Native American myths were passed down from one generation to another and were specific to regions or tribes. However, there are common themes that bridged the entire Indian population. Myths often centered around nature, such as plants or animals, and ordinary human beings. Tribes believed that nature and the creatures residing within it were divine, but also credited a supreme being -- often referred to as the Great Mystery -- for creation. Native American myths were designed to inspire, warn, challenge, entertain and educate listeners.
Some myths were designed to instruct young clan members on life lessons that older tribal leaders had either experienced or accepted as truth. Legends focused on themes such as love, friendship, marriage, family lineage, child raising, food preparation, hunting, bird migrations, celestial beings, spiritual events and life after death. The stories also explained the origins of life on Earth and the foundational beginnings of individual tribes. These important qualities helped unify each clan, so young and old members supported the same values, morals and beliefs.
Animal legends were a significant part of Native American literature and culture because tribal members believed animals had humanlike characteristics, including the ability to communicate with humans and help them in time of need. Depending on geographic location, tribes often had an affinity to a particular species, such as the coyote, buffalo, wolf, raven, deer, fox, bear or elephant. For example, the legend of the "Coyote and the Wishpoosh" tells of the coyote's craftiness in turning himself into a tree branch so the Wishpoosh, a giant beaver, would eat him. He then turned back into his original coyote form and killed the Wishpoosh with a knife from inside the beast, symbolizing the resourcefulness of the coyote.
Trickster myths helped educate clan members on human characteristics that made civilization possible, even though the traits weren't always appealing. A trickster was an ambiguous person or animal who represented the primitive, unrefined traits of mankind and often played games or tricks on others to prove valuable lessons. Some trickster myths told of journeys where natives or animals weaseled their way out of difficult situations or explored possible solutions by using cunning logic. For example, the Winnebago tribe had a legend about a native boy who outwitted the dormouse that was as big as a mountain and shrunk him down to his small mouse size using captured sunlight.
Balance in the Universe
Finding balance in the complex universe was an important quality in Native American myths. Native people desired to live in harmony with the Earth and wanted to establish personal connections with the water, land, sky and all life forms. They believed this intimate connection ensured their survival and provided a sustainable source of water, food, shelter and health. Mentors in the tribal villages often used legends to educate young leaders on rituals, academics, survival strategies, prosperity and spiritual goals of the clan.
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