The Myths of the North American Indians
13:15 h History Lvl 10.77
The primary object of this volume is to furnish the reader with a general view of the mythologies of the Red Man of North America, accompanied by such historical and ethnological information as will assist him in gauging the real conditions under which this most interesting section of humanity existed. The basic difference between the Indian and European mental outlook is insisted upon, because it is felt that no proper comprehension of American Indian myth or conditions of life can be attained when such a distinction is not recognized and allowed for.

The Myths Of The
North American Indians

Lewis Spence F.R.A.I.

Sîñ takes the Form of a WoodpeckerSîñ takes the Form of a Woodpecker


The North American Indian has so long been an object of the deepest interest that the neglect of his picturesque and original mythologies and the tales to which they have given rise is difficult of comprehension. In boyhood we are wont to regard him as an instrument specially designed for the execution of tumultuous incident, wherewith heart-stirring fiction may be manufactured. In manhood we are too apt to consider him as only fit to be put aside with the matter of Faery and such evanescent stuff and relegated to the limbo of imagination. Satiated with his constant recurrence in the tales of our youth, we are perhaps but too ready to hearken credulously to accounts which picture him as a disreputable vagabond, getting a precarious living by petty theft or the manufacture of bead ornaments.

It is, indeed, surprising how vague a picture the North American Indian presents to the minds of most people in Europe when all that recent anthropological research has done on the subject is taken into account. As a matter of fact, few books have been published in England which furnish more than the scantiest details concerning the Red Race, and these are in general scarce, and, when obtained, of doubtful scientific value.

The primary object of this volume is to furnish the reader with a general view of the mythologies of the Red Man of North America, accompanied by such historical and ethnological information as will assist him in gauging the real conditions under which this most interesting section of humanity existed. The basic difference between the Indian and European mental outlook is insisted upon, because it is felt that no proper comprehension of American Indian myth or conditions of life can be attained when such a distinction is not recognized and allowed for. The difference between the view-point, mundane and spiritual, of the Red Man and that of the European is as vast as that which separates the conceptions and philosophies of the East and West. Nevertheless we shall find in the North American mythologies much that enters into the composition of the immortal tales of the older religions of the Eastern Hemisphere. All myth, Asiatic, European, or American, springs from similar natural conceptions, and if we discover in American mythology peculiarities which we do not observe in the systems of Greece, Rome, or Egypt, we may be certain that these arise from circumstances of environment and racial habit as modified by climate and kindred conditions alone.

In the last thirty years much has been accomplished in placing the study of the American aborigines on a sounder basis. The older school of ethnologists were for the most part obsessed with the wildest ideas concerning the origin of the Indians, and many of them believed the Red Man to be the degenerate descendant of the lost Ten Tribes of Israel or of early Phoenician adventurers. But these ‘antiquaries’ had perforce to give way to a new school of students well equipped with scientific knowledge, whose labours, under the admirable direction of the United States Bureau of Ethnology, have borne rich fruit. Many treatises of the utmost value on the ethnology, mythology, and tribal customs of the North American Indians have been issued by this conscientious and enterprising State department. These are written by men who possess first-hand knowledge of Indian life and languages, many of whom have faced great privations and hardships in order to collect the material they have published. The series is, indeed, a monument to that nobler type of heroism which science can kindle in the breast of the student, and the direct, unembellished verbiage of these volumes conceals many a life-story which for quiet, unassuming bravery and contempt for danger will match anything in the records of research and human endurance.

