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Myth / Native American Mythology

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"I'm a culture hero. We're like gods, except we screw up a lot more and nobody worships us."
Whiskey Jack, American Gods

General information on various Native American mythologies and oral tradition. It should be noted that, because there are multiple distinct Native American cultures that are not inherently more related to one another than any two European or Asian cultures, "Native American mythology" covers a very wide range of distinct myth system that often differ significantly from one another, but they're grouped together here for convenience.

Writers who are thinking of incorporating these myths into their works should be aware that some Native Americans feel that a form of "cultural copyright" exists on their traditional stories, and may object to them being used by someone from outside their tribe or culture, especially if those stories are still part of a sacred tradition. Also, as noted above, these are a wide range of cultures, so please think twice before you have a Comanche talk about the Wendigo.note 

See also these sub-pages for specific cultures:

Related to these is Siberian Mythology, with thousands of years worth of cross pollination across the Bering Strait.

If you are familiar with specific mythology besides those six, then feel free to create a page for it.

See Pre-Columbian Civilizations.

For the Hollywood History version, see Magical Native American and Mayincatec.

Tropes commonly associated with Native mythologies include:

  • Animorphism: Iktomi appears in the form of a spider.
  • Badass Native: At least one per mythology. Of course, considering the cultures in question, this is People Sit on Chairs.
  • Bigfoot, Sasquatch, and Yeti: Many tribes have stories about hairy bipedal creatures, especially in the Northwest. The extent that these stories influenced modern Bigfoot lore is open to debate.
  • Bird vs. Serpent: In many tribes of the Midwest and Pacific Northwest, there is a recurring myth Thunderbirds fighting against aggressive giant serpents or serpentine monsters from the ocean or within the earth or in sea. Although in the latter, it's often not actually sea serpents or reptiles, but whales.
  • Body Horror: What happened to Stone Boy's uncles. Also the Sun Dance seemed like this to many non-Native Americans, although it's really a celebration of thanksgiving and personal sacrifice, closer to a Passion Play. Ptesanwin also has an ah, "interesting" punishment for rapists.
  • Cain and Abel: Waziyata and Okaga in Lakota myth. At least when Wohpe is involved. This happens once a year. You call it "winter".
  • Continuity Snarl: No tribe's mythology has an established canon.
  • Clever Crows: Ravens are The Trickster. Raven-as-individual is sometimes associated as a sort of region-specific equivalent to Coyote in the Pacific Northwest.
  • Creation Myth: Done to hilarious extremes, in that many cultures have multiple creation myths.
  • Crossover Cosmology:
    • In general, centuries of trade and intermingling resulted in many tribes adopting beliefs and practices to their own system. Tracing this can be very difficult due to lack of written records. They also did this with Christianity, much to the dismay of the missionaries (who wanted them to fully embrace Christianity and abandon their old ways).
    • The Puebloan peoples follow the Kachina sect, which is known for heavy syncretism. (This has made it easier for Pueblo clowns, like the koshare, to satirize not only Native life, but Western culture, politics, and religion.) Many followers are also practicing Catholics, and Saints' feast days are incorporated into their religious calendar. There are also signs of influence from the Aztecs (whom they traded with). The Hopi god Pahana is a feathered serpent who is almost certainly a localized Quetzalcuatlnote ; some academics have proposed the entire Kachina movement was imported from Mexico, but that is heavily debated.
  • Deal with the Devil: Uncegila, Uncegila, Uncegila. For those not familiar, Uncegila is a sea monster whose look can kill. Initially, the victim is blinded. A day later, he goes mad. Two days later, he's foaming at the mouth. A day after that, he dies, and his whole family dies. Two orphan brothers, one of whom was blind, killed Uncegila using special arrows that never missed. After that, they were instructed to not listen to it for its first three requests and then do whatever it said from then on. In doing so, they would get whatever they asked. Every day, it came up with more complicated ceremonies, though, and life became boring, getting whatever they wanted, so they stopped listening to it, and it exploded.
  • Depraved Bisexual: Iktomi. Oddly, his most depraved behavior is with women.
  • Depraved Dwarf: The Delaware and Wampanaug tribes tell stories of pukwudgies, a tribe of little men who bear animosity towards humans and will trick, torment, or even threaten the lives of people who earn their wrath.
  • Did We Just Have Tea with Cthulhu?: Winkte (with the double woman) and heyoka (with the Wakinyan) do this in their visions.
  • Did You Just Flip Off Cthulhu?: Since plains warriors have a habit of announcing their deeds, they tend to do this when fighting monsters too.
  • Did You Just Romance Cthulhu?: Some of the Lakota stories get into this range of mortals having relationships with gods. The made-for-TV movie Dreamkeeper's version of the story of Uncegila plays it straight: Uncegila is implied to be the young woman who is also the old woman.
  • Do Not Taunt Cthulhu: Averted: Iktomi manages to trick Iya, the eater of everything, into eating him, and then cuts him open and frees everyone.
  • Eldritch Abomination: Uncegila. Also, the wakinyan, who have no eyes but their eyes shoot lightning; no legs but sharp talons; and no beak but their call is thunder. Seeing a wakinyan is enough to make one always do things backward.
  • Elemental Rock-Paper-Scissors: Unktehi (water) vs. Wakinyan (lightning). Let's see which one wins.
  • The End of the World as We Know It: Ghost Dance.note 
  • Evil Is Deathly Cold: Uncegila. To a much lesser extent, Waziyata, the north wind.
  • Fetch Quest: In an Always Male example: Kill a bunch of animals. Your female relatives use their skins to make clothing to give away as a bride price or at a party.
  • Fire, Ice, Lightning: Lakota ideas about the four directions associate the west with lightning, north with ice, east with nothing, and south with fire.
  • The Force: Wakan as life energy which one can manipulate. Power to manipulate it is In the Blood.
  • Four Is Death: Taken literally by several plains tribes, who divide life into childhood, adulthood, senescence, and the afterlife.
    • Four is the most sacred number in many American cultures; for this reason, prayers may be repeated four times, or offered to the four directions.
    • Furthermore, it's common for heroes in Native stories to face four different challenges or enemies — for example, the four enemies that the Diné Hero Twins decided to spare, believing that the world was better with them in it. This story, interestingly, ends with an instance of Don't Fear the Reaper, so it circles back around into an example of Four Is Death.
  • Full-Frontal Assault: Atanarjuat, running from Oki.
  • Gag Penis: Coyote detaches his. In some versions, he borrows someone else's.
  • Genius Loci: Constantly. Many areas are sacred or taboo because of such.
  • God of Fire: In Navajo myth, Black God (Haashchʼééshzhiní) is a fire deity who was the first being to learn how to generate fire and invented the fire drill.
