Native American Myths Directions

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Native American Myths

Directions: Read the following two myths. Then answer the questions below the myth on a separate sheet of paper.
How the World Was Made

Retold by James Mooney

Cherokee—Great Smoky Mountains)
The earth is a great island floating in a sea of water, and suspended at each of the four cardinal points by a cord hanging down from the sky vault, which is of solid rock. When the world grows old and worn out, the people will die and the cords will break and let the earth sink down into the ocean, and all will be water again. The Indians are afraid of this.
When all was water, the animals were above in Galunlati, beyond the arch; but it was very much crowded, and they were wanting more room. They wondered what was below the water, and at last Dayunisi, “Beaver’s Grandchild,” the little Water-bettle, offered to go and see if it could learn. It darted in every direction over the surface of the water, but could find no firm place to rest. Then it dived to the bottom and came up with some soft mud, which began to grow and spread on every side until it became the island which we call the earth. It was as afterward fastened to the sky with four cords, but no one remembers who did this.

At first the earth was flat and very soft and wet. The animals were anxious to get down, and sent out different birds to see if it was yet dry, but they found no place to alight and came back again to Galunlati. At last it seemed to be time, and they sent out the Buzzard and told him to go and make ready for them. This was the Great Buzzard, the father of all the buzzards we see now. He flew all over the earth, low down near the ground, and it was still soft. When he reached the Cherokee country, he was very tired, and his wings began to flap and strike the ground, and wherever they struck the earth there was a valley, and where they turned up again there was a mountain. When the animals above saw this, they were afraid that the whole world would be mountains, so they called him back, but the Cherokee country remains full of mountains to this day.

When the earth was dry and the animals came down, it was still dark, so they got the sun and set it in a track to go every day across the island from east to west, just overhead. It was too hot this way, and Tsiskagili, the Red Crawfish, had his shell scorched a birth red, so that his meat was spoiled; and the Cherokee do not eat it. The conjurers put the sun another hand-breadth higher in the air, but it was still too hot. They raised it another time, and another, until it was seven handbreadths high and just under the sky arch. Then it was right, and they left it so. This is why the conjurers call the highest place Gulkwagine Digalunlatiyun, “the seventh height,” because it is seven handbreadths above the earth. Every day the sun goes along under this arch, and returns at night on the upper side to the starting place.
There is another world under this, and it is like ours in everything—animals, plants, and people—save that the seasons are different. The streams that come down form the mountains are the trails by which we reach this underworld, and the springs at their heads are the doorways by which we enter it, but to do this one must fast and go to water and have one of the underground people for a guide. We know that the seasons in the underworld are different from ours, because the water in the springs are always warmer in winter and cooler in summer than the outer air.

When the animals and plants were first made—we do not know by whom—they were told to watch and keep awake for seven nights, just as young men now fast and keep awake when they pray to their medicine. They tried to do this, and nearly all were awake through the first night, but the next night several dropped off to sleep, and the third night others were asleep, and then others, until, on the seventh night, of all the animals only the owl, the panther, and one or two more were still awake. To these were given the power to see and to go about in the dark, and to make prey of the birds and animals which must sleep at night. Of the trees only the cedar, the pine, the spruce, the holly, and the laurel were awake to the end, and to them it was give to be always green and to be greatest for medicine, but to the others it was said; “Because you have not endured to the end you shall lose your hair every winter.”

Men came after the animals and plants. At first there were only a brother and sister until he struck her with a fish and told her to multiply, and so it was. In seven days a child was born to her, and thereafter every seven days another, and they increased very fast until there was danger that the world could not keep them. Then it was made that a woman should have only one child in a year, and it has been so ever since.

  1. What is Water-beetle’s role in the creation of the earth? What does this tell you about Cherokee reverence for all creatures?

  2. What do the “conjurers” do? What do you think the “conjurers” are? Explain.

  3. Name three natural phenomena explained in this myth. Why might people create stories about how such things came to be?

  4. At some points, the narrator says “No one remembers” or “We do not know.” How do you think these phrases enhance the myth? Explain.

The Sky Tree

Retold by Joseph Bruchac

Huron—Eastern Woodland
In the beginning, earth was covered with water. In Sky Land, there were people living as they do now on Earth. In the middle of that land was a great Sky Tree. All the food which the people in the Sky Land ate came from the great tree. The old chief of that land lived with his wife, whose name was Aataentsic, meaning “Ancient Woman,: in their longhouse near the great tree. It came to be that the old chief became sick and nothing could cure him. He grew weaker and weaker until it seemed he would die. Then a dream came to him and he called Aataentsic to him.
“I have dreamed,: he said, “and in my dream I saw how I can be healed. I must be given the fruit which grows at the very top of Sky Tree. You must cut it down and bring that fruit to me.”

Aataentsic took her husband’s stone ax and went to the great tree. As soon as she struck it, it split in half and toppled over. As it fell a hole opened in Sky Land and the tree fell through the hole. Aataentsic returned to the place where the old chief waited.

“My husband,” she said, “when I cut the tree it split in half and then fell through the great hole. Without the tree, there can be no life. I must follow it.”
Then, leaving her husband she went back to the hole in Sky Land and threw herself after the great tree.
As Aataentsic fell, Turtle looked up and saw her. Immediately Turtle called together all the water animals and told them what she had seen.
“What should be done?” Turtle said.
Beaver answered her. “You are the one who saw this happen. Tell us what to do.”
“All of you must dive down,” Turtle said. “Bring up soil from the bottom, and place it on my back.”
Immediately all of the water animals became to dive down and bring up soil. Beaver, Mink, Muskrat, and Otter each brought up pawfuls of wet soil and placed the soil on the Turtle’s back until they had made an island of great size. When they were through, Aataentsic settled down gently on the new Earth and the pieces of the great tree fell beside her and took root.

  1. Why was the Sky Tree important to the inhabitants of Sky Land?

  2. Why does the old woman try to cut down the Sky Tree? What does this tell you?

  3. Would this great beginning have occurred without the old chief’s dream? Do you think his dream comes true?

  4. Consider Turtle’s role in this myth. If you saw a turtle in a Huron work of art, what might be its meaning within the work?

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