Mythologies of the indigenous peoples of the Americas

The indigenous peoples of the Americas comprise numerous different cultures. Each has its own mythologies. Some are quite distinct, but certain themes are shared across the cultural boundaries.

North America

There is no single mythology of the Indigenous North American peoples, but numerous different canons of traditional narratives associated with religion, ethics and beliefs.[1] Such stories are deeply based in Nature and are rich with the symbolism of seasons, weather, plants, animals, earth, water, fire, sky and the heavenly bodies. Common elements are the principle of an all-embracing, universal and omniscient Great Spirit, a connection to the Earth and its landscapes, a belief in a parallel world in the sky (sometimes also underground and / or below the water), diverse creation narratives, visits to the 'land of the dead', and collective memories of ancient sacred ancestors

A characteristic of many of the myths is the close relationship between human beings and animals (including birds and reptiles). They often feature shape-shifting between animal and human form. Marriage between people and different species (particularly bears) is a common theme. In some stories, animals foster human children.

Although most Native North American myths are profound and serious, some use light-hearted humor – often in the form of tricksters – to entertain, as they subtly convey important spiritual and moral messages. The use of allegory is common, exploring issues ranging from love and friendship to domestic violence and mental illness.

Some myths are connected to traditional religious rituals involving dance, music, songs, and trance (e.g. the sun dance).

Most of the myths from this region were first transcribed by ethnologists during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. These sources were collected from Native American elders who still had strong connections to the traditions of their ancestors. They may be considered the most authentic surviving records of the ancient stories, and thus form the basis of the descriptions below. The sources quoted are available to read online through websites such as

Northeast cultures (Southeastern Canada and Northeastern US, including the Great Lakes)

Myths from this region feature female deities such as the creator Big Turtle [2][3], and First Mother from whose body grew the first corn and tobacco.[4], The two great divine culture heroes are Glooskap[5][6] and Manabus[7].

Other stories explore the complex relationships between animals and human beings. Some myths were originally recited as verse narratives.[5]

Great Plains cultures

Stories unique to this region feature buffalo – the animals whose bodies provided the Plains peoples with food, clothing, housing and utensils. In some myths they are benign, in others fearsome and malevolent.[8] The Sun is an important deity;[9][10] other supernatural characters include Morning Star[9][4][10] and the Thunderbirds.[11][8][12]

A common theme is the making of a journey, often to a supernatural place across the landscape or up to the parallel world in the sky.[9][13] One of the most dominant tricksters of the Plains is Old Man, about whom numerous humorous stories are told.[14][9] An important supernatural hero is the Blood Clot Boy, transformed from a clot of blood.[15] [16]

Southeast US cultures

Important myths of this region deal with the origin of hunting and farming,[17][18] and the origin of sickness and medicine.[18]

See also:

California and Great Basin cultures

Myths of this region are dominated by the sacred creator / trickster Coyote. Other significant characters include the Sun People,[19] the Star Women[20] and Darkness[21].

See also:

Southwest Cultures

Myths of the Navajo, Apache and Pueblo peoples tell how the first human beings emerged from an underworld to the Earth. According to the Hopi Pueblo people, the first beings were the Sun, two goddesses known as Hard Being Woman (Huruing Wuhti)[22] and Spider Woman.[22][23] It was the goddesses who created living creatures and human beings. Other themes include the origin of tobacco and corn,[24] and horses;[23] and a battle between summer and winter. Some stories describe parallel worlds in the sky[25] and underwater.[25]

See also:

Plateau cultures

Myths of the Plateau region express the people's intense spiritual feeling for their landscapes, and emphasise the importance of treating with respect the animals that they depend upon for food.[26][27] Sacred tricksters here include Coyote[28] and Fox.[29]

See also:

Salish mythology  a North American tribe or band in Montana, Idaho, Washington and British Columbia, Canada

Arctic cultures (Coastal Alaska, northern Canada and Greenland)

The myths of this region are strongly set in the landscape of tundra, snow, and ice. Memorable stories feature the winds, the moon, and giants. Some accounts say that Anguta is the supreme being, who created the Earth, sea and heavenly bodies. His daughter, Sedna created all living things – animals and plants. She is regarded also as the protecting divinity of the Inuit people.[30]

Subarctic cultures (Inland northern Canada and Alaska)

Here some myths reflect the extreme climate[31] and the people's dependence on salmon as a major food resource.[32] In imagination, the landscape is populated by both benign and malevolent giants.[33]

Northwestern cultures

In this region the dominant sacred trickster is Raven, who brought daylight to the world[34] and appears in many other stories. Myths explore the people's relationship with the coast and the rivers along which they traditionally built their towns. There are stories of visits to parallel worlds beneath the sea.[35] and up in the sky[36] See also:

Aztec culture

The Aztecs, who predominantly inhabited modern-day central Mexico, had a complex system of beliefs based on deities who directly affected the lives of humans, including those who controlled rain, the rising Sun and fertility. Human sacrifice, mainly of war captives and women, was a central piece to the order of the universe and human survival. See also:

Central America

South America

See also


  1. Q. L. Pearce (11 May 2012). Native American Mythology. Greenhaven Publishing LLC. pp. 10–. ISBN 978-1-4205-0951-9.
  2. Thwaites, Reuben Gold (ed.): The Jesuit Relations and Allied Documents, Travels and Explorations of the Jesuit Missionaries in New France 1610 - 1791. Hurons, Vol. X, 1636 and Vol. XII, Quebec1637 (Cleveland: the Burrows Brothers Company, 1898). pp. 'What the Hurons Think of their Origin'.
  3. Barbeau, C M (1915). "Huron and Wyandot mythology, with appendix containing earlier published records": 'The Origin of the World'. doi:10.4095/103488. Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  4. Curtis, Natalie: The Indians' Book (New York and London: Harper and Brothers Publishers, 1907).
  5. Leland, Charles Godfrey & Prince, John Dyneley: Kulóskap the Master, and other Algonkin Poems (New York: Funk & Wagnalls Company, 1902).
  6. Leland, Charles G.: The Algonquin Legends of New England (Boston: Houghton, Mifflin & Co., 1884).
  7. Skinner, Alanson & Satterlee, John V.: Folklore of the Menomini Indians (New York: American Museum of Natural History, 1915).
  8. Lowie, Robert H.: Myths and Traditions of the Crow Indians (American Museum of Natural History, 1918).
  9. Wissler, Clark & Duvall, D.: Mythology of the Blackfoot Indians (New York: American Museum of Natural History, 1908).
  10. Grinnell, George Bird: Blackfoot Lodge Tales – The Story of a Prairie People (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1892).
  11. Dorsey, George A.: Wichita Tales, 1, 2 and 3 (Journal of American Folklore, 1902, 1903 and 1904).
  12. Dorsey, James Owen: The Cehiga Language (Washington: Contributions to North American Ethnology, Government Printing Office, 1890).
  13. Eastman, Charles A. & Eastman, Elaine Goodale: Wigwam Evenings – Sioux Folk Tales Retold (Boston: Little Brown,1909).
  14. Michelson, Truman: Piegan Tales (Journal of American Folklore, 1911).
  15. McLaughlin, Marie L.: Myths and Legends of the Sioux (publisher unknown, 1916).
  16. Kroeber, A. L.: Gros Ventre Myths and Tales (New York: American Museum of Natural History, 1907).
  17. Mooney, James: Myths of the Cherokees (Journal of American Folklore, 1888).
  18. Mooney, James: Myths of the Cherokee (Bureau of American Ethnology, 1902).
  19. Barrett, S. A.: A Composite Myth of the Pomo Indians (Journal of American Folklore, 1906).
  20. Merriam, C. Hart: The Dawn of the World: Myths and Weird Tales Told by the Mewan (Miwok) Indians of California (Cleveland: Arthur H. Clarke Co., 1910).
  21. Dixon, Roland B.: Achomawi and Atsugewi Tales (Journal of American Folklore, 1908 and1909).
  22. Voth, H. R.: The Traditions of the Hopi (Field Columbian Museum Publication, 190.
  23. Goddard, Pliny Earle: Myths and Tales from the White Mountain Apache (New York: American Museum of Natural History, 1919.
  24. Lloyd, J. William: Aw-aw-tam Indian Nights, Being the Myths and Legends of the Pimas of Arizona (Westfield, N.J: The Lloyd Group, 1911).
  25. Cushing, Frank Hamilton: Zuni Folk Tales (New York: G.P. Putman's Sons, 1901).
  26. Boas, Franz (Ed): Folk-Tales of Salishan and Sahaptin Tribes (New York: American Folklore Society, 1917).
  27. Sapir, Edward & Curtin, Jeremiah: Wishram Texts, Together with Wasco Tales and Myths (Publications of the American Ethnological Society, 1909).
  28. Teit, James: Traditions of the Thompson River Indians of British Columbia (Boston and New York: Houghton, Mifflin & Co. / London: David Nutt 1898).
  29. Curtin, Jeremiah: Myths of the Modocs (Boston: Little, Brown, 1912).
  30. author., Boas, Franz, 1858-1942. The central Eskimo. OCLC 11405803.
  31. Bell, Robert: Legends of the Slavey Indians of the Mackenzie River (Journal of American Folklore, 1901).
  32. Teit, James A.: Tahltan Tales 1 and 2 (Journal of American Folklore,1921).
  33. Teit, James A.: Kaska Tales (Journal of American Folklore, 1917).
  34. Swanton, John R.: Tlingit Myths and Texts (Bureau of American Ethnology, 1909).
  35. Boas, Franz: Tsimshian Mythology (Bureau of American Ethnology, 1916).
  36. Swanton, John R.: Tlingit Myths and Texts (Bureau of American Ethnology, 1909).


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