds, usually three, before arriving in the fourth world, which is the world of today. As in the Dinée tale, the people in each of the worlds were typically compelled to move on because various transgressions against the order of things led to imbalance and conflict. In the Pueblo tales, however, individuals often caused the conflict by directly violating the sacred order, and were subsequently left behind for their behavior. The rest of the people would be assisted in their journey to the next world by sacred beings, often in the form of animals.
The animals who lend their support not only play a logistical role in the people's migration, but also teach the people valuable lessons about how the world works and what their responsibilities are in it. These responsibilities include both an understanding of the world and gaining knowledge of important rituals and ceremonies. Among the Hopi and Zuni, for example, the people acquire the knowledge necessary for summoning the rain. Among the Hopi, the tale begins in Tokpela (Endless Space). Tokpela was shapeless until Taiowa, the Sun and Creator, made his nephew, Sótuknang, the god of the universe and creator of all ceremonies. On this world was placed a helper, Spider Woman, who also possessed creative power and used her abilities to make the world ready for human habitation. In addition to creating the necessary elements of the world such as plants and animals, Spider Woman made a pair of hero twins who would protect the people from harm. While they were in Tokpela, however, the people's numbers increased and they began to drift apart, and illness came to be.
The people then moved on to the next world, Tokpa (Dark Midnight), where they built villages, stored food, and traded among themselves. Consequently, the people became greedy for material possessions, and strife again ensued. Next the people emerged into the Third World, Kuskurza, a name whose meaning remains unknown. Again the people increased, expanding into larger and more complex villages. Again corruption, greed and infighting led to imbalance, and Kuskurza was flooded. Only a few emerged into the Fourth World, Túwaqachi (World Complete), via a hollow reed. Like the Dinée, it is up to them to maintain the balance of this world.
The Zuni creation is very similar, but the Sun brings about the movement from one world to the next after the people fail to adequately make prayer offerings. In the Third World, hero twins come to bring the Zuni into this, the Fourth World. In both Zuni and Hopi creation tales, the emergence into the Fourth World requires that each clan find its place, and the tales describe the Pueblo people's divisions and establishe the territories assigned to each.
What finally emerges out of this epic narrative is a worldview characterized by six directions, which are inhabited by a pantheon of sacred beings. For the Zuni, each of the four cardinal directions contains an ocean, and in these four oceans are four mountains, each symbolized by a different color. For the Dinée, both the orientation to the landscape and the ethos of the people derive from the creation story. Therefore, Pueblo mythology is locatable in the surrounding landscape, and pertinent to everyday life.
Elements of a culture's sense of itself and what it is supposed to be about in the world often have their roots in the creation narrative. For hunting and wild-horticulture groups, animals and plants play heavily in the creation story. The Ojibwe, for whom the Great Lakes region is home, are among the cultures with earth-diver elements to their tale. The earth-diver is a familiar animal—Muskrat, in the case of the Ojibwe—who dives to the bottom of a vast body of water to retrieve a small bit of earth that becomes the world.
Many Native American communities in the Eastern Woodlands and Great Lakes area share the Pueblo and Navajo idea that the present earth has been remade from a world salvaged after the destruction of a previous one. The earth-diver in these tales must dive to the bottom of the waters that have flooded the old world to retrieve earth with which a new world can be made. In the Ojibwe versions, characters sometimes shift, and regional variations may occur, but the core narrative line always includes a friendship or kinship between Nanabush, the Ojibwe trickster and creator, and a wolf. The wolf, usually because he is capricious or unwary, falls through thin ice into a lake and is killed by underwater spirits, the manitous, led by their chief, Mishebeshu. Mishebeshu is a very powerful manitou who owns the water world and appears as a horned serpent or dragon. Mishebeshu means "Great Lynx," and he is so powerful that his name is only to be mentioned in winter when he is safely under the ice. Mishebeshu is not evil, but neither is he a friend to humans.
It is always best in Ojibwe culture to treat the other-than-human realm with enormous amounts of respect, which the wolf fails to do when he ignores the melting spring ice. Devastated by the loss of Wolf, Nanabush exacts revenge by traveling to Mishebeshu's home and killing him. Since Mishebeshu is a powerful manitou, he either regenerates himself or his many other selves multiply to flood the world. Nanabush takes refuge on a turtle's back and calls the diving animals to him to ask them to retrieve a bit of earth from below the waters. It is usually the least among these, Muskrat, who succeeds, and the earth is regenerated. Nanabush, or in some variations Kitche, or Great Manitou, creates humans and readies the earth for them with the help of the plant and animal people.
