Tales of the North American Indians

Tales of the North American Indians

by Stith Thompson

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The folklore and mythology of North American Indians is varied and wide-ranging, as shown in this carefully chosen representative sampling of Native American folktales. Assembled by noted folklorist Stith Thompson, the collection includes marvelous narratives from points as distant from one another as Southern California, Labrador, and the Great Plains. Yet despite


The folklore and mythology of North American Indians is varied and wide-ranging, as shown in this carefully chosen representative sampling of Native American folktales. Assembled by noted folklorist Stith Thompson, the collection includes marvelous narratives from points as distant from one another as Southern California, Labrador, and the Great Plains. Yet despite the diversity of tribes represented, many of the tales share similar themes and elements.
They have been grouped here into such categories as mythological stories, mythical incidents, trickster tales, hero tales, journeys to the otherworld, animal wives and husbands, and tales borrowed from Europeans. There are even Indians stories based on such biblical subjects as Noah’s flood, the tower of Babel, and crossing the Red Sea. Included are "The Woman Who Fell from the Sky" (Seneca), "The Creation" (Maidu), "Coyote and Porcupine" (Nez Percé), "The Jealous Father" (Cree), "The False Bridegroom" (Gros Ventre), "The Star Husband" (Ojibwa), "The Bear-Woman" (Blackfoot), "Cinderella" (Zuñi), "Making the Princess Laugh" (Micmac), "Crossing the Red Sea" (Cheyenne), and scores more.
Of great interest to students of folklore and Native American mythology, Tales of the North American Indians will appeal to the general reader as well because the tales are full of color and imagination and fascinating in themselves.

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Dover Publications
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Native American Series
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5.41(w) x 8.46(h) x 0.78(d)

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Tales of the North American Indians

By Stith Thompson

Dover Publications, Inc.

Copyright © 1929 President and Fellows of Harvard College
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-486-14484-9



I. SEDNA, MISTRESS OF THE UNDERWORLD (ESKIMO: Boas, Report of the Bureau of America Ethnology, vi, 583)

ONCE upon a time there lived on a solitary shore an Inung with his daughter Sedna. His wife had been dead for some time and the two led a quiet life. Sedna grew up to be a handsome girl and the youths came from all around to sue for her hand, but none of them could touch her proud heart. Finally, at the breaking up of the ice in the spring a fulmar flew from over the ice and wooed Sedna with enticing song. "Come to me," it said; "come into the land of the birds, where there is never hunger, where my tent is made of the most beautiful skins. You shall rest on soft bearskins. My fellows, the fulmars, shall bring you all your heart may desire; their feathers shall clothe you; your lamp shall always be filled with oil, your pot with meat." Sedna could not long resist such wooing and they went together over the vast sea. When at last they reached the country of the fulmar, after a long and hard journey, Sedna discovered that her spouse had shamefully deceived her. Her new home was not built of beautiful pelts, but was covered with wretched fishskins, full of holes, that gave free entrance to wind and snow. Instead of soft reindeer skins her bed was made of hard walrus hides and she had to live on miserable fish, which the birds bought her. Too soon she discovered that she had thrown away her opportunities when in her foolish pride she had rejected the Inuit youth. In her woe she sang: "Aja. O father, if you knew how wretched I am you would come to me and we would hurry away in your boat over the waters. The birds look unkindly upon me the stranger; cold winds roar about my bed; they give me but miserable food. O come and take me back home. Aja."

When a year had passed and the sea was again stirred by warmer winds, the father left his country to visit Sedna. His daughter greeted him joyfully and besought him to take her back home. The father, hearing of the outrages wrought upon his daughter, determined upon revenge. He killed the fulmar, took Sedna into his boat, and they quickly left the country which had brought so much sorrow to Sedna. When the other fulmars came home and found their companion dead and his wife gone, they all flew away in search of the fugitives. They were very sad over the death of their poor murdered comrade and continue to mourn and cry until this day.

