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Indian Mythology

Source: Legends Of The Kaw

The history of Kansas has been of peculiar interest to the world at
large, by reason of the struggles of ante-bellum days. The adventures of
John Brown of Osawatomie and the achievements of General Lane, Governor
Robinson, and other heroes of that period have formed the nucleus of
many a story and song. All honor to the men who labored so successfully
in the cause of freedom! There is another, equally brave, though less
fortunate, race that wandered over the rolling prairies of the Sunflower
State and camped along its rivers; a race stern, taciturn, and ever
ready to do battle for home and liberty. Like the buffalo, former
monarch of the plains, it has gradually diminished in numbers.
Extinction or amalgamation is now a question of only a few brief years.
This nation furnishes a romantic background, full of rich though somber
color, to the later record of the great West.

Who can say that the traditions of the red man lack pathos, or that his
character is devoid of the elements of nobleness, self-sacrifice and
even martyrdom? Rude, wild and imperfect though it be, his folklore
tells the story of a people, barbarous, it is true, but strong in their
attachments and devoted to their faith. Many Indian myths, adventures
and scraps of history are full of deep--often tragic--interest to one
who delves in legendary lore. Like the tales of ancient Greece, as
explained by Ruskin in Queen of the Air, each weird story admits of
more than one interpretation. Sometimes a great spiritual truth lies
hidden in its quaint phrases--sometimes a scientific fact.

There was an idea, current among the Indians who roamed over the central
portion of the United States, that at one time in the long past, the
rivers of the Mississippi basin filled the entire valley, and only great
elevations were visible. Geology substantiates this teaching. The
theory of a dual soul approached very close to the teachings of modern
psychologists. While one soul was supposed to remain in the body, its
companion was free to depart on excursions during sleep. After the death
of the material man, it went to the Indian elysium and might, if
desirous, return, in time, to earth, to be born again.

Like that of all uncivilized races, the ancient religion of the North
American Indian was incoherent. Association with Europeans produced
changes. Doctrines before unknown to the red man were engrafted upon his
faith. Some writers maintain that it is doubtful if the idea of a single
divinity had been developed previous to intercourse with missionaries.
Brinton asserts that the word used by the natives to indicate God, is
analogous to none in any European tongue, conveying no sense of personal
unity. It has been rendered Spirit, Demon, God, Devil, Mystery and
Magic. The Dakota word is Wakan (above), the Iroquois, Oki; the
Algonquin, Manito. God and heaven were probably linked together
before there was sufficient advancement to question whether heaven were
material and God spiritual; whether the Deity were one or many. Good
Spirit and Great Spirit are evidently of more recent origin and were,
perhaps, first suggested by missionaries, the terms being applied to the
white man's God, and adopted by the Indian and applied to his own. The
number of spirits was practically unlimited, communication being usually
in the hands of the medicine men, although the unseen world was often
heard from directly in dreams.

A description of heaven--by Wampasha, an Iowa Indian--was found in the
diary of Reverend S. M. Irvin, a devoted missionary among the Iowas and
Sacs. It reads:

"The Big Village (heaven) is situated near the great water, toward the
sunrise, and not far from the heads of the Mississippi River. None go
there until after they die. A smart person can make the journey in three
or four days; if, however, his heart be not right at death, the journey
will be prolonged and attended with difficulties and stormy weather
till he reaches the land of rest. Infants, dying, are carried by
messengers sent for them; the old or infirm are borne upon horses; they
have horses, plenty, and fine grass, and infirmities will all be healed
in that village. The blind will receive new eyes; they have plenty of
good eyes and ears there. Good people will never die again, but the bad
may die three or four times and then turn into some bird."

Father Allouez, one of the first missionaries among the Algonquins,
entered a village never before visited by a white man. He was invited to
a council, and the old men, gathering around him, said:

"It is well, Blackrobe, that thou dost visit us; thou are a Manito; we
give thee to smoke. The Iroquois are devouring us. Have mercy upon us.
Hear us, O Manito! we give thee to smoke. Let the earth yield us corn;
the rivers give us fish; sickness not slay us; nor hunger so torment us.
Hear us, O Manito! we give thee to smoke."

