The Myths of the North American Indians (Barnes & Noble Library of Essential Reading)


In The Myths of the North American Indians, Lewis Spence offers insight into what is unique and distinctive about the Native-American cultures and peoples. Part ethnography, part history, and part literary study, this collection is accessible to academic scholars and mainstream readers alike. Spence presents the distinct cultural and social differences between tribal groups as he examines hunting, costumes, and the afterlife. Spence explores native identity, life, and environment, and at the same time draws ...
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The Myths of the North American Indians (Barnes & Noble Digital Library)

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In The Myths of the North American Indians, Lewis Spence offers insight into what is unique and distinctive about the Native-American cultures and peoples. Part ethnography, part history, and part literary study, this collection is accessible to academic scholars and mainstream readers alike. Spence presents the distinct cultural and social differences between tribal groups as he examines hunting, costumes, and the afterlife. Spence explores native identity, life, and environment, and at the same time draws connections to similar European motifs and ideologies.
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One of the more underrepresented areas of cultural studies is the study of the important narratives that peoples around the world tell. It is in the narrative that culture and identity are imbedded, and through which we can come to a more honest and complete understanding of others. In Myths of the North American Indians, Lewis Spence offers his readers just this type of insight. He opens the door for all interested parties, whether they be academic scholars or mainstream readers interested in learning more about Native American peoples and cultures, to begin to understand and appreciate what is unique and distinctive about these cultures and peoples. Part ethnography, part history, and part literary study, this collection was unique for its time, and continues to be a valuable resource for the study of Native American cultures and narratives today. While other such studies have become obsolete or dated, Spence's insight and understanding have kept this text relevant across time, and have made it one of the most important texts within the genres of both folklore and Native American studies. This is not simply a historical text, or a study of literature or folklore, but rather it is a study of culture, of identity, and of what makes Native American perspectives unique, and therefore is as relevant today as it was when it was released in 1914. Spence writes in a style that is accessible to all readers, and in a way that is both clarifying and introspective, so that the reader is drawn into the journey with him, building on knowledge and insight along the way.

James Lewis Spence was born in Scotland in 1874, and his journey toward being a scholar of folklore and anthropology is as unique as his writings. Originally trained at Edinburgh University in the field of dentistry, Spence soon moved into the area of journalism, and through his journalistic endeavors became interested in the history, culture, and folklore of both Scotland and the various peoples of the world, particularly Mexico and the Americas as a whole, with whom he saw distinct connections in mythology and culture. After publishing a study of the Mayan sacred text Popul Vuh in 1908 and A Dictionary of Mythology in 1910, Spence published this text, which was one of his first efforts at a complete study of the mythology and narratives of a specific cultural group. Although based strongly in the evolutionary anthropology of its day, Spence's work also reflects some of the cultural relativism which Franz Boas was developing at the same time, thus reflecting an important transition in how academics were changing their views on indigenous cultures. Spence would go on to eventually publish more than forty works in the areas of mythology and folklore, becoming more popular later in life for his works on the occult and on Atlantis. Many of his texts are considered landmarks in their fields. While building his publishing career, Spence was also active in Scottish nationalism, being a founding member of the Scottish National Movement, which would later become the National Party of Scotland. Lewis Spence was a man interested in making sure that people, all people, were properly understood, and that all cultures were given equal and adequate respect, and this ethic is strongly e within this very text.

Spence's biggest motivation in writing this book seems to have been his concern that, despite the longstanding interest in Europe concerning Native Americans, little attention up to that point had been paid to narratives, and the ways in which they might inform and enlighten those wishing to move the Indian from the realm of "imagination" to the real, true, and factual. As someone interested in anthropology and culture, Spence saw anthropology as having failed Native Americans, for it offered little that was truly insightful about their cultures, and little that was more science than conjecture, which was what he was hoping for. His interest, therefore, was in presenting a general view of the mythology of Native Americans, using both historical and ethnographic materials to develop some context within which readers could better understand the narratives. Spence was not only interested in exploring what was different or unique about native cultures, however; he also sought to draw connections between Asian, European, and American traditions. In doing so, his work countered the common anthropological thinking of the time, espoused by major figures such as Louis Henry Morgan and Edward Taylor, who studied people based on a notion of "stages of cultural development" in which European cultures were thought to be distinct and unique from indigenous cultures, and thus lacked any modern similarities. Anthropology up to that point had only studied "difference," and Spence's work broke new ground in positing that there are many valuable similarities to be understood and studied as well. Although he is not as well known in the field of anthropology as Franz Boas, whose Culture and Race was published at almost the same time (1913), his ideas are very similar-that the study of people hinges on the notion that all cultures develop similarly, and differences are attributable to different histories, geographies and societies, and not to any inherent superiority or inferiority. Although at times Spence teeters between the two schools of cultural evolutionism and cultural relativism, his work is groundbreaking in its movement and transition from one to the other.