Having flown a short distance they discerned the boat and stirred up a heavy storm. The sea rose in immense waves that threatened the pair with destruction. In this mortal peril the father determined to offer Sedna to the birds and flung her overboard. She clung to the edge of the boat with a death grip. The cruel father then took a knife and cut off the first joints of her fingers. Falling into the sea they were transformed into whales, the nails turning into whalebone. Sedna holding on to the boat more tightly, the second finger joints fell under the sharp knife and swam away as seals; when the father cut off the stumps of the fingers they became ground seals.

Meantime the storm subsided, for the fulmars thought Sedna was drowned. The father then allowed her to come into the boat again. But from that time she cherished a deadly hatred against him and swore bitter revenge. After they got ashore, she called her dogs and let them gnaw off the feet and hands of her father while he was asleep. Upon this he cursed himself, his daughter, and the dogs which had maimed him; whereupon the earth opened and swallowed the hut, the father, the daughter, and the dogs. They have since lived in the land of Adlivun, of which Sedna is the mistress.

II. SUN SISTER AND MOON BROTHER (ESKIMO: Boas, Report of the Bureau of American Ethnology, vi, 597)

In olden times a brother and his sister lived in a large village in which there was a singing house, and every night the sister with her playfellows enjoyed themselves in this house. Once upon a time, when all the lamps in the singing house were extinguished, somebody came in and outraged her. She was unable to recognize him; but she blackened her hands with soot and when the same again happened besmeared the man's back with it. When the lamps were relighted she saw that the violator was her brother. In great anger she sharpened a knife and cut off her breasts, which she offered to him, saying: "Since you seem to relish me, eat this." Her brother fell into a passion and she fled from him, running about the room. She seized a piece of wood (with which the lamps are kept in order) which was burning brightly and rushed out of the house. The brother took another one, but in his pursuit he fell down and extinguished his light, which continued to glow only faintly. Gradually both were lifted up and continued their course in the sky, the sister being transformed into the sun, the brother into the moon. Whenever the new moon first appears she sings:

Aningaga tapika, takirn tapika qaumidjatedlirpoq; qaumatitaudle. Aningaga tapika, tikipoq tapika. (My brother up there, the moon up there begins to shine; he will be bright. My brother up there, he is coming up there.)

III. GLOOSCAP (MICMAC: Rand, Legends of the Micmacs, p. 232, No. 35)

The tradition respecting Glooscap is that he came to this country from the east, — far across the great sea; that he was a divine being, though in the form of a man. He was not far from any of the Indians (this is the identical rendering of the Indian words used by my friend Stephen in relating the sketches of his history here given). When Glooscap went away, he went toward the west.11 There he is still tented; and two important personages are near him, who are called Kuhkw and Coolpujot, — of whom more anon.

Glooscap was the friend and teacher of the Indians; all they knew of the arts he taught them. He taught them the names of the constellations and stars; he taught them how to hunt and fish, and cure what they took; how to cultivate the ground, as far as they were trained in husbandry. When he first came, he brought a woman with him, whom he ever addressed as Grandmother, — a very general epithet for an old woman. She was not his wife, nor did he ever have a wife. He was always sober, grave, and good; all that the Indians knew of what was wise and good he taught them.

His canoe was a granite rock. On one occasion he put to sea in this craft, and took a young woman with him as a passenger. She proved to be a bad girl; and this was manifested by the troubles that ensued. A storm arose, and the waves dashed wildly over the canoe; he accused her of being the cause, through her evil deeds, and so he determined to rid himself of her. For this purpose he stood in for the land, leaped ashore, but would not allow her to follow; putting his foot against the heavy craft, he pushed it off to sea again with the girl on it, telling her to become whatever she desired to be. She was transformed into a large, ferocious fish, called by the Indians keeganibe, said to have a huge dorsal fin, — like the sail of a boat, it is so large and high out of the water.

The Indians sometimes visit Glooscap at his present residence, so says tradition; this is in a beautiful land in the west. He taught them when he was with them that there was such a place, and led them to look forward to a residence there, and to call it their beautiful home in the far west, — where, if good, they would go at death.