Birds and beasts were selected as guardians. Everyone considered his
totem a protector, and refrained from killing it. Whole clans were
believed to be descended from a common totem and information was
conveyed by means of omens.

The character of a nation is engraven upon its literature, which, like a
mirror, reflects the thoughts, emotions and progress of a people. The
folklore of the North American Indians was their literature. The myth,
grounded upon the unchanging laws of the universe, was conscious,
however vaguely, of great principles that are forever true. Physical
existence formed the basis of each important fable. The earth, air,
water and other elements were personified. Every image had its moral

Mythology has been said to be simply the idea of God, expressed in
symbol, figure and narrative. That of primitive America was founded upon
the conviction that there was, in pre-historic times, another world
inhabited by a people strong and peaceable. So long as harmony reigned,
comfort and happiness were theirs, but when discord entered this Eden,
conflict succeeded conflict, until, to punish his disobedient children,
the Master of Life transformed them, one by one, into trees, plants,
rocks and all the living creatures. It was said that each person became
the outward embodiment of what he had previously been within himself.
For instance, from the head of one sprang an owl, from another a
buzzard, a third became an eagle, and in this manner was the present
world with its three kingdoms, vegetable, animal and mineral, evolved.

Another tradition says that in the days of turmoil, a powerful man, or
demi-god, ran to the place where the earth and sky meet, and with a
lighted torch, set fire to the tall grass, igniting the earth itself.
Those worthy of preservation were caught up to a place of safety.
Sparks, rising from the flames, and finding lodgment high above, became
the twinkling "sky-eyes," which, in the language of the white man, are
called stars.

After the conflagration had subsided, one whose duty in the upper sphere
had been to provide water, carried it in a basket; and as she walked,
drop after drop fell through upon the parched region below, causing it
to revive. Awakened Nature blossomed into new beauty, and all who had
escaped the terrible fire fiend, returned to take possession of the
country. The Water-Maiden still carries the basket; and its contents,
which never grow less, still fall in gentle showers, to refresh the

Among the beautiful creation myths, is that of the Earth-Maiden, who,
through being looked upon by the sun, became a mother, giving birth to a
wonderful being, a great benefactor. By reason of his benign influence,
mankind lives and prospers. This benefactor is really the warm, wavering
light, to be seen between the virgin earth, his mother, and the sun.

There are numerous narratives in which heat, cold, light and darkness
appear as leading actors. A powerful god of the Algonquins was the
maker of the earth, Michabou (light), toward whom the Spirit of Waters
was ever unfriendly.

In Mexico, the worship of the sun and other heavenly bodies was
practiced, sacrifices of men and women with white faces and hair being
particularly acceptable.

Almost all aboriginal people believed that dogs occupied a peculiar
position with regard to the moon, possibly because of the canine habit
of baying at that planet.

The bird and the serpent were especially honored. The former, no doubt,
because of its power of floating through the air and the latter for its
subtlety. The Hurons told the early Jesuits of a serpent with a horn
capable of penetrating rocks, trees and hills--everything it
encountered. The person fortunate enough to obtain a portion for his
medicine bag was sure of good luck. The Hurons informed the missionaries
that none of their own people had ever seen the monster; but the
Algonquins occasionally sold them small portions of its horn for a very
high consideration. The Shawnees, who had unquestionably practiced on
the credulity of their neighbors, led roving lives and had become
familiar with the myths of many nations. It is not unlikely that the
serpent fable originated with the Creeks and Cherokees, who thought the
immense snake dwelt in the waters. Tradition says that old people stood
on the shores and sang sacred songs. The creature came to the surface,
showing its horns. The magicians cut one off and continued to chant. The
serpent again appeared, and the other horn was secured and borne away in

These tribes asserted that in the fastnesses of their mountains was the
carefully guarded palace of the Prince of Rattlesnakes. On the royal
head shone a marvelous jewel. Warriors and priests endeavored in vain to
get possession of the glittering trophy. Finally, one more thoughtful
than the rest encased himself in leather, passed through the writhing,
hissing court, unharmed by poisoned fangs; tore the coveted charm from
the head of the prince, and carried it home. The gem was ever preserved
with great care and brought forth only on state occasions.

