When the first European explorers came first to the North American continent in the beginning of the 16th century they were coming on a land with an indigenous and varied population of over one million. These people had a large, diversified and rich culture, which expressed itself in legend, rituals, myths and symbolism.
The traditional Native American mythology and religion are intertwined. Their visible parts are ritual and symbol that show their main concerns: the creation of the earth and its people, the search for the favour of nature through contact with spirits, and the search for personal dignity and power. To this effect, objects such as the medicine pipe of the Blackfoot, animals and places were given symbolic meanings.
Environment is very important in the symbolism of native Americans as, for them, everything in the natural world has its own spirit and its own life. Clothes and artefacts are symbolically important as they have the qualities of the animals and materials from which they are made. The land too is alive with spirit and symbol: mountains and valleys, deserts and rivers have their sacred sites where the energy of the universe can be contacted and the health and prosperity of the tribe ensured.
The Native Americans believed that the world around them could be malevolent and violent. To ensure survival and prosperity, the Indians attempted to placate the many spirits inhabiting their universe. These could take the insubstantial form of nature and location or the more visible form of animals, each of which symbolised a range of qualities.
Native Americans always show gratitude for the bounty of the earth in their symbolism, legends and mythology. Animals, plant life and the earth are possessed of spirits and interact with the humans living in the same territory. This vision was more intense among the Plains Indians probably due to the configuration of their land (hills, valleys and great rivers full of while life with the great sky above, itself a symbol of the power of the universe).
The native Americans in general but especially those of the Plains had sacred high places in their territory, which played a significant part in the initiation rites of young men. After purification rituals in their village or encampment the young initiate had to go to a remote place, often a mountain top, to experience the rigours of the environment, to fast and to communicate with the spirits. This quest for visionary could be repeated later on in life especially for those who wanted to become shamans. Also in the community, special lodges were built using natural material in which spiritual purification could take place. An example would be a sweat lodge where initiates would sit around a fire pit in which stones were heated. Water was poured on the stones to produce vapour that was thought to help the communication with the spirits.
The most famous shaman or “medicine man” was Sitting Bull of the Teton Dakota. As a war leader he was thought to have god-like powers, especially after he joined with Crazy Horse to defeat General Custer at Little Bighorn in 1876. It was his murder in 1890 that led to the last battle of the Plains, the massacre of Wounded Knee. The shaman acquired power within a tribe by forming special relationships with groups of spirits, often animals.
i- Antlered beasts
The great antlered mammals, deer, caribou and elk, were considered especially spiritual and of great symbolic significance. In Northwestern California, the White Deerskin Dance, which may last up to two weeks, celebrated the renewal of the world. Among the warriors of the Plains the male elk symbolised all that was wanted in a young man: beauty, great strength and an ability to call female women to him at will. This explains the animal’s association with courtship ritual among the Sioux. In the North, the Inuit of the Arctic was revered as the principal source of meat.
ii- Aquatic creatures
Water and the creatures living in it are part of many ancient Creation Myths. In the Southeast it was believed that that Water Beetles drained the primeval mud to create the earth while Water Spiders brought fire. The Dakota, an inland tribe, feared the monsters of the deep believed to be the enemies of the Thunderbird. The coastal people of the Northwest had the most complex and elaborate symbolism based on marine life. The killer-whale was adored by the Tlingit and Haida who believed that the drowned became killer-whales.
Most animals of North America had a symbolic meaning to the tribes. Many of them, and especially the bear, were seen as close to man, offering help and substance. Some Californian tribes, for instance, thought that bears were so close to them that they would not eat their meat. However they would use their skins to make clothing which would confer the bear characteristics on the wearers. The Northwest coast tribes offered prayers to the bear before hunting them. After killing a bear, the head and skin would then be formally exposed.
iv- Birth of the people (The)
Two symbolic beasts appear in the story of the creation of native Americans: the coyote and the turtle. The coyote is generally linked with the figure of the Old Man seen as the prime mover in the process of bringing the earth into being. Another story speaks of an animal diving into the primordial waters to bring the mud to make the earth.
The massive destruction of the buffalo herds by the white settlers inflicted great hardship on the Plains Indians. To the people of the Plains the buffalo was a symbol of beneficence. Buffalo had provided them with meat, clothing and shelter since they arrived on the North American continent. Even before horses became available, annual and semi-annual hunts took place in which men, women and children of the tribe were involved driving the herd in a compound or over a cliff.
Dance is probably the ultimate expression of symbolism among the native Americans. It celebrates the beneficence of nature in animal dances. It ensures the cohesion of the community in its re-enactment of the deeds of the ancestors. It assures the success of the hunt for the nomads and a good harvest for the farmers. Often the dancers wore symbolic head-dresses, the human being impersonating and imploring the forces of nature.