The journey to that fair region far away is long, difficult, and dangerous; the way back is short and easy. Some years ago, seven stout-hearted young men attempted the journey, and succeeded. Before reaching the place, they had to pass over a mountain, the ascent of which was up a perpendicular bluff, and the descent on the other side was still more difficult, for the top hung far over the base. The fearful and unbelieving could not pass at all; but the good and confident could travel it with ease and safety, as though it were a level path.

Having crossed the mountain, the road ran between the heads of two huge serpents, which lay just opposite each other; and they darted out their tongues, so as to destroy whomsoever they hit. But the good and the firm of heart could dart past between the strokes of their tongues, so as to evade them. One more difficulty remained; it was a wall, as of a thick, heavy cloud, that separated the present world from that beautiful region beyond. This cloudy wall rose and fell at intervals, and struck the ground with such force that whatever was caught under it would be crushed to atoms; but the good could dart under when it rose, and come out on the other side unscathed.

This our seven young heroes succeeded in doing. There they found three wigwams, — one for Glooscap, one for Coolpujot, and one for Kuhkw. These are all mighty personages, but Glooscap is supreme; the other two are subordinates. Coolpujot has no bones. He cannot move himself, but is rolled over each spring and fall by Glooscap's order, being turned with handspikes; hence the name Coolpujot (rolled over by handspikes). In the autumn he is turned towards the west, in the spring towards the east; and this is a figure of speech, denoting the revolving seasons of the year, — his mighty breath and looks, by which he can sweep down whole armies and work wonders on a grand scale, indicating the weather: frost, snow, ice, and sunshine. (Such was Stephen's very satisfactory explanation.)

Kuhkw means Earthquake; this mighty personage can pass along under the surface of the ground, making all things shake and tremble by his power.

All these seven visitors had requests to proffer, and each received what he asked for; though the gift did not always correspond with the spirit of the request, it oftentimes agreed with the letter. For instance, one of these seven visitors was wonderfully enamoured of a fine country, and expressed a desire to remain there, and to live long; whereupon, at Glooscap's direction, Earthquake took him and stood him up, and he became a cedar-tree. When the wind blew through its boughs, they were bent and broken with great fracas, — making a thunder-storm that rolled far and wide over the country, accompanied by strong winds, which scattered the cedar-boughs and seeds in all directions, producing all the cedar-groves that exist in New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, and elsewhere.

The other men started, and reached home in a short time.

One of them had asked for a medicine that would be effectual in curing disease. This he obtained; but, neglecting to follow implicitly the directions given, he lost it before he reached home. It was carefully wrapped up in a piece of paper, and he was charged not to undo the parcel until he reached home. His curiosity got the better of his judgment; he could not see what difference it could make if he just looked at his prize as he was going along. So he undid the parcel, and presto! the medicine slipped out on the ground, spread and slid in all directions, covering up the face of the earth, and vanishing from sight.

On another occasion several young men went to see Glooscap in his present abode. One of them went to obtain the power of winning the heart of some fair one, which all his unaided skill had failed hitherto to do; an hundred times he had tried. to get a wife, but the girls all shunned him. Many of the party who started on this perilous expedition failed to overcome the difficulties that lay in their way, and turned back, baffled and defeated; but several of them succeeded. They were all hospitably entertained; all presented their requests, and were favorably heard. The man who sought power to captivate some female heart was the last to proffer his petition. Glooscap and his two subordinates conferred together in a whisper, and then Earthquake informed him that his ugly looks and still more ugly manners were the chief hindrances to his success; but they must try to help him. So he was handed a small parcel, and directed not to open it until he reached his own village; this he took, and they all set off for home together. The night before they arrived, he could restrain his curiosity no longer; he opened the parcel, the foolish fellow! Out flew young women by the scores and hundreds, covering the face of the earth, piling themselves in towering heaps, and burying the poor fellow, crushing him to the earth under the accumulating weight of their bodies. His comrades had cautioned him against disobeying the mandate, and had begged him not to undo the parcel; but he had not heeded the caution. They now heard him calling for help, but he called in vain, they could not help him; and his cries became fainter and fainter, and finally ceased altogether. Morning came at last. The young women had all vanished, and the fragments of their comrade were scattered over the ground; he had been killed and ground to atoms as the result of his unbridled curiosity and disobedience.