This, like most creation tales, is replete with lessons about the fragility of the earth, the need to respect the boundaries set out by the manitous, and the ultimate cost of revenge.
Another key feature of many creation tales is the role that the animal and plant kingdoms play in human life. They are seen as elder siblings, here before the people and wiser because of that. Often plants, animals, water beings, wind, and rocks play an important role in the creation of the people.
The Chumash of the central California coast tell of their creation by a committee of animals that includes Coyote, Lizard, Hawk, and others, who debate the various features that the humans will possess. Coyote and Lizard enter into a debate about what kind of hands the new creatures will have, and the other animal beings take sides. In the end Coyote wins out, and he prepares to press his hand into the surface of a fine-grained stone and create the model for human hands. But, at the last second, Lizard sneaks up and places his hand into the stone, deciding the form of the human hand.
In addition, the group debates human mortality. The Jerusalem Cricket argues that human beings should eventually die, while Coyote argues for immortality in the form of a lake where humans can immerse their dead and bring them back to life. Cricket wins the debate, sealing his fate as an omen of bad luck for the Chumash people. In both stories, the roles of animals, the vicissitudes of life, and the need for proper behavior are all established along with the creation of human beings, forging a strong link between the way the world works and how the people are to behave in it. In creation tales, the universe, created with a working logic in place that represents balance and attention to the rhythms of nature, is established for all creatures. And all creatures have some responsibility for and to that creation in order that it continue on in balance.
The operation of the universe can be seen as a sort of dependent variable, in that things must be done by those who have been created in order to keep creation balanced, but creation itself effects the possible choices of those creatures. Therefore, many American Indian narratives contain explanatory elements as well as evidence of what happens when the creatures do or do not complete the tasks for which they are responsible.
In these stories, the way in which creation looks and acts is explained, but in a multilayered way that allows these stories to remain relevant throughout the life of the listener. Children delight in the stories while gaining important information about the world, and adults perceive nuanced aspects appropriate to their lives as well. For example, the Seneca tell of Old Man Winter and his companion North Wind being defeated by Spring, which gives children imagery with which they can envision the changing seasons, but the story can also be told in a way that allows adults to ponder the need to allow old feelings to melt away like Old Man Winter does in the tale, to make room for a renewal in their hearts and minds that mirrors the coming of Spring.
The Cherokee explain the origin of the deer's curly tail in a story about Wild Boy and his brother, who make a game of allowing all of the animals to escape, thus causing the need for hunting. In this story, we discover not only why the deer's tail is curly and why people must hunt game to eat, but also that there is potential harm in not attending to one's duties, and that there can be no doubt as to what a good person must do when faced with opportunities for impetuous and facetious behavior.
Another type of story that falls into this category is the so-called trickster tale, an extensive and largely misunderstood genre of traditional storytelling. It is the trickster—usually in the form of an animal known to the people, such as Raven, Coyote, or Hare, and almost always a male—who tends to represent both the best and the worst that a person can be. At times, the trickster is a creator, bringing about aspects of the world, such as fire, that make life much more pleasant. At other times, the trickster behaves badly, usually in the realms of gluttony or lust, bringing about negative aspects of the world or merely providing an entertaining way to point out the consequences of bad behavior.
One fine example of the latter is the tale told by the Yokuts of California about Coyote tricking Cricket into believing that she is the most beautiful of all insects. He uses her to demand tribute from the rest of the animals as their chief. Eventually, the Animal People grow tired of Coyote and Cricket and their demands, and Coyote impersonates the Creator in order to exact tribute. For this he is punished and sent to live in the North Star, and Cricket, for her vanity, must forever visit her lover Coyote during the day only, returning to Earth at night to play her sad song.
Another California tale, from the Karuk, shows the trickster in his creator aspect, as Coyote obtains fire from the stingy yellow jackets. Through a sort of relay race that sends the burning ember from animal to animal until it eventually falls into a softwood tree, Coyote shows the animals, and thus the people, how to extract fire from the wood, bringing the warmth and utility of fire to the world. A similar tale from around the Indian communities of the Pacific Northwest has Raven, their trickster, retrieving the sun from a selfish chief and placing it in the sky for the benefit of all.