  • Go Mad from the Revelation: In more modern stories, people with the power to see the future tend to see Anglo contact and do this.
  • The Great Flood: Shows up a lot in Algonquian cultures (seriously, a lot), but also in the Hopi conception of the Fourth World, the Quechua's explanation for the disappearance of earlier empires, etc.
  • Healing Serpent: The Muscogee traditions state that the horns of a Horned Serpent could be used for medicine.
  • Hijacked by Jesus: To use a Lakota example, Wakinyan (thunder) became angels, Wohpe became the Virgin Mary, and the Pipe became Jesus. Many Native Americans follow a mixture of tradition, Christianity, the peyote ceremony (largely Christian-based), and the Ghost Dance (which has Mormon influences).note 
  • I Have Many Names: Just using Lakota examples, Wohpe or Ptsanwin? Skan or Taku Skanskan?
  • Illegal Religion: Almost all Native faiths have experienced persecution and suppression from colonial and later authorities. However this didn't stop most tribes from practicing underground. Native Americans didn't even enjoy full freedom of religion until the American Indian Religious Freedom Act was signed by President Carter in 1978.
  • I'm a Humanitarian: A common trait of monsters in Native religion, often to reinforce taboos against cannibalism (that is, in cultures where it was taboo). The Wendigo is the most familiar example to Anglo audiences, but there's also:
  • Magic Pants: According to the Ghost Dance, when the world ends, all the Native Americans will grow really tall, preparing for the flood. After the Apocalypse, the survivors will shrink down to normal size, and, free of shame, remove their clothes.
  • Magical Queer: Winkte. Subverted because they can't have sex with each other, just with heterosexuals, who, oddly enough, can have sex with the same gender.
  • Mons: In one Lakota story, Ksa (the Lakota god of wisdom) uses a porcupine as one while Gnas (a trickster) uses a skunk. The skunk's smell is super effective! against the porcupine. Ksa loses and becomes Iktomi.
  • Noble Bird of Prey: Thunder is anthropomorphized into a bird.
  • Noble Wolf: The wolf is usually portrayed more positively than in Western mythology. See for example Coyote.
  • No Swastikas: The Hopi and Navajo don't use the swastika anymore.
  • Numerological Motif: The number four shows up a lot.
  • Odd Job Gods: And many of them, especially in Pueblo cultures
  • Our Monsters Are Weird: Iktomi is sometimes a man, sometimes a spider. Uncegila is a giant water creature who, by revealing its seventh spot, guarantees the death of not only the viewer, but his whole family.
  • Parental Incest: In Lakota mythology, Unk (contention) and Iya (the all consuming-one). They make many monsters together.
  • Public Domain Artifact: Many, but primarily the sacred buffalo calf pipe, seven arrows, ghost shirts, dream catchers, and medicine wheels. Expect a lot of New Age appropriation of these. Real natives are not pleased.
    • If you want native-crafted items that are okay for Anglos to have, go to a trading post or find a trading post website. You can also buy supplies and instructions for making your own baskets, jewelry, clothing, etc. This way you're supporting the makers and their families.
  • Sea Monster: Unktehi, who is described as a snake with legs that can puff himself up to cause the rivers to overflow.
  • Single-Gender Race: The Piegan provide one for each gender.
  • Sixth Ranger Traitor: A common trope on the plains, due to the emphasis on male solidarity. An aside, in a Five-Token Band, you can expect that if there is an Indian, he'll be the Sixth Ranger or this.
  • Sixth Ranger: Up, down, and the center are often considered ancillary directions in addition to the usual four. In Lakota tradition, for instance, the four directions are the sons of the wind god. His wife cheated on him with the sun and bore him a son. This son, the whirlwind and god of love, was raised by the wind god's youngest son, the south wind, and as punishment, the boy's parents cannot see him.
  • Skinwalker: Common in several Native American myths, kind of like the Wendigo.
  • Stellification: According to Kiowa and Lakota legends, the Pleiades were formed when a group of young girls were chased by some giant bears. Fearing for their lives, the girls climb onto a rock and pray to the Great Spirit to save them. The Great Spirit hears them, and causes the rock to rise up to the sky. When it reaches the sky, the girls become the stars of the constellation. (Incidentally, the rock is still there. Most know it as "Devil's Tower". The striations on its sides are from the claw marks that the bears left as they tried to climb up to get at the girls.)
  • The Stormbringer: Some versions of Native American mythology hold that the thunderbird actively creates storms as it flies. The flashing of its eyes makes lightning and the beating of its giant wings causes thunder.
  • Theme Table: In some mythologies, there are many things which there is one of corresponding to each compass direction — for example, in Navajo mythology each direction is linked to (among other things) a colour, a type of corn, a type of rain, a type of animal, and one of the underworlds the Navajos passed through in Diné Bahaneʼ, the creation myth, while in Aztec mythology each direction has (among other things) a corresponding god, a corresponding colour and a corresponding age of the universe with a sin and a catastrophe which ended it.
  • These Are Things Man Was Not Meant to Know: In real life, this concept comes up a lot in Native religions — usually along the lines of "things only members of a tribe are meant to know," "only adult men," "only adult women," "only initiates into a particular society," etc. (This worldview predates the Illegal Religion issue of the 19th and 20th centuries, but was definitely reinforced by those experiences.) It is often Serious Business, even for younger or relatively "modern" people, and if you are ever talking with a Native person and stumble upon a topic that they're uncomfortable discussing, the respectful thing to do is to drop it right there.
    • Never, never discuss the subject of skinwalkers with a Diné/Navajo. Ditto with wendigos and Algonquian peoples. Becoming one entails (and requires) crossing the Moral Event Horizon, and even if they know you don't mean any harm, the topic is a very unpleasant one. For comparison, imagine casually discussing Hollywood Satanism in lurid detail around devout Christians.
  • Thunderbird: Several Native American/First Canadian mythologies form the origin for the thunderbird. The popular artistic design with squared-off wings comes from Pacific Northwestern peoples like the Haida and Kwakiutl.
  • Trickster God: Kokopelli's family-friendly picture is the trope image. His wanted poster reads: Charges: despoiling maidens, seducing wives, and gambling. Sometimes travels with horny woman, who calls herself Kokopelli-mana. May have been involved in the bankruptcy of Pueblo Bonito in the 13th century. He has a very big... flute which is always prominently depicted in traditional artwork.
  • The Vamp: Some versions of Kokopelli Mana. Woe betide the young man who loses a race to her...
  • Vision Quest: But not done in the Hollywood way.
  • Wendigo: The original, often imitated but never equaled. May be an Eldritch Abomination. Its traditional depiction includes absurd amounts of Bloody Horror — tattered and bloody lips, blood pouring out of its eyes, bloody stumps for feet...
  • Word of Dante: Between New Agers and anthropologists, there are a lot of Dantes out there.