A. MANABOZHO'S BIRTH (MENOMINI: Skinner and Satterlee, Anthropological Papers of the American Museum of Natural History, xiii, 239)

In the beginning, there was a lone old woman living on this island. Nobody knows where she came from, nor how she got here, but it is true that she dwelt in a wigwam with her only daughter. Wild potatoes were the only food of the two women. Every day the old woman took her wooden hoe and went out to gather them. She packed them home and dried them in the sun, for in those days, there was no such thing as fire in that part of the world.

One day her daughter begged to go with her. "Mother, let me go and help you; between us we can dig more potatoes than you can alone." "No, my daughter, you stay here," said the old woman; "I don't want you to go. Your place is at home caring for the lodge." "Oh dear! I don't like to stay here alone all day," teased the girl; "it's so lonely when you are gone! I'd much rather go with you. There is another old hoe here that I can use. Please let me go too."

At last, the old woman consented to her daughter's pleading; the two armed themselves with their tools and set out. After a little journey they came to a damp ravine. "Here is the place where I always come to gather the potatoes," cried the mother; "you can dig here too. But there is one thing that I must warn you about, when you are digging these potatoes; I want you to face the south. Be sure not to forget this. It was because I was afraid that you could not be trusted to remember that I never brought you here before." "Oh, that's all right, I won't forget," cried the girl. "Very well then, you stay right here and work; I am going to dig over there."

The girl set to work with a will, and enjoyed her task very much. "Oh how nice it is to dig potatoes!" she said, and kept up a running stream of conversation with her mother as she labored. As the time passed by, the daughter gradually forgot her promise and at last turned round and faced in the opposite direction as she dug. All at once there came a great rushing, roaring noise from the heavens and the wind swept down where she stood and whirled her round and round. "Oh, mother! Help! Come quick!" she screamed. Her mother dropped everything and rushed to her aid. "Grab me by the back and hold me down!" cried the girl in terror. The old lady seized her with one hand and steadied herself, meanwhile, by catching hold of some bushes. "Hold me as tightly as you can!" she gasped. "Now you see why I told you to stay at home! You are being properly punished for your disobedience."

Suddenly the wind stopped. The air was as calm as though nothing had ever happened. The two women hastily gathered up their potatoes and hurried home. After that the old woman worked alone. Everything went well for a while, and then, one day the daughter complained. "I feel very strange and different, mother; there seems to be something within me." The old woman scrutinized the girl narrowly, but made no answer, for she knew that her daughter was pregnant. At last, she was brought to bed and gave birth to three children. The first of these was Manabozho, the second was a little wolf, Muh'wäse, and the last was a sharp flint stone. When the unfortunate mother gave issue to the rock, it cut her and she died. The old woman mourned her daughter greatly. In a paroxysm of rage and grief, she threw away the flint stone, but Manabozho a and Muh'wäse she cherished and cared for until they grew to be children.

B. MANABOZHO'S WOLF BROTHER (MENOMINI: Hoffman, Report of the Bureau of American Ethnology, xiv, 115)

When Manabozho had accomplished the works for which Kishä' Ma'nido 22 sent him down to the earth, he went far away and built his wigwam on the northeastern shore of a large lake, where he took up his abode. As he was alone, the good manidos concluded to give him for a companion his twin brother, whom they brought to life and called Naq'pote (which signifies an expert marksman). He was formed like a human being, but, being a manido, could assume the shape of a wolf, in which form he hunted for food. Manabozho was aware of the anger of the bad manidos who dwelt beneath the earth, and warned his brother, the Wolf, never to return home by crossing the lake, but always to go around along the shore. Once after the Wolf had been hunting all day long he found himself directly opposite his wigwam, and being tired, concluded to cross the lake. He had not gone halfway across when the ice broke, so the Wolf was seized by the bad manidos, and destroyed.


Excerpted from Tales of the North American Indians by Stith Thompson. Copyright © 1929 President and Fellows of Harvard College. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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