Wednesday, May 05, 2010

Native American Mythology

It would take hundreds of pages and a lot of researach to even scratch the surface of Native American mythology. No way would I even attempt that. But I did learn a lot for my middle-grade adventure, Eagle Quest (available at Amazon in Print and Kindle editions).

I wanted a half-breed Native American boy searching for his roots. Mitchell, who calls himself Black Crow, believes that a