Lewis Spence
Edinburgh: March 1914

Chapter I: Divisions, Customs,
and History of the Race

The First Indians in Europe

Almost immediately upon the discovery of the New World its inhabitants became a source of the greatest interest to all ranks and classes among the people of Europe. That this should have been so is not a little surprising when we remember the ignorance which prevailed regarding the discovery of the new hemisphere, and that in the popular imagination the people of the new-found lands were considered to be inhabitants of those eastern countries which European navigation had striven so long and so fruitlessly to reach. The very name ‘Indian’ bestowed upon the men from the islands of the far western ocean proves the ill-founded nature and falsity of the new conditions which through the discovery of Columbus were imposed upon the science of geography. Why all this intense and vivid interest in the strange beings whom the Genoese commander carried back with him as specimens of the population of the new-found isles? The Spaniards were accustomed to the presence and sight of Orientals. They had for centuries dwelt side by side with a nation of Eastern speech and origin, and the things of the East held little of novelty for them. Is it not possible that the people, by reason of some natural motive difficult of comprehension, did not credit in their hearts the scientific conclusions of the day? Something deeper and more primitive than science was at work in their minds, and some profound human instinct told them that the dusky and befeathered folk they beheld in the triumphal procession of the Discoverer were not the inhabitants of an Orient with which they were more or less familiar, but erstwhile dwellers in a mystic continent which had been isolated from the rest of mankind for countless centuries.

There are not wanting circumstances which go far to prove that instinct, brushing aside the conclusions of science, felt that it had rightly come upon the truth. The motto on the arms granted to Columbus is eloquent of the popular feeling when it states,

To Castile and Leon
Columbus gave a new world,

and the news was greeted in London with the pronouncement that it seemed “a thing more divine than human” — a conclusion which could scarcely have been arrived at if it was considered that the reaching of the farthest Orient point alone had been achieved.

The primitive and barbarous appearance of the Indians in the train of Columbus deeply impressed the people of Spain. The savage had before this event been merely “a legendary and heraldic animal like the griffin and the phoenix.” In the person of the Indian he was presented for the first time to the astonished gaze of a European people, who were quick to distinguish the differences in feature and general appearance between the Red Man and the civilized Oriental — although his resemblance to the Tartar race was insisted upon by some early writers.

Popular interest, instead of abating, grew greater, and with each American discovery the ‘Indian’ became the subject of renewed controversy. Works on the origin and customs of the American aborigines, of ponderous erudition but doubtful conclusions, were eagerly perused and discussed. These were not any more extravagant, however, than, many theories propounded at a much later date. In the early nineteenth century a school of enthusiastic antiquaries, perhaps the most distinguished of whom was Lord Kingsborough, determined upon proving the identity of the American aborigines with the lost Ten Tribes of Israel, and brought to bear upon the subject a perfect battery of erudition of the most extraordinary kind. His lordship’s great work on the subject, The Antiquities of Mexico, absorbed a fortune of some fifty thousand pounds by its publication. The most absurd philological conclusions were arrived at in the course of these researches, examples of which it would but weary the reader to peruse. Only a shade less ridiculous were the deductions drawn from Indian customs where these bore a certain surface resemblance to Hebrew rite or priestly usage.

Indians as Jews

As an example of this species of argument it will be sufficient to quote the following passage from a work published in 1879:

“The Indian high-priest wears a breastplate made of a white conch-shell, and around his head either a wreath of swan feathers, or a long piece of swan skin doubled, so as to show only the snowy feathers on each side. These remind us of the breastplate and mitre of the Jewish high-priest. They have also a magic stone which is transparent, and which the medicine-men consult; it is most jealously guarded, even from their own people, and Adair could never procure one. Is this an imitation of the Urim and Thummim? Again, they have a feast of first-fruits, which they celebrate with songs and dances, repeating ‘Halelu-Halelu-Haleluiah’ with great earnestness and fervour. They dance in three circles round the fire that cooks these fruits on a kind of altar, shouting the praises of Yo-He-Wah (Jehovah?). These words are only used in their religious festivals.”

To what tribe the writer alludes is not manifest from the context.