Other Tropes which may be found in various stories include:

  • Lovecraft Country: Particularly common in white portrayals, but you can expect the usual small-town America references to UFOs and cryptozoology in Real Life.
  • Lust Makes You Dumb: According to Lakota Legend, two men went hunting in a time of famine and encountered a beautiful woman in white buffalo skin. One man saw her and was overcome by lust. Despite the other man warning him she was probably sacred, and interference would have consequences, the first man approached and was reduced to a pile of bones.
  • Rule 34: There actually is a book called Sex Lives of American Indians. Everything in it's bullshit, though. For the homosexuals and Yaoi Fangirls, there's Spirit and the Flesh, where all you need to know is that there are sacred native transvestites who can't have sex with other transvestites but otherwise Everyone Is Bi. Everything else in it seems to invoke Rule 34, though. Finally, for the heterosexual females, you can just go to a powwow and watch the ladies grab a dancer's braids or lift up his loincloth.
  • Shirtless Scene: Depending on culture area, this can range from wearing a shirt all the time except under the blanket to Shirtless Scene to Walking Shirtless Scene to total nudity.
  • Sneaky Spider: The spider-themed trickster Iktomi of Lakota tradition.
  • Take That!: The Ghost Dance apocalypse has a pretty bad ending for white people and the Native Americans who support them.