Many Native American myths could equally be called folktales: they seem to be about ordinary people, not gods. However, the Native American attitude is that everything is animated by divinity. Hence ordinary people, animals and places are divine.
Often the people are not even named, or are given a convenient tag, such as Rabbit Boy – raised by rabbits. Nor is there much attempt to characterize them. Universal principles are held to be more important than individual traits. So we find the typical mythical archetypes, such as the orphan hero and the wise old woman.
Whereas Greek myths were shaped and ordered by classical authors, few Native American myths were written down before the late 19th century. Thus the apparent inconsistencies of the right-brain oral tradition are still very much present.
Among all tribes there is a strong sense that behind all individual spirits and personifications of the divine, there is a single creative life-force, sometimes called ‘the Great Mystery’, which expresses itself throughout the universe, in every human, animal, tree and grain of sand. Every story, too, is a working out of this life-force.
The role of animals
An aspect of this outlook is the major role played in the stories by animals, who often speak to humans and assist them. Most tribes thought of individual members of a species as expressions of the spiritual archetype of that species, which in turn embodied a particular spirit power.
The Four Directions
Another key feature of the Native American spiritual outlook is found in the powers ascribed to the Four Directions, which occur either literally or in symbolic form throughout the stories. These are often represented by particular colours, or by animals.
The Four Directions have to be in balance for all to be well with the world, and often a central point of balance is identified as a fifth direction; for example, four brothers represent the outer directions, and their sister the centre.
Native American myths include all the types found worldwide, such as stories of creation, and of heroic journeys. However, they are particularly rich in ‘trickster’ myths. Notable examples are Coyote and Iktome. The trickster is an ambiguous figure who demonstrates the qualities of early human development (both cultural and psychological) that make civilization possible, and yet which cause problems. He is an expression of the least developed stage of life, which is dominated by physical appetites.
The story below is of another type, that of the ‘culture deity’, a key figure who brings a tribe its major ceremonies, customs and spiritual insights.
In the days before the Lakota had horses on which to hunt the buffalo, food was often scarce. One summer when the Lakota nation had camped together, there was very little to eat. Two young men of the Itazipcho band – the ‘Without-Bows’ – decided they would rise early and look for game. They left the camp while the dogs were still yawning, and set out across the plain, accompanied only by the song of the yellow meadowlark.
After a while the day began to grow warm. Crickets chirruped in the waving grass, prairie dogs darted into their holes as the braves approached, but still there was no real game. So the young men made towards a little hill from which they would see further across the vast expanse of level prairie. Reaching it, they shielded their eyes and scanned the distance, but what they saw coming out of the growing heat haze was something bright, that seemed to go on two legs, not four. In a while they could see that it was a very beautiful woman in shining white buckskin.
As the woman came closer, they could see that her buckskin was wonderfully decorated with sacred designs in rainbow-coloured porcupine quills. She carried a bundle on her back, and a fan of fragrant sage leaves in her hand. Her jet-black hair was loose, except for a single strand tied with buffalo fur. Her eyes were full of light and power, and the young men were transfixed.
Now one of the men was filled with a burning desire. ‘What a woman!’ he said sideways to his friend. ‘And all alone on the prairie. I’m going to make the most of this!’
‘You fool,’ said the other. ‘This woman is holy.’
But the foolish one had made up his mind, and when the woman beckoned him towards her, he needed no second invitation. As he reached out for her, they were both enveloped in a great cloud. When it lifted, the woman stood there, while at her feet was nothing but a pile of bones with terrible snakes writhing among them.
‘Behold,’ said the woman to the good brave. ‘I am coming to your people with a message from Tatanka Oyate, the buffalo nation. Return to Chief Standing Hollow Horn and tell him what you have seen. Tell him to prepare a tipi large enough for all his people, and to get ready for my coming.’
The young man ran back across the prairie and was gasping for breath as he reached his camp. With a small crowd of people already following him, he found Standing Hollow Horn and told him what had happened, and that the woman was coming. The chief ordered several tipis to be combined into one big enough for his band. The people waited excitedly for the woman to arrive.
After four days the scouts posted to watch for the holy woman saw something coming towards them in a beautiful manner from across the prairie. Then suddenly the woman was in the great lodge, walking round it in a sunwise direction. She stopped before Standing Hollow Horn in the west of the lodge, and held her bundle before him in both hands.
‘Look on this,’ she said, ‘and always love and respect it. No one who is impure should ever touch this bundle, for it contains the sacred pipe.’
She unrolled the skin bundle and took out a pipe, and a small round stone which she put down on the ground.
‘With this pipe you will walk on the earth, which is your grandmother and your mother. The earth is sacred, and so is every step that you take on her. The bowl of the pipe is of red stone; it is the earth. Carved into it and facing the centre is the buffalo calf, who stands for all the four-leggeds. The stem is of wood, which stands for all that grows on the earth. These twelve hanging feathers from the Spotted Eagle stand for all the winged creatures. All these living things of the universe are the children of Mother Earth. You are all joined as one family, and you will be reminded of this when you smoke the pipe. Treat this pipe and the earth with respect, and your people will increase and prosper.’