Among the Apache and Navajo of the Southwest there was a myth that the Earth Mother had two twin sons who were part of the continuous process of creating land and people. This myth is similar to the Maya legend of the Hero Twins. The Diegueño of South California believed that the two brothers emerged from the primordial salt sea, then created land, followed by the Moon and the Sun, and finally by man and woman.
viii- Eagle and hawk
The carved eagle on top of a mortuary pole of the Northwest Haida is a testimony to the symbolic power of these big birds in the Indian culture. The Hopi, to the South, believed in an eagle heaven where the birds went to breed before returning to earth. The plains Sioux attached eagle and hawk feathers to their war head-dresses hoping, in this way, to share in the ferocious attacking power of these birds. Other tribes associated eagle and hawk with the powerful Thunderbird. Cherokee feather capes conferred the power of the bird to the wearer, associating him, in some way, with Tlanawa, the Great Bird.
The place of emergence of a tribe is always central to its mythology. For the Hopi of the Southwest it is the floor of the Grand Canyon, to which their ancestors would return after death and where they would communicate with their Creator. The Navajo have a similar emergence myth whose celebration is part of the Blessingway ceremony.
The horse was a late comer to the Plains culture but it became one of the great iconic beasts of this most powerful tribe of the central part of the continent. With its arrival, village farmers became not only buffalo hunter nomads but also warriors who had won the battle of Little Bighorn in 1876. Horses were introduced first by the Spanish missions in the Southwest. It was first used by the people of the Great Basin and the Plateau and was also integrated in the religious symbolism of many tribes including the Nez Percé.
xi- Little people and immortals
Some tribes of the Southeast, such as the Cherokee and the Choctaw, were forced to resettle in Oklahoma in the 1830s. The journey on what is known as “The Trail of Tears” was terrible. The legend tells us that many tribe members were rescued in the wilderness by benevolent spirits, the Little People, who provided them with food and clothing. Other benevolent spirits known as the “Nunnchi”, the Immortals who live in lakes and rocks, tried in vain to put the tribe out of reach of the white man.
xii- Medicine bundle
To acquire the power and strength from the animal world, ability to communicate with their souls was not enough. Their qualities could also be passed on through their skins, feathers or even their whole body. The skin or carcass of an animal or bird would then be wrapped in cloth and the bundle was suspended by straps during the ritual. The Crow believed in the virtues of eagle bundles while the Blackfoot preferred the beaver.
xiii- Medicine man
In all tribes the main task of the shaman was to look to the health of the tribe. He had to interpret the symbolism and the meaning of the world around (to improve crop, predict the weather and act as a fortune-teller) and, in addition, he also was the local doctor. The main activities of the Navajo shaman consisted to the relief of individual illness and pain.
xiv- Mother earth and father sky
Many myths and legends refer to a primary deity: the Creator of the people of the Northwest Coast, The Father Sun of the Plateau Nez Percé, and the Old man or First Worker of the Plains Crow. There is often interaction between heaven and the earth, the male principal being associated with the sun and the female with the earth and its produce. For instance, the Apache goddess Usen, has the power to repopulate the world after a disaster. In Navajo painting and weaving, Father Sky is associated with the sun and other heavenly bodies, while mother Earth is shown with the produce of the earth.
xv- Mountains (holly)
Most Native Americans regarded the whole land as a living being with all exceptional features such as mountains as concentrations of spiritual power. For the Blackfoot in Montana, Chief Mountain owned its location to the Old man, the first creative force, who created it to show his power to the Great Spirit. The Cayuse in Oregon believed that Mount Hood was the place of origin of fire.
Tribes explain their history and that of the world in general with myth and legend. One of the best rituals was the O-kee-pa ceremony of the Mandans, which told of the creation of the world, of its people and, above all, the forging of the character of the Mandan tribe. The process of creating the tribe was symbolised by suspending young volunteer members of the tribe some feet from the ground by means of splints passed through the chest or back.
xvii- Raven (trickster)
The raven, known also as the Trickster, was also involved in the Creation according to the Northwest Coast tribes. The raven was a secondary creator, bringing the sun, moon, stars and other forces into being. The name of Trickster came from his role as a joker stealing food and sex. A raven tried to cheat an immortal man called Petrel who then chased him up a tree and then lit a fire beneath it. The raven’s feathers turned black and remained like this ever since.
xviii- Sand painting
Sand-painting is a form of spirit attraction used commonly by the nations of the Southwest especially the Navajos. Their main craft were, and still are, weaving and sand-paintings. These painting are traditionally made on the floor of the hogan, using sand and charcoal as the main materials. The subjects depicted are the spirits whose powers are to be invoked.
xix- Sea (the)
Whereas the legends of the Plains peoples deal often with their land, the coastal tribes many myths and symbols linked to the sea. Non-coastal people also had stories related to underwater monsters. For the Tlingit, Tsimshian and Haida the main monster is a benevolent one, which brings prosperity. His claws and teeth are made of copper, the local symbol of wealth. The sea itself is associated with bounty, which comes from “the Great Chief Under the Water”, a supernatural being known as the Copper maker.