The key issue with regard to these trickster tales is that the term trickster cannot adequately convey all of the nuances in the tales to which it is assigned. This glossing over of an important theme in American Indian sacred narrative, therefore, must be used with caution. The negative connotations usually associated with the word trick creates a view of these tales that is somewhat skewed. In the sense that it denotes clown-like and regrettable behavior, the term trickster places this important Native American cultural theme into roughly the same category as Brer Rabbit, Wile E. Coyote, and the Three Stooges. When this term is applied to characters who may be heroes, creative deities, and powerful advocates of humans, these cultural icons are denigrated. American Indian thinkers such as Gerald Vizenor stress that trickster, as a term, should not be understood as an anthropological or folkloric category, but rather as a metaphorical idea or a consciousness within the stories that explains to the people who they are, where they are from, and how it is that they should live.
All of the above tales can be considered aspects of sacred history, and important mythic themes connect Native American people to their traditions through their direct relationships with the actors in the tales. While characters like Coyote or the animal and plant beings may not qualify as relatives in the sense that Western biological or historic realities dictate, the realities of Native American communities render a much different accounting of the family tree.
For the Lakota of the Great Plains, the story of White Buffalo Woman's visit to the people to bring them their seven central ceremonies and the sacred pipe affirms the already established, but perhaps neglected, familial relationship between the Lakota and the bison. The story tells of a time when the Lakota were experiencing famine, due in part to the reluctance of the Buffalo Nation to appear and be hunted. The people had forgotten the way to behave, and became more angry and confused as the consequences visited themselves upon them.
Then it happened that two young men were travelling in search of game when they spied a white mist, from which a beautiful young woman emerged. As she neared them, the men could see that she was naked. One young man averted his eyes and maintained decent thoughts, while the other approached her with evil intentions. The latter was swallowed up by a mist which left him nothing more than a skeleton. The other young man humbled himself, still covering his eyes, and the woman told him to go back to his people and have them make ready for her arrival, preparing a lodge where the women would attend her while the men averted their gazes until the appropriate time.
It came to pass as she instructed, and the woman made her way into the camp carrying a bundle. After she was bathed and dressed, she called all of the people together and taught them the ceremonies that would keep their minds and hearts attentive to their responsibilities to the world. She taught them to pray with the pipe, presenting a pipe to them and instructing them as to how subsequent pipes were to be made. As she left them, she rolled in the dust four times, each time turning into a buffalo of a different color. The last was a white buffalo, and then she was gone.
This tale is seen as a history of the religious use of the pipe among the Lakota, and the pipe that White Buffalo Woman gave to the people is still in existence, in the care of descendants of the first recipient. The tale, along with the ceremonies the people learn in the course of it, reoriented fallen ones to their sacred responsibilities to the world, especially to their relatives, the Buffalo Nation. In the Lakota creation narrative, the people and the buffalo emerge together from the Black Hills with common ancestors who can now be traced as easily as one traces their biological family tree. In addition to these important aspects of Lakota life, the story teaches humility and the proper treatment of women, as well as providing an inexorable link between the Lakota, their ritual cycle, and the land that produced them both.
In a similar way, the Chumash tell of their movement to the mainland of what is now California from the Channel Islands via a rainbow bridge placed by Hutash, the earth and fertility goddess. Hutash wanted to move some of her people from the islands to the mainland, so she provided a bridge. There was only one caveat: do not look down as you cross. Some of the people did look down, and fell into the ocean below. Several of the beings from Chumash mythology asked Hutash to do something for the people, as they would surely die as a result of the mishap. So Hutash turned them into dolphins as they fell, and they safely lived out their lives in that form. Thus the Chumash see themselves as related to the dolphins that inhabit the waters off the coast, and also remember to heed the lesson learned and remain mindful of the rules set out by Hutash.