The woman told them that seven circles carved on the stone represented the seven rites in which the people would learn to use the sacred pipe. The first was for the rite of ‘keeping the soul’, which she now taught them. The remaining rites they would learn in due course.
The woman made as if to leave the lodge, but then she turned and spoke to Standing Hollow Horn again. ‘This pipe will carry you to the end. Remember that in me there are four ages. I am going now, but I will look on your people in every age, and at the end I will return.’
She now walked slowly around the lodge in a sunwise direction. The people were silent and filled with awe. Even the hungry young children watched her, their eyes alive with wonder. Then she left. But after she had walked a short distance, she faced the people again and sat down on the prairie. The people gazing after her were amazed to see that when she stood up she had become a young red and brown buffalo calf. The calf walked further into the prairie, and then lay down and rolled over, looking back at the people.
When she stood up she was a white buffalo. The white buffalo walked on until she was a bright speck in the distant prairie, and then rolled over again, and became a black buffalo. This buffalo walked away, stopped, bowed to the four directions of the earth, and finally disappeared over the hill.
To the Lakota this is probably the most important of all their myths. It has also become a spiritual focus for Plains tribes generally. It has three main aspects: White Buffalo Woman herself and what she represents, both historically and in the present day; the encounter with the two young men; and the importance of the sacred pipe and the ritual that goes with it.
The spirit woman
This is the only myth in which White Buffalo Woman appears. Moreover, there is no attempt to create a whole life story for her, and she has no identifiable family or husband, unlike the Navajo’s Changing Woman. She is altogether mysterious, appearing on the distant horizon, bringing her gifts, and then departing. In her self-sufficiency and virgin inviolability she is like the Greek goddesses Athene and Artemis, though since the coming of the Native American Church, many Native people have identified her with the Virgin Mary.
Certainly she is a powerful anima figure, a maiden goddess who springs direct, untarnished, from the spirit world. She is also a culture goddess in that she brings the all-important fetish object, the sacred pipe, as well as teaching the people how to use it to remain in communication with the spirit world. She is said to come from the north, which is the home of the Buffalo Nation (Tatanka Oyate), and the place of health and spiritual growth through self-discipline and endurance.
She is of course closely identified with the buffalo. For the Lakota, as for most Plains tribes, the buffalo was a vital source of food and clothing, as well as providing most of the material goods of everyday life. Tools were made from its bones, rattles from its hooves, tipis from its hide. The Plains tribes also had a close spiritual relationship with the buffalo, as inferred by the Lakota emergence myth in which the medicine man turns himself into a buffalo to feed the tribe.
The Ghost Dance religion, which tragically led to the Wounded Knee Massacre, had as one of its aims the restoration of the buffalo. It met with failure, but there is a prophecy, believed by many modern Lakota, that when four white buffalo have been born, then the old ways will return and the earth will be saved. White Buffalo Woman herself, in the myth, promises to return ‘at the end’.
The two young men show very different attitudes towards the spirit world. One is oblivious to the woman’s power, and is reduced to bones by this encounter with spirit for which he is totally unprepared. Joseph Epes Brown, in Sacred Pipe, quotes the famous Lakota medicine man Black Elk’s explanation of the foolish man’s fate: ‘Any man who is attached to the senses and to the things of this world, is one who lives in ignorance and is being consumed by the snakes which represent his own passions.’
This makes the important point that the foolish man’s action stands for more than just sexual desire.
The pipe is extremely important in Lakota ritual. It is the symbolic means of making an exchange between humanity and the spirit world. Hence when smoked it is always offered to the Four Directions. The smoke is regarded as rising up to the spirit world.
The Plains tribes still make their pipe bowls from red pipestone found only in a quarry in south-west Minnesota. The dark red stone is said to be the congealed blood of those killed in the Flood, and it is also a reminder of the blood sacrificed by the creator Inyan in order to make the world. In addition it is the colour of the earth in much of Lakota territory. Lastly, it is the colour of the ‘red road’ associated with the north, the direction from which White Buffalo Woman comes. This refers to what in Christian terms is the ‘path of righteousness’.
When the White Buffalo Woman enters the lodge she walks around it in the solar directions, to meet the chief in the west (opposite the east, place of dawn and therefore of enlightenment). The spotted eagle feathers on the pipe are symbols of transcendent solar spiritual power. His feathers are equated with rays of the sun. As Joseph Epes Brown says, when a Lakota wears the eagle-feathered war bonnet, he ‘actually becomes the eagle, which is to say that he identifies himself, his real Self, with Wakan Tanka.’ Thus when the Ghost Dancers sang, ‘The Spotted Eagle is coming to carry me away,’ they were referring to spiritual transcendence of the material world.
Adapted from Native American Myths Retold and Interpreted