Introduction to Native American Myth

One thing that I to do for all our readings is include an introduction to provide some background so that you can approach it a little easier.  This week’s group of readings encompasses a variety of old tales from a once thriving people inhabiting the American landscape.

When talking about myth we tend to immediately think of the gods and heroes from Ancient Greece.  It’s interesting that we sometimes forget that there is a rich tradition of myth right here in America thanks to the numerous Native American tribes that continue to keep these ancient traditions alive.  As we’ll see, myth isn’t just about gods and heroes.  It also serves functions of a more cultural, religious, and historical significance.  

One such function is to explain the origin of things. This is an approach called Etiology. There are many myths that fulfill this purpose. Some explain how the world was created, others discuss where humans come from. Some myths even try to explain why certain animals look the way they do or where certain practices and traditions come from. You’ll this approach in a few of our myths this week.

Myths also sometime feature common figures across many cultures.  One that is popular in Native American tradition is the Trickster figure.  This character has a mischievous nature that is coupled with extraordinary cunning and intelligence.  As a result, society often benefits from their actions.  But the Trickster also has a selfish side which sometimes causes havoc for society. In Native American myth, the most common trickster is Coyote but we also see shades in Squirrel, Rabbit, and Raven.

As you read consider the following prompts to better direct your understanding of the reading. If you choose to do an analysis, please choose one prompt to make the basis of your paper.

Note: Since there are several myths this week I recommend choosing only one or two myths to focus your observations around to avoid going too broad.

1.) Look at Coyote as an example of the Trickster figure. How do they fit aspects of this model? In what ways is their behavior deceitful or negatively impact society? In what ways are their actions beneficial to society?

2.) Look at one or two myths from an Etiological lens (Tales that explain the origin of things). Where do we see aspects of creation or explanations as to why things are the way they are? What significance, relevance, or values might these origins have for the culture telling these tales?

Lastly, have fun with these readings. They are meant to make you think a little differently than you might be used to. I’m looking forward to your reactions!

-Matt