Although Myths of the North American Indians begins with something of an ethnography of Native Americans, it is a unique one, because it does not attempt to provide a complete picture. Instead, it focuses on addressing the ideas that Europeans might be most familiar with about native cultures, such as the story of Pocahontas and the literature of white captivity, while spending little time on those elements which would do little to inform an understanding of the mythology, such as types of dwellings and tribal law. Spence presents the reader with some of the distinct cultural and social differences between tribal groups when he examines areas such as ideas about hunting, costumes, and conceptions of the afterlife, countering the commonly held notion at the time that if you studied one Indian group, you could know something about them all. Again, Spence here flirts with ensconcing himself within the field of cultural anthropology, but also wavers back to the field of evolutionism when he is critical of native cultures-he notes that native art is distinctive and peculiar, and not of an exalted form, and dismisses the idea that pre-contact Indians could have built the great mounds found throughout mid-America. At times he also presents conflicting views of native life, first describing Native American childhood as devoid of violence, punishment, and fighting, and then, in his discussion of Native American warfare techniques, describing natives as violent and bloodthirsty, and placing cruelty squarely at the top of the ideas that define manhood in native cultures. Perhaps the reason for this was that he studied warfare as it existed in the eighteenth and nineteenth century, and not h had existed and functioned within tribal societies prior to European contact. If he had the latter, he surely could have come to a different conclusion. But, limited as he was to an indirect experience of native cultures, he does a commendable job of presenting a fair and balanced interpretation, based on the materials available to him at the time. In hindsight, we cannot blame him for not knowing what we know now, because at the time of his writing, he was actually ahead of the curve in terms of how anthropology was studying and understanding native cultures.

Prior to engaging the actual mythological materials, Spence also attempts to explain native religious identity, which he terms "mythologies." Focusing on ideas such as animism (the idea that everything has life/vibrancy), totemism (recognizing a strong connection between humans and animals), and fetishism (recognizing power in ceremonial items and charms), Spence again straddles the line between cultural evolutionism and relativism, in that he shows tremendous understanding for how these ideas function in native societies and spiritual systems, but lacks the native voice to provide insight into the motivations behind them. He gets a great deal of it right, and again that puts him far ahead of the curve for his time, but offers a cultural interpretation of the data which would likely have been very different from the interpretation Native Americans themselves might have offered. Cultural anthropology would not become popular until the 1920s and 1930s, so again Spence was breaking ground, but the field had not yet advanced enough for him to see the entire picture. One of the most important things he does offer readers, however, is his challenge to understand native cultures and narratives in light of missionary influence. In his discussion of creation narratives, Spence clearly challenges us as both scholars and readers to watch out for Christian influences within the narratives (the dichotomy of good versus evil, white versus dark, etc.) and in doing so clearly recognized that native belief systems had adapted and changed, based on historical and cultural circumstances, and that in order to put these changes in context, we need to understand the history behind them. Here again he sounds like Boas, and opens the door for his readers to approach the study with a more critical eye-he is giving us the tools, rather than telling us indisputable facts.

Spence's study of Native American mythology is broad, using language families as its point of reference. The majority of the narratives included in the text focus on the Algonquian and Iroquoian groups, likely because there had already been significant, major studies done on the folklore of these groups, and there would have been ample material for Spence's study. He also includes briefer studies of the Sioux, Pawnee, Northern and Northwestern Indians, California tribes, and Athapascans, providing the reader with a wide breadth of materials in which to view similarities and differences. These narratives are not meant to represent the totality of possibility, but instead are representative of the wide variety and distinctness of the narratives. Where they are most important is where they offer the reader the opportunity to see the cultural distinctness of these groups (although now we might certainly question the value of studying people based on language groupings alone, it was common practice in the field at the time)-their varied ideas about human creation, social relations, community interaction, kinship, and death, for example. It is here that Spence is at his best, for he is able to clearly document and represent the diversity of Native American cultures, viewpoints, and narratives, countering the notion that these are non-distinct cultures. His collections represents the rich fabric of indigenous cultures, without being overburdened with undue analysis or commentary, instead allowing the material to stand for itself, and the reader to draw his or her own conclusions and interpretations. These materials document historical, cultural, and social change, incorporate ancestors and m contemporary historical figures, and provide a window to understanding and more fully appreciating Native American cultures.

Myths of the North American Indians is truly a diverse study-it is history, ethnography, cultural study, folklore, and religion, all in one. In gathering these materials, Lewis Spence attempts to stress the uniqueness of Native American cultures and narratives, as part of the fabric of native identity, life, and environment, while at the same time drawing unique connections to similar European motifs and ideologies. Yet rather than suggesting a common mythological origin, Spence makes a push for a reasoned consideration of Native American narratives as distinct elements of their cultures, shaped and impacted by unique histories, societies, and environments, all of which must be understood in order to properly understand the materials. Although previously misunderstood and misrepresented, according to Spence, Native Americans deserve a more serious and scholarly study, and he makes an important effort at such a cultural understanding here. For Spence, the native is neither monster nor marvel, but rather simply a unique human person and society. Difference does not necessitate merely critical appraisal, but suggests uniqueness, which is worthy of any serious study. This text is a landmark in the study of Native American narratives, and their role within various distinct native cultures, and inasmuch remains one of the most important studies available today. Nearly a century later, Spence's work remains an example of the type of study which can illuminate the various peoples of the world, rather than denigrate them, and it is required reading for anyone seriously interested in the study of Native American folklore, culture, and identity.

Dr. Kenneth Mello is of Passamaquoddy descent, and is currently an assistant professor in the departments of Religion and ALANA/U.S. Ethnic Studies at the University of Vermont. His work focuses on contemporary Native American identity and religiosity, and he also studies and teaches in the areas of environmentalism, folklore, mythography, and sacred space.
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