The story of Hiawatha (Hi-a-wat-ha), which Schoolcraft gives as an
Iroquois legend, is found among the traditions of many tribes, the
leading character being called by different names. In the East he was
known as Glooskap, about the lakes as Manabozho, in other localities as
Chiabo; but, as in certain Aryan myths--of which this may be one--the
principal features of the story are the same in all nations. Their hero
came to them as did Buddha to the East Indian, and Christ to those
prepared to receive the gospel, bearing messages of peace, good will to
men; teaching justice, patience, conformity to truth, and to the laws of
the red man; instructing them in various manual arts, and destroying
hideous monsters that lurked in the woods and hills, or lay concealed
amid the tall prairie grass. He lived as a warrior, hunted, fished and
battled for right, changing when necessary, to any animal or plant.
While seated in his white stone canoe on one of the Great Lakes, he was
swallowed by the King of Fishes. Undaunted, he beat its heart with a
stone club until it was dead, and when birds of prey had eaten the
flesh, and light shone through, climbed out with the magic boat.

The struggle with fire-serpents, in order to reach the wicked Pearl
Feather, whom he fought the livelong day, has been recounted again and
again. How a woodpecker flew overhead, screaming "Shoot at his
scalp-lock!" How, obeying this admonition, Hiawatha saw the enemy fall
in the throes of death, and dipping his finger in the blood, touched the
bird, and to this day a red mark is found on the head of the woodpecker.
He slew the Prince of Serpents, traveled from village to village
performing good works, and having wedded a beautiful Dakota woman,
presented a perfect example of faithfulness and devotion. A league of
thirteen nations was formed through the influence of this remarkable
man; and as he stood among the assembled chiefs, addressing them with
supernatural eloquence, encouraging them in a voice of sweetness and
power to lives of rectitude, the summons came. Promising to return at
some future time, Hiawatha stepped into his white stone canoe and was
lifted heavenward, the air trembling with soft music as he floated from
sight. To this final pledge are attributable many ghost dances and
outbreaks against the whites, notably that at Pine Ridge Agency, when
the coming of the Messiah was expected with full confidence.

The well-known legend of the Red Swan was a satisfactory explanation of
the crimson glow that spread over the water at sunset. Three brothers
set out in different directions, upon a hunting expedition, to see who
would procure the first game. They decided to kill no animal except the
kind that each was in the habit of shooting. Odjibwa, the youngest,
caught sight of a bear, which was exempt according to agreement.
Nevertheless, in his eagerness, the hunter pursued and shot it with an
arrow, taking the skin. In a moment, the air became tinged with red and
a wild piercing cry was audible, like and yet unlike a human voice.
Odjibwa followed the sound and came to the shore of a beautiful lake,
upon which rested a graceful red swan. Its plumage glittered in the last
bright rays of the sinking sun. Possessed with a desire to try his skill
again, the young man used every available arrow in the vain endeavor to
hit the wonderful object; then remembering that in the medicine sack of
his deceased father were three magic arrows, he ran home, opened the
sacred pouch and secured them. The third one struck the mark; and the
injured bird, rising slowly from the lake, floated away toward the
western horizon. From that time forth, just at sunset, the blood of the
wounded swan cast a blush, like the rich color of a maiden's cheek, over
the surface of the waters.

The song of "The Peace Pipe," by Longfellow, was founded upon the belief
of the Northern Indians that when the earth was still in her childhood,
the Master of Life assembled the nations upon the crags of the famous
Red Pipestone Quarry, and breaking a fragment from the rock, moulded a
huge calumet--the emblem of peace. He smoked over the people to the
east, the west, the north and the south; and the great white cloud
ascended until it touched heaven. Then, having told the warriors that
the stone was red, like their flesh, and should be used for their pipes
of peace, the spirit became enveloped in smoke and was seen no more. The
rock was glazed with heat and two large ovens or caverns opened
underneath. In a blaze of fire, two women entered, as guardians of the
place, where, to this day, they answer the prayers of the medicine men
who make pilgrimages to that locality.