Welsh-Speaking Indians

An ethnological connexion has been traced for the Red Man of North America, with equal parade of erudition, to Phoenicians, Hittites, and South Sea Islanders. But one of the most amusing of these theories is that which attempts to substantiate his blood-relationship with the inhabitants of Wales! The argument in favour of this theory is so quaint, and is such a capital example of the kind of learning under which American ethnology has groaned for generations, that it may be briefly examined. In the author’s Myths of Mexico and Peru (p. 5) a short account is given of the legend of Madoc, son of Owen Gwyneth, a Welsh prince, who quitted his country in disgust at the manner in which his brothers had partitioned their father’s territories. Sailing due west with several vessels, he arrived, says Sir Thomas Herbert in his Travels (1634), at the Gulf of Mexico, “not far from Florida,” in the year 1170. After settling there he returned to Wales for reinforcements, and once more fared toward the dim West, never to be heard of more. But, says the chronicler, “though the Cambrian issue in the new found world may seeme extinct, the Language to this day used among these Canibals, together with their adoring the crosse, using Beades, Reliques of holy men and some other, noted in them of Acusano and other places, … points at our Madoc’s former being there.” The Cambrians, continued Sir Thomas, left in their American colony many names of “Birds, Rivers, Rocks, Beasts and the like, some of which words are these: Gwrando, signifying in the Cambrian speech to give eare unto or hearken. Pen-gwyn, with us a white head, refered by the Mexicans to a Bird so-called, and Rockes complying with that Idiom. Some promontories had like denominations, called so by the people to this day, tho’ estranged and concealed by the Spaniard. Such are the Isles Corroeso. The Cape of Brutaine or Brittaine. The floud Gwyndowr or white water, Bara bread, Mam mother, Tate father, Dowr water, Bryd time, Bu or Buch a Cow, Clugar a Heathcocke, Llwynog a Fox, Wy an Egge, Calaf a Quill, Trwyn a Nose, Nef Heaven; and the like then used; by which, in my conceit, none save detracting Opinionatists can justly oppose such worthy testimonies and proofes of what I wish were generally allowed of.”

Antiquity of Man in America

To turn to more substantial conclusions concerning the racial affinities of the Red Man, we find that it is only within very recent times that anything like a reasoned scientific argument has been arrived at. Founding upon recently acquired geological, anthropological, and linguistic knowledge, inquirers into the deeper realms of American ethnology have solved the question of how the Western Hemisphere was peopled, and the arguments they adduce are so convincing in their nature as to leave no doubt in the minds of unbiased persons.

It is now admitted that the presence of man in the Old World dates from an epoch so far distant as to be calculated only by reference to geological periods of which we know the succession but not the duration, and research has proved that the same holds good of the Western Hemisphere. Although man undoubtedly found his way from the Old World to the New, the period at which he did so is so remote that for all practical purposes he may be said to have peopled both hemispheres simultaneously. Indeed, “his relative antiquity in each has no bearing on the history of his advancement.”

It is known that the American continent offers no example of the highly organized primates — for example, the larger apes — in which the Old World abounds, save man himself, and this circumstance is sufficient to prove that the human species must have reached America as strangers. Had man been native to the New World there would have been found side by side with him either existing or fossil representatives of the greater apes and other anthropoid animals which illustrate his pedigree in the Old World.

The Great Miocene Bridge

Again, many careful observers have noticed the striking resemblance between the natives of America and Northern Asia. At Bering Strait the Old World and the New are separated by a narrow sea-passage only, and an elevation of the sea-bed of less than two hundred feet would provide a ‘land-bridge’ at least thirty miles in breadth between the two continents. It is a geological fact that Bering Strait has been formed since the Tertiary period, and that such a ‘land-bridge’ once existed, to which American geologists have given the name of ‘the Miocene bridge.’ By this ‘bridge,’ it is believed, man crossed from Asia to America, and its subsequent disappearance confined him to the Western Hemisphere.

American Man in Glacial Times

That this migration occurred before the Glacial period is proved by the circumstance that chipped flints and other implements have been discovered in ice-drift at points in Ohio, Indiana, and Minnesota, to which it is known that the southern margin of the ice-sheet extended. This proves that man was driven southward by the advancing ice, as were several Old World animal species which had migrated to America. However, it is difficult in many cases to accept what may seem to be evidence of the presence of prehistoric man in North America with any degree of confidence, and it will be well to confine ourselves to the most authentic instances. In the loess of the Mississippi at Natchez Dr. Dickson found side by side with the remains of the mylodon and megalonyx human bones blackened by time. But Sir Charles Lyell pointed out that these remains might have been carried by the action of water from the numerous Indian places of burial in the neighbourhood. In New Orleans, while trenches were being dug for gas-pipes, a skeleton was discovered sixteen feet from the surface, the skull of which was embedded beneath a gigantic cypress-tree. But the deposit in which the remains were found was subsequently stated to be of recent origin. A reed mat was discovered at Petit Anse, Louisiana, at a depth of from fifteen to twenty feet, among a deposit of salt near the tusks or bones of an elephant. In the bottom-lands of the Bourbeuse River, in Missouri, Dr. Koch discovered the remains of a mastodon. It had sunk in the mud of the marshes, and, borne down by its own ponderous bulk, had been unable to right itself. Espied by the hunters of that dim era, it had been attacked by them, and the signs of their onset — flint arrow-heads and pieces of rock — were found mingled with its bones. Unable to dispatch it with their comparatively puny weapons, they had built great fires round it, the cinder-heaps of which remain to the height of six feet, and by this means they had presumably succeeded in suffocating it.

