The cultural heritage of the North American aboriginal peoples includes oral traditions remembered and preserved in myths. Storytellers over thousands of years of Native North American culture have been unconstrained by literary form, which can transform inspiration into rigid canons of belief and practice. They have been free to listen to their own heritage and speak with voices that reflect individual vision and the wisdom of the ages. Personal insight, sought through dreams, vision quests and other forms of inspiration, is a critical aspect of spirituality in most North American aboriginal cultures. It makes the mythology as mutable – and fragile – as the storyteller’s world. Yet, by living in the spoken word, the song and the dance, the spirits of the imagination survive across generations, passing on the essence of what it means to be a human being. Aboriginal thinkers see the earth as a living spiritual realm where supernatural beings still reside and every territory has its sacred places. High mountains and prominent rock formations, caves and crevices, waterfalls and springs are all spirit dwellings. Tribal shamans conduct rituals to obtain the visions and dreams necessary for contact with the manitous in the rocks and waters. To climb a high mountain was a journey into the realms of the spirit world, done carefully and with respect. The spirits of the great plains, whether they were encountered on a vision quest or hidden but ever-watchful, always remain powerful, even dangerous, in their abodes.
Native North Americans once shared the most ancient patterns of life – moving from place to place, following the seasonal shifts of nature to gather wild plants and hunt game – and the religious beliefs and mythologies of hunters and gatherers reflect this. Their search for spiritual knowledge and understanding was seen in terms of a journey, a quest for vision, that took them away from the protection of their familiar surroundings into a natural world containing the mysterious forces that brought life and death, famine and plenty. In aboriginal thought, the time when powerful beings transformed creation’s dark, empty lands into the familiar, sheltering earth is only just out of reach of memory. The first ancestors shifted and changed form at will between humans, animals and objects as they carried out their formative tasks – bringing daylight and fire, hewing out the shape of the land and creating the stuff of cultural life. Native American shamans moved among the beings of the spirit world, so people feared and respected them. Shamans needed contact with the spiritual forces of nature to ensure the health and well-being of a tribal society. To attract, entice or control these forces, shamans sought out worldly objects with special qualities that gave them great ‘medicine’ or supernatural power. Creators and Tricksters such as Raven and Coyote, the major supernatural figures across the northwestern part of the continent, emerged from the elders’ awareness that the spirits had withdrawn from the world they created – just as the knowing raven and the sly coyote circle on the edges of human culture today.
Well beyond the reach of even the highest mountains, the greatest powers were thought to reside in the living sky – light and darkness, the changing seasons, furious storms and life-giving rains – and it is the source of many creations. The heavens may be the final resting place for supernatural beings who are transformed into stars. The association of thunder and lightning with giant birds may come from the way a thunderstorm soars across the sky, spreading dark squall lines across the horizon under a dark central mass, pierced by flashing light. The dark storm line, edged with lightning, rampages over the land and is gone, just like a hawk or eagle in flight, hunting for food. Thus the idea of thunder and lightning as the work of a giant thunderbird makes sense in a realm of animate spirits. The living sky is crucial to cultural identity, because it defines the land and sets the rhythm of the world. The cycles of the sun, moon and stars evoke a sense of time, marking the passage of human lives. As a measure of space and time, the sky therefore unites the mythical and the actual in an eternal flow of darkness and light. Events that shake up this world are preserved in oral tradition. Thus, the Micmac tale of a strange floating island that suddenly appeared over the sea was one tribe’s explanation for the arrival of Europeans, something that was to have profound consequences for both the native peoples and their myths.
Immediately after the first contact with Europeans in the 17th century, the introduction of their trade goods and domesticated animals to cultures reliant on natural substances – such as stone, bone, plant fibres and clays – had a dramatic impact on North American cultures. A devastating and irreversible process of social disintegration was set in motion which had a disastrous effect on tradition. Except for those in the most remote forest regions of the north and in the Artic, almost all tribes were first decimated by force of arms or disease, then driven from their homelands to distant reservations. From the reservations, the view of the spiritual and physical world was not the same as it had once been. Traditional sacred sites and landscapes – the very foundations of tribal culture – were no longer accessible. Many elders, the keepers of traditional knowledge, were among the staggering numbers that died following the move to reservations. Others lost touch with their ancestral roots or were unable to maintain their cultural identities. By the mid-20th century, myths, and the narratives and rituals that made them vital, reflected this dissolution of cultural integrity, surviving in many places as half-remembered fragments, or disappearing altogether.
There were some groups, however, among whom the strong core of native beliefs persisted. Some occupied lands unattractive to Europeans, such as the Arctic and Subarctic, interior mountain regions and the deserts of the Southwest. Some maintained a relatively independent economy, including a few of the seagoing cultures of the Northwest Coast. Others retained significant land bases within their traditional homelands. Ultimately, as environmental awareness began to strengthen in the second half of the 20th century, aboriginal philosophies of respect for, and sensitivity to, the earth and its resources rose to prominence. In this atmosphere of new-found respect, mythologies were no longer the quaint stories of disappearing cultures, but ideas and beliefs that made a direct connection between human life and the surrounding world. While the depredations of 400 years of domination by Western culture had left an indelible mark, the new relevance of these ancient mythologies inspired spiritual regeneration, rediscovery and re-creation of the knowledge that was almost lost. The growing cultural strength of North America’s first nations continues to this day, with new narrative forms – literature, theatre and electronic media – growing beside the traditional arts of storytelling, painting, dance and drama. These new visions look forward, at the same time respecting tradition and recalling the lessons of the past. They express, as the ancient elders did, the realities of the present for the sake of the future.
With such a dramatic and complex background, North American mythology is not easily organized or presented. The individual nature of Native American religions, the generations of storytellers, and the difficulty of using one language to explain another’s vision, as well as the loss of traditional culture by assimilation, and the sparse, fragmented collection of oral traditions that remain, all mean that the names and exploits of mythological beings may be highly variable. Many different kinds of sources are drawn from: anthropological texts, collections of myths and contemporary tribal narratives. The creative arts are flourishing today, reflecting a renewal of pride among aboriginal peoples. Children offer the best chance to keep alive the spirit of a culture, for among Native peoples, the interaction between elders and the very young provides the spiritual strength that young people need as they grow. Listening to stories told by elders of history, legendary heroes and the events of creation ensures that future generations keep their cultural identity through the dramatic changes they will experience in their lifetimes. The past 400 years in North America may in one sense seem to be a history of cultural and linguistic decline and slow extinction. The challenge to native cultures is to change this perception through the revival of tradition and the renewal of mythology to accommodate new political and social realities. In this way the lessons passed down by the ancestors – and their spirit guides – very much still have resonance today.