The Birth of a World
Native American Stories of Creation
Terri J. Andrews
The night was bitterly cold and quiet. Children, enthralled with the intense excitement of the evening, watched as other members of the community slowly shuffled into the dwelling with gifts for the narrator, the keeper of all tales and stories. The rhythmic chanting and quiet pounding of drums invades the silence as the elderly storyteller began the evening by carefully smoothing the ground, drawing images onto the sand; images that will help to unfold and explain the story more clearly. The audience, encouraged to participate vocally and physically, listened closely to the ancient Native American tales of how the world came to be. As the fire swells and the crowds anticipation grows, the story of the Cherokee people may have gone like this:
Long ago, before there were any 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 lived in a home above the rainbow. Needing space, they sent the Water Beetle to search for room under the seas. The Water Beetle dove under the water and brought up mud that grew and spread quickly, turning into land that was flat and too soft and wet for the animals to live on.
Grandfather Buzzard was sent to see if the land had hardened. When he flew over the Earth he found the mud had become solid and he flew in for a closer look. The wind from his wings created valleys and mountains as he flew over the land, and that is why the Cherokee territory has so many mountains today.
As the Earth stiffened and the animals came down from the rainbow. It was still dark. They needed the light from the sun, so they pulled the sun out from behind the rainbow, but is 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 the sun 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. Only a few animals did not fall asleep, 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 the 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. The reproduced quickly and the Creator feared the world would run out of room and become overpopulated. So it was made that women could only have one child per year and it has been that way ever since.
To Each, His Own
Throughout the history of man, a common thread has been sewn into each civilization. Human beings have needed and conceived theories that explained the origin of their world, their people and their belief system. Stories of how each culture came into creation generally included a person or group of persons who brought forth the Earth and then laid out a foundation of how the people were to live and worship - therefore integrating religion and philosophy into nearly all principals of conjecture.
Much like the creation stories of today - which may stem from Christianity and theories of evolution - Native American Indians also based their belief system on a the premises of a Creator, an event in time when the Earth began and then a series of elaborate tales that served as guidelines for how that particular culture was to interact with each other as well as with their divine Creator. Unable to have such stories recorded into a book or a movie, selected members of the Native American Indian communities became honored Storytellers who relied, for the most part, on the strength of their own memories to recall the legends and myths, and also the traditional teachings of their people. These sacred teller-of-tales, in a sense, became a walking collection of literature including poetry, songs, stories and prose whose proverbial truths were to be passed on from one generation to the next.
Unfortunately, many people today dismiss the Natives theories as just myths or unsophisticated deductions from and unsophisticated time. In reality, these same tales were just as elaborate and believable as the stories in todayís history and religious books. As with the fundamentals of Christianity , which includes a creator, intricate stories of people and places and then guidelines to follow - both cultures involved myths, heroes, spiritual guides, rituals and ceremonies, a collection of beliefs and a story of origin, as well as an end. When comparing theology throughout time, it is easy to note the similarities between the two cultures. Here, I have broken down two Creation stories, one is an ancient Native American tale and the other is a common-day Christian tale. When both are retold in a standard, simple and flatly stated style - it is easier to note the common thread that weaves between the two.
"The Christians believe that one all-powerful male God created the Earth and all those upon it. That this man was divided into three parts - the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. This God had a son, born from a virgin who he had impregnated. The son, Jesus Christ, was a great hero and teacher to the people.
God created all life including the first Man and then a woman was created from the body of that man. After the Earth became populated, He set forth rules to follow and when they were disobeyed, he flooded the Earth leaving only a pair of each animals and a handful of people to repopulate the world. Such Christians believe that if you follow all the rules of this God, you will live with him upon your death."
"The Mojave believe that long ago, people lived underground. When the food diminished, they sent a hummingbird to the upper-world to search for more. There the bird found much food and the people climbed out of the ground and moved into this new world. One day, water rose from the underworld to the upper-world and was flooding the canyons, the hills and the mountains. The people chose a beautiful woman and laid her into a hollow tree, which was used as a boat. They placed food for her to eat until the water receded. Finally, the land began to reappear and she was the only person left on Earth. Before the sun rose, she went to a mountain top and laid until the sun warmed her. She then became pregnant with a daughter. The daughter later returned to the same spot and gave birth to a son. This is how the worlds people began."