The phenomena of thunder and lightning were variously explained by
different tribes. Some believed every storm to be a struggle between the
God of Waters and the Thunderbird. Others affirmed that thunder was the
voice of the Great Spirit reminding them of the approach of
corn-planting season; that lightning kindled sacred fires, and,
striking, penetrated the earth, forming such stones as flint, from
which fire can be drawn.

Mrs. Eastman tells of the belief of the Sioux in a storm giant, to whom
heat was cold and cold heat; who laughed when sad and groaned when
merry; who wore horns to represent lightning and hurled meteors with his
hands; he used one of the four winds as a drumstick to produce thunder.

In seasons of drought, the rainmaker of the Lenape sought a retired
spot, and drawing upon the ground the figure of a cross, pointing to the
cardinal points, made offerings of tobacco and other articles, to the
Spirit of Rains.

The Blackfeet massed stones upon the prairies, in the form of a cross,
in honor of the "Old Man who sends the wind."

The Creeks also called upon the four winds, whose duty it was to
distribute showers.

The Wild Parsnip was a bad man, going around doing harmful deeds, until,
by transformation, compelled to stay in one place, he could no longer
cause damage except by killing people when they ate him.

The Spirit of Fire was supposed to ride, bow in hand and face blackened
with rage, in a cloud of smoke. When he drew the bow, quickly the flames
spread over the prairie.

The Navajos thought that fire was first brought to earth through the
efforts of the coyote, the bat, and the squirrel. The coyote attached
some splinters to his tail, ran quickly through the fire and fled with
his prize. Being pursued, he was compelled to run rapidly and became
exhausted, whereupon, the bat relieved him. The squirrel assisted him at
the last, to carry it to the hearths of the Navajos.

In some tribes fire was considered a type of life. The Shawnee prophet
said to his followers:

"Know that the life in your body and the fire on your hearth proceed
from one source."

The greatest feast of the Delawares was to their "grandfather, fire."
Referring to the immortality of their gods, the Algonquins said: "Their
fire burns forever."

The imagery of the red man compares favorably with that of other races.
The Indian lived near to the very heart of Nature and understood her
fundamental truths. To him, all things were divided into the animate and
inanimate. Everything endowed with life or capable of action was thought
to possess intelligence and reason. There were lessons in the movements
of the winds and waves; in flying clouds and in the azure skies; the
countless stars had a language of their own; and even the comet,
sweeping across the heavens, told a story with a strong moral.

The earliest record of the Indians of the Middle West, that of Father
Marquette, has been preserved at St. Mary's College, Montreal, Canada.
The document refers to the Kaws, Osages and Pawnees, as the dominant
tribes. The Padoucas, of whom little is known, then dwelt near the head
waters of the Kansas River. They were strong and numerous, and ranged
the country southwest, in Colorado and New Mexico. The nation and
language were unknown in other parts of the continent; and no
relationship could be traced to the four principal Indian families. The
habits of the people were different from those of any other tribe. They
lived in houses in villages with streets regularly laid out; but raised
no grain, depending for subsistence chiefly upon the products of the
chase. Certain students of ethnology have asserted that the Kiowas are
their somewhat degenerate descendants.

As years went by, all was changed. The Padoucas became extinct and the
Pawnees reduced in numbers; the Osages ceded nearly all of their
territory in Missouri to the United States and were allowed a
reservation in Kansas. A few years later, a large percentage of their
lands and that of the Kaws was purchased by the Government, to be used
as a home for the Eastern Indians. The Delawares, Wyandots,
Pottawatomies and Shawnees were the emigrant nations of the Kansas River

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Previous: The Terrestrial Paradise

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