In Iowa and Nebraska Dr. Aughey found many evidences of the presence of early man in stone weapons mingled with the bones of the mastodon. In California, Colorado, and Wyoming scores of stone mortars, arrow-heads, and lance-points have been discovered in deposits which show no sign of displacement. Traces of ancient mining operations are also met with in California and the Lake Superior district, the skeletons of the primitive miners being found, stone hammer in hand, beneath the masses of rock which buried them in their fall. As the object of these searchers was evidently metal of some description, it may reasonably be inferred that the remains are of comparatively late date.

The Calaveras Skull

In 1866 Professor J. D. Whitney discovered the famous ‘Calaveras’ skull at a depth of about a hundred and thirty feet in a bed of auriferous gravel on the western slope of the Sierra Nevada, California. The skull rested on a bed of lava, and was covered by several layers of lava and volcanic deposit. Many other remains were found in similar geological positions, and this was thought to prove that the Calaveras skull was not an isolated instance of the presence of man in America in Tertiary times. The skull resembles the Eskimo type, and chemical analysis discovered the presence of organic matter. These circumstances led to the conclusion that the great age claimed by Whitney for the relic was by no means proved, and this view was strengthened by the knowledge that displacements of the deposits in which it had been discovered had frequently been caused by volcanic agency.

More Recent Finds

More recent finds have been summarized by an eminent authority connected with the United States Bureau of Ethnology as follows: “In a post-Glacial terrace on the south shore of Lake Ontario the remains of a hearth were discovered at a depth of twenty-two feet by Mr. Tomlinson in digging a well, apparently indicating early aboriginal occupancy of the St. Lawrence basin. From the Glacial or immediately post-Glacial deposits of Ohio a number of articles of human workmanship have been reported: a grooved axe from a well twenty-two feet beneath the surface, near New London; a chipped object of waster type at Newcomerstown, at a depth of sixteen feet in Glacial gravel; chipped stones in gravels, one at Madisonville at a depth of eight feet, and another at Loveland at a depth of thirty feet. At Little Falls, Minn., flood-plain, deposits of sand and gravel are found to contain many artificial objects of quartz. This flood-plain is believed by some to have been finally abandoned by the Mississippi well back toward the close of the Glacial period in the valley, but that these finds warrant definite conclusions as to time is seriously questioned by Chamberlain. In a Missouri river-beach near Lansing, Kansas, portions of a human skeleton were recently found at a depth of twenty feet, but geologists are not agreed as to the age of the formation. At Clayton, Mo., in a deposit believed to belong to the loess, at a depth of fourteen feet, a well-finished grooved axe was found. In the Basin Range region, between the Rocky Mountains and the sierras, two discoveries that seem to bear on the antiquity of human occupancy have been reported: in a silt deposit in Walker River Valley, Nevada, believed to be of Glacial age, an obsidian implement was obtained at a depth of twenty-five feet; at Nampa, Idaho, a clay image is reported to have been brought up by a sand-pump from a depth of three hundred and twenty feet in alternating beds of clay and quicksand underlying a lava flow of late Tertiary or early Glacial age. Questions are raised by a number of geologists respecting the value of these finds.”

Later Man in America

Whatever doubt attaches to the presence of man in America during the Tertiary period — a doubt which is not shared by most American archæologists — there is none regarding his occupation of the entire continent in times less remote, yet far distant from the dawn of the earliest historical records of Asia or Europe. In caves and ‘kitchen-middens’ or rubbish-heaps over the entire length and breadth of the American continent numerous evidences of the presence of populous centres have been discovered. Mingled with the shells of molluscs and the bones of extinct animals human remains, weapons, and implements are to be found, with traces of fire, which prove that the men of those early days had risen above the merely animal existence led by the first-comers to American soil.