When told in such a text-book style, both parables do not properly represent the sophisticated theology of an intelligent and higher civilization, yet we know the cultural and significant impact that such Creation theories has on each culture. This point is made to show you the power behind each cultural origin as well as the depth of each Creation Story. They are and were intricate, symbolic belief systems that carried just as much power and influence in THEIR time as our belief system carries in ours, today.
The basic premises of Native American creation mythology is intertwined with the natural world and frequently includes animals who act as Creators, messengers, protectors, guardians and advisors. They were often thought to possess human qualities and had the ability to speak, think, see, understand and act like humans. Animals such as the coyote, bear, raven, spider and turtle were often found in Native stories that recount the origin of a tribe, and were held as spiritual guides or important players in the communities daily existence. Here is one version of an earth-making myth of the Eskimo who live in an area of the Arctic region of North America:
"In the beginning a Raven was born out of the darkness. Weak, unknowing of himself or his purpose, he set out to learn more about the area that he was walking upon. He felt trees, plants and grass. He thought about such things and soon realized that he was the Raven Father, Creator of All Life. He gathered strength and flew out of the darkness and he found new land, called Earth. The Raven wanted living things to be on the Earth, so he made plants. One day, the Raven was flying overhead and saw a giant peapod, and out came a man who was the first Eskimo. Father Raven fed the man, creating caribou and musk-ox for him to eat. Father Raven did this for many days, all the while teaching the man to respect the fellow animal creatures. A woman was soon created for the man and the Raven taught the pair to make clothing, to build homes and to make a canoe. The two became parents. Other men came from the peapods and the Raven fed and taught them too. When they were ready, the Raven made women for these men and they, too, became parents. Soon the Earth had many children."
Another origin story that also included the Raven was that of the Haida tribe, whose homeland are located in present day British Columbia. To the Haida, the Raven is the Bringer of Light into the World and this is one version of their tale:
" One day, long ago, the Raven was on a desolate beach. Alone, he needed company and came upon a half open clamshell. When he examined the shell, he saw tiny people inside. The people were shy, and slowly peeked their heads from the shell. "Come out! Come out!" called the Raven. The tiny beings opened the shells and climbed onto the sandy Earth. These were the first Haida."
Among all the animals that appear in the Creation stories, non appear more than the coyote. His wisdom, skills and keenness was admired by many tribes and his ability to survive in times of peril were traits the people wanted within themselves. The coyote is represented in the Crow tale as a wise, elderly man who respected his friends as well as the Earth.
" In the beginning, Old Man Coyote stood alone with water surrounding him. Two ducks swam by him and the Coyote asked if they had seen anyone else on the water, and the ducks said that they did not, but they thought that something may exist under the water. Coyote asked if they would travel under the water for him, and to report on what they saw. The ducks did as they were asked, finding nothing. He asked again, and the duck returned with a root. On the third try, the duck had found mud and the Coyote was happy. He told the ducks that they could build and island from the mud, 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 the did not like the Earthís emptiness, so the Coyote created plants.. grass, trees, and such out of the roots that came from the water. The Coyote and ducks loved the Earth but it was flat and they wanted rivers, valleys, mountains and lakes. So it was done. Soon the Coyote and the Ducks made a perfect Earth, but they grew lonely, having only the three to sit and enjoy the land. So the 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 female women and ducks to populate the Earth. One day Old Man Coyote traveled upon his land and was surprised to find another Coyote. He asked where he came from, and the younger brother, named Shirape, said he was unsure of his origin, he only knew he existed. The two traveled the land and Shirape wanted the Old Man Coyote to make other animals, for only ducks, humans and the two Coyotes were created. The elder Coyote agreed and as he spoke the new animals names, they were created. He said "Elk" and an elk appeared. He said "bear" and a bear appeared. This is how is was until all animals were created."