xx- Serpents and snakes
The Serpent Mount on an Ohio hilltop is an extraordinary site: a half-kilometre earthwork in the form of a serpent with a hemispherical mound in its jaws. The greatness of the work shows the symbolic importance of the primeval Great Serpent to the Native Americans. To the Cherokee and other Southwest tribes it was known as Uktena, malevolent but also the bearer of a crystal which brought prosperity after his death at the hands of a shaman.
xxi- Soul catcher
The shaman used many devices, possibly carried in a chest, to ensure the health of the individual and of the tribe. To the Plains Lakota, communal pipe-smoking was used as a search for peace and as a tool to reach and seal agreements. In curing the sick, the most important tool of the shaman was the soul-catcher used to restore the soul to the body of the sick person. It was widely believed that illness was caused by the escape of the patient soul who could only be cured by its return.
xxii- Special place
The native Americans, even the nomadic tribes, built special shelters and lodges, often surrounded by elaborate totems, where feasts, dances and shamanistic rituals were celebrated. For instance, around Lake Winnipeg there were many sacred sites associated with the Great Medicine Society concerned with the curative function of the shaman. Another such ceremonial lodge is the circle of boulders on Medicine Mountain in Wyoming, a “medicine wheel” which is probably the remains of a Sun Dance Lodge.
xxiii- Spirits of nature
Every aspect of the external world, animate and inanimate, is associated with spirit. The mythologies of the Southern tribes, such as the Zuni and Hopi, tell of spirits of natural phenomena who regulate fertility, rainfall and maintain order in the universe. They are celebrated by dances that are, at the same time, a thanksgiving and a plea for health and plenty in the future. All the tribes celebrated the spiritual forces at work in the nature; some of them could be malevolent, causing storms and disasters while shamans would use the benevolent ones to bolster their magical power.
xxiv- Stars above (The)
Sky-powers are important in these myths and especially the Morning Star and the Evening Star. The Pawnee brought cosmology to Great Plains culture using buckskin charts of the heavens in divination and the foretelling of the future. The Pawnee practised human sacrifice until 1878 to symbolise the overcoming of the Evening Star by the Morning Star. A young girl of the tribe, representing the Evening Star, would be killed by an arrow through the heart, leaving the heavens to the rule of the Morning Star.
xxv- Sun dance
The self-torture of the Mandan O-kee-pa is found again in the Sun Dance of other Plains tribes. Here young men are harpooned by skewers through skin and muscle and hoisted above the ground. This was an act of bravery and suffering in recognition of the sun’s beneficence. This dance was traditionally performed in June when the sun is highest and the day longest. The dance was a mean of thanking the sun for its protection in the past and requesting that this should continue long in the future.
Thunder has always been accorded great symbolic importance, second only to the original creative impulse. It was usually represented by a large bird although the Northern Paiute see it as a Thunder Badger with the power to cause thunder, lightning and rain. The great supernatural power of the Thunderbird was sometimes represented by two big horns, which come out of its head. Its territory was usually some mountain stronghold in the territory of a given tribe.
The Chilcotin saw Thunder as a powerful celestial chief who had three daughters whom all earthly young men wanted. When anyone asked to marry one of the daughters, Thunder would trick him to enter a bear’s den and be killed.
xxvii- Tree and Totem
At the centre of every Plains village was an open space reserved for ceremonial and ritual dance. At the centre was a sacred cedar post or totem symbolising the First Man and the ancestors of the tribe. These totems were thought to inspire great spiritual strength. For instance, the founding of the league of the five Iroquois nations was symbolised by the carving of a great Tree of Peace, a totem placed in the territory of the Onondaga as a focal meeting point. Some Northwest tribes represented the Tree of Peace as growing out of the back of the Creator-Turtle and linking all levels of the universe as an Axis Mundi.
xxviii- Water falls
Mountains and high places were thought to help concentration of spiritual power. Some tribes relied also on other physical phenomena. Niagara Falls, for instance, symbolised the victory of good over evil for the Iroquois of the Northeast. The falls were believed to have been created after the defeat by Thunderbird of a monster water snake, which had brought permanent sickness to a Seneca village. After its death its body remained on the waterbed of the Niagara River obliging the water to pour over it in a big cascade.
The wolf, a ruthless hunter, had also a symbolic value to the Plains tribes. For the Blackfoot it was associated with the Creation and the original Old Man who used a wolf to produce the configuration of the earth surface. In all the places the animal stopped on the primeval mud, a valley appeared while mountains and plains appeared anywhere else. On the Northwest coast, the winter ritual of Klookwana, an induction ceremony, was supposed to be conducted by supernatural wolves.