Affinities with Siberian Peoples

As has already been indicated, careful observers have repeatedly remarked upon the strong likeness between the American races and those of North-eastern Asia. This likeness is not only physical, but extends to custom, and to some extent to religious belief.

“The war-dances and medicine customs of the Ostiaks resemble those of the Kolusches even to the smallest details, and the myth of a heaven-climber, who ascends the sky from a lofty tree, lowering himself again to earth by a strip of leather, a rope of grass, a plait of hair, or the curling wreath of smoke from a hut, occurs not only among the Ugrian tribes, but among the Dogrib Indians. Such myths, it is contended, though insufficient to prove common descent, point to early communications between these distant stocks. Superstitious usages, on the other hand, it is argued, are scarcely likely to have been adopted in consequence of mere intercourse, and indicate a common origin. Thus, among the Itelmians of Kamchatka it is forbidden to carry a burning brand otherwise than in the fingers; it must on no account be pierced for that purpose with the point of a knife. A similar superstition is cherished by the Dakota. Again, when the tribes of Hudson Bay slay a bear they daub the head with gay colours, and sing around it hymns having a religious character; it is understood to symbolize the spirit of the deceased animal. A similar practice, it is said, prevails throughout Siberia, and is met with among the Gilyaks of the Amur, and the Ainu. The Ostiaks hang the skin of a bear on a tree, pay it the profoundest respect, and address it while imploring pardon of the spirit of the animal for having put it to death; their usual oath, moreover, is ‘by the bear,’ as the polished Athenians habitually swore ‘by the dog.’ Earthen vessels, it is further urged, were manufactured not only by the Itelmians, but by the Aleutians and the Kolusches of the New World; whereas the Assiniboins, settled farther to the southward, cooked their flesh in kettles of hide, into which red-hot stones were cast to heat the water.”

The Evidence of American Languages

The structure of the aboriginal languages of America corroborates the conclusion that the American race proceeded from one instead of several sources, and that it is an ethnological extension of North-eastern Asia. Not only does the ‘machinery’ of American speech closely resemble that of the neighbouring Asiatic races in the possession of a common basis of phonesis and strenuity, but the rejection of labial explodents, which extends from Northern Asia through the speech of the Aleutian Islands to North-western America, is good evidence of affinity.

Evidences of Asiatic Intercourse

Evidences of Asiatic intercourse with America in recent and historical times are not wanting. It is a well-authenticated fact that the Russians had learned from the native Siberians of the whereabouts of America long before the discovery of the contiguity of the continents by Bering. Charlevoix, in his work on the origin of the Indians, states that Père Grellon, one of the French Jesuit Fathers, encountered a Huron woman on the plains of Tartary who had been sold from tribe to tribe until she had passed from Bering Strait into Central Asia. Slight though such incidents seem, it is by means of them that important truths may be gleaned. If one individual was exchanged in this manner, there were probably many similar cases.

On the LakesOn the Lakes

Later Migrations

There are theories in existence worthy of respect which would regard the North American Indians as the last and recent wave of many Asiatic migrations to American soil. If credence can be extended to the Norse sagas which describe the visits of tenth-century Scandinavian voyagers to the eastern coasts of America, the accounts given of the race encountered by these early discoverers by no means tally with any possible description of the Red Man. The viking seafarers nicknamed the American natives Skrælingr, or ‘Chips,’ because of their puny appearance, and the account which they gave of them would seem to class them as a folk possessing Eskimo affinities. Many remains discovered in the eastern States are of the Eskimo type, and when one combines with this the Indian traditions of a great migration — traditions which cannot have survived for many generations — it will be seen that the exact epoch of the entrance of the Red Man into America is by no means finally settled.