Aside from the Crow story, the Coyote was generally portrayed as a sly, keen trickster who used his bizarre and comic behavior to teach lessons and to add humor into the tribal life. Otherwise called a Heyoka, or clown, the Coyote is blamed in many stories for what is unexplainable. It is said the Coyote caused the various colors of the worlds people and that he once got his head stuck in a buffalo skull while trying to enjoy a dance performed by flies. He represents challenges, lessons, healing through irrelevance and accepting contrary situations. When he is part of a Creation story, or any other form of mythological tale, it is most certain that a moral or surprise will be present. An example of a mythological Coyote tale is that of the Nez Perce people who lived in Idaho, Washington, and Oregon areas. They race their ancestry back to the tricky Coyote. Below is their story:
"A long, long time ago, people did not inhabit the earth yet. A monster walked upon the land, eating all of the animals - expect the Coyote. The Coyote was angry that his friends were gone and climbed the tallest mountain, attached himself to the top and called upon the monster, challenging him to try to eat him. The monster sucked in the air, hoping to pull in the Coyote with his powerful breath, but the ropes were too strong. The monster tried many other ways to blow the Coyote off of the mountain, but it was no use. The monster realized the Coyote was sly and clever. He thought of a new plan, he would befriend the Coyote and invite him to stay with him in his home. Days before the stay was to happen, the Coyote said that he, too, wanted to visit his friends and asked if he could go into the monsters stomach to see them. The monster allowed it and the Coyote cut out the monsters heart and set fire to his insides, and his friends were freed. It was then decided that the Coyote would make a new animal. He flung pieces of the dead monster into the four directions and wherever the pieces landed, a new tribe of Indians emerged. He ran out of body parts before he could create a new human animal on the site where the monster had laid. He used the monsters blood, that was still on his hands, to create the Nez Perce tribe, who would be strong and good."
According to the lore of numerous tribes, animals walked the Earth prior to man. They helped to shape, teach, feed and spiritually save the people who later walked 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. Many Native Americans believed in the special medicine, or power, that each animal held. They were often times given the highest respect that could be bestowed on a spirit - they were given the role of "Creator", And when an individual or tribe needed assistance, it was their knowledge, power and sprit that was being called upon. To this day, animals are still considered sacred to the Native American peoples and are called upon in times of need.
Heroes, Legends and Supernatural Beings
Native American genesis often times included humanized beings that acted as deities of the sky, the earth, the water and the sun. Mother Earth, Father Sky and the Earthmaker are examples of such supernatural primal legends. This is a reoccurring theme within many tribes. An example of this is from the Navajo, or Dineí people, who live on the largest reservation in North America, located in northeastern Arizona and northeastern New Mexico:
First Man and First Woman were to bring light to the world. They created a sun from a large turquoise disk and made the moon from a piece of rock crystal. As the light began to show upon the Earth, they saw an infant laying in a cradleboard with rainbows and sunrays. The Holy People, who are friendly spirits, helped to raise the child on pollen and dew. She grew to be Changing Woman, the Creator of all Navajo and the most beautiful woman that ever lived. She created the people from cornmeal and pieces of her own skin. She later had two sons who would grow to be monster killers, ridding the Earth of those who were bad and making the world safe for all animals and creatures. Then, all who lived on the Earth could live together in peace and harmony."
Another recurring pattern within these narratives is the telling oftales that involve Super Human Beings who had the ability to bring forth life. One of the most well know of these legendary heroes is that of the Sky Woman, or Ataentsic. She is of the Iroquoians origin traditional tale, and it is told something like this:
"Many many times ago, the Celestial Tree of Light had fallen, leaving a hole in the sky. Sky Woman fell through the sky, falling.. falling.. into the waters below. As she fell, geese caught her with their wings, breaking the fall. The Great Turtle saw what was happening and, with the help of the other water animals, mostly the muskrat, began to dive into the water, bringing up mud and dirt to create land for Sky Woman to settle upon. The muskrat placed the mud onto the turtles back and soon the soil expanded into an island. The geese placed Sky Woman upon the island and so the Earth came to be. And from Sky Woman, this is how the worlds people began."
And the Tales Continue
As with any other culture in the world today, the Native American Indians of North America keep the Creation Stories fresh in the minds of their people. Now, with the help of books, movies and the restaging of the antiquated ceremonies, the tales can be told and retold to new generations of Natives and non-Natives who yearn to know of the richness and diversity of another cultures beliefs and theology. These tales are as important today, as they were yesterday and through their words and poetry, the understanding of a people who walked upon this continent for thousands of years is understood and preserved. By retelling these ancient stories and sharing itís unique theories of how the world and itís people came to be, you are weaving yourself into the tapestry of a colorful and elaborate culture that still prevails today.