In a Haida tale (one with many variations), a child discovers a bit of mold on the fish he is about to eat and complains about it, ultimately refusing the fish entirely. The people warn him that if he continues to speak disrespectfully, the Fish People will see to it that he learns a difficult lesson. Sure enough, as the child is playing by the shore he is taken into the sea by the Salmon, who change him into one of their own. The story contains many vignettes about the boy's travels as a salmon, and he eventually returns to the shore from which he was abducted. His mother catches him and starts to prepare him for drying when she notices that the salmon has a small charm around his neck. The village priest is called, and he sees that the fish is her long-lost son. The woman is to lay the salmon on the roof of her house, and when it rains, the fish will be transformed back into her son. This does indeed come to pass, and the boy grows to become a powerful priest and healer in his own right. This multilayered tale contains lessons about respect and propriety, and also establishes traceable links between the human world and the other-than-human world. The boy who becomes a priest is invariably referred to by people as a relative, and this relative was himself a salmon, if only for a while.
The Ojibwe have a series of tales about the Thunderers, sometimes called the Thunder Birds or Thunder Beings, who continue to interact with the people. There are tales in historic times of the Thunderers coming to people's aid in dire circumstances. The Thunderers provide a connection between the people and their sacred history, as these powerful beings appear in stories of long, long ago as well. The Thunderers are seen by the Ojibwe as grandparents, powerful manitous who assist those humans who know enough to respect them. They bring rain, they signal changes in the seasons, and they speak to humans and protect them from the threats of Mishebeshu and his kin.
In one story, Nanabush creates the Thunderers in order to keep the people, whom he has made, from disappearing. The Thunderers are instructed to watch over the humans and to strike against Mishebeshu. To continue to interact with these beings in contemporary circumstances brings the Ojibwe mythic cycle deeper relevance. The stories are taken as a nexus of events, and when one person evokes the sacred narrative through a personal experience of an other-than-human nature, it validates the entire corpus. Such hero figures, often the focus of ethnographic or folkloric analyses of American Indian mythic narratives, also fall into the category of sacred history in that they are often the originators of specific families or clans. Many Native American communities are organized along clan lines, with the clans originating in mythic times.
Another common theme in the hero tales is that of human heroes who provide edification or resolve via their behavior, as in the Coeur d'Alene accounts of a boy who, in the face of intimidation by a camp bully or certain defeat at the hands of an enemy, uses his courage and tenacity to overcome his adversary. Such a tale is that of Four Smokes, which tells of a group of men who are surrounded by enemies while hunting in Crow country. A young boy is asked to divert the warriors away from the camp while the rest of his family escapes. Out of concern for his family, the young boy reluctantly agrees. At each of four enemy charges the young boy gives a war cry and, with bullets flying about him, runs to a nearby bush. On each occasion he makes it to safety, and the Crow warriors, convinced that the boy has special powers, retreat. That evening the elders give the young boy the name Four Smokes in honor of the four times the Crow rifles discharged gun smoke but failed to hit the boy. The modern weaponry of the Crow party proves that Four Smokes is a historic character; one who can be seen as a close relative of the contemporary Coeur d'Alene and an exemplar of familial fidelity and courage in the face of adversity.
Themes that make up American Indian sacred narrative are governed by several key factors. First is the logical working of the universe as each specific tribal culture sees it. The creation stories set the parameters of the possible and the necessary, giving the people a guide by which decisions can be made, relationships understood, and success measured. Second, the narratives emphasize the way the actual day-to-day world works, which is similar to the first concept, but different in scope.
Whereas each tribal tradition can be seen as a philosophical system, the stories about the earth and how it operates can be seen as a science of sorts, a method for working within the rules set out in the creation narratives that will bring about expected results while avoiding the pitfalls that occur when one does things incorrectly. Often, tribal traditions make it clear that things must be done in a good way, which generally translates into a protocol within which propriety can be maintained, needs met, and problems assuaged. Finally, these are histories, stories of the people—where they came from and where they are going. Actors in these tales are often beings that one could encounter at any time, and one does encounter them, thus providing the impetus to maintain these traditions in perpetuity.
Modernity, in many ways, is anti-traditional, favoring the new, the innovative, and the topical. Sacred histories allow traditional cultures to exist in the modern world and yet maintain their link to the past, keeping their stories of the before-time, powerful other-than-human beings, and plant, animal, and elemental relatives because they are old. Wisdom comes with age, and American Indian stories have the power to bring ancient wisdom to bear on current topics. Contemporary indigenous communities the world over remain faithful to their own stories and legacy, rather than the sometimes more popular myths of modernity.
Fiction, article on Native American Fiction and Religion; Lakota Religious Traditions; Poetry, article on Native American Poetry and Religion; Sedna; Tricksters, overview article and article on North American Tricksters.
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