The Norsemen in America

As the visits of the Norsemen to America during the tenth century have been alluded to, perhaps some further reference to this absorbing subject may be made, as it is undoubtedly germane to the question of the identity of the pre-Indian inhabitants of eastern North America. The Scandinavian colonization of Iceland tempted the intrepid viking race to extend their voyages into still more northerly waters, and this resulted in the discovery of Greenland. Once settled upon those dreary beaches, it was practically inevitable that the hardy seamen would speedily discover American soil. Biarne Herjulfson, sailing from Iceland to Greenland without knowledge of the waters he navigated, was caught in dense fog and shifting wind, so that he knew not in what direction he sailed. “Witless, methinks, is our forth-faring,” laughed the stout Norseman, “seeing that none of us has beheld the Greenland sea.” Holding doggedly on, however, the adventurers came at last in sight of land. But this was no country of lofty ice such as they had been told to expect. A land of gentle undulations covered with timber met their sea-sad eyes. Bearing away, they came to another land like the first. The wind fell, and the sailors proposed to disembark. But Biarne refused. Five days afterward they made Greenland. Biarne had, of course, got into that Arctic current which sets southward from the Polar Circle between Iceland and Greenland, and had been carried to the coasts of New England.

Leif the Lucky

Biarne did not care to pursue his discoveries, but at the court of Eric, Earl of Norway, to which he paid a visit, his neglect in following them up was much talked about. All Greenland, too, was agog with the news. Leif, surnamed ‘the Lucky,’ son of Eric the Red, the first colonizer of Greenland, purchased Biarne’s ship, and, hiring a crew of thirty-five men, one of whom was a German named Tyrker (perhaps Tydsker, the Norse for ‘German’), set sail for the land seen by Biarne. He soon espied it, and cast anchor, but it was a barren place; so they called it Hellu-land, or ‘Land of Flat Stones,’ and, leaving it, sailed southward again. Soon they came to another country, which they called Markland, or ‘Wood-land,’ for it was low and flat and well covered with trees. These shores also they left, and again put to sea.

The Land of Wine

After sailing still farther south they came to a strait lying between an island and a promontory. Here they landed and built huts. The air was warm after the sword-like winds of Greenland, and when the day was shortest the sun was above the horizon from half-past seven in the morning until half-past four in the afternoon. They divided into two bands to explore the land. One day Tyrker, the German, was missing. They searched for him, and found him at no great distance from the camp, in a state of much excitement. For he had discovered vines with grapes upon them — a boon to a man coming from a land of vines, who had beheld none for half a lifetime. They loaded the ship’s boat with the grapes and felled timber to freight the ship, and in the spring sailed away from the new-found country, which they named ‘Wine-land.’

It would seem that the name Hellu-land was applied to Newfoundland or Labrador, Mark-land to Nova Scotia, and Wine-land to New England, and that Leif wintered in some part of the state of Rhode Island.

The Skrælingr

In the year 1002 Leif’s brother Thorwald sailed to the new land in Biarne’s ship. From the place where Leif had landed, which the Norsemen named ‘Leif’s Booths’ (or huts), he explored the country southward and northward. But at a promontory in the neighbourhood of Boston he was attacked and slain by the Skrælingr who inhabited the country. These men are described as small and dwarfish in appearance and as possessing Eskimo characteristics. In 1007 a bold attempt was made to colonize the country from Greenland. Three ships, with a hundred and sixty men aboard, sailed to Wine-land, where they wintered, but the incessant attacks of the Skrælingr rendered colonization impossible, and the Norsemen took their departure. The extinction of the Scandinavian colonies in Greenland put an end to all communication with America. But the last voyage from Greenland to American shores took place in 1347, only a hundred and forty-five years before Columbus discovered the West Indian Islands. In 1418 the Skrælingr of Greenland — the Eskimo — attacked and destroyed the Norse settlements there, and carried away the colonists into captivity. It is perhaps the descendants of these Norse folk who dared the world of ice and the ravening breakers of the Arctic sea who have been discovered by a recent Arctic explorer!

The authenticity of the Norse discoveries is not to be questioned. No less than seventeen ancient Icelandic documents allude to them, and Adam of Bremen mentions the territory discovered by them as if referring to a widely known country.

WholeReader. Empty coverWholeReader. Book is closedWholeReader. FilterWholeReader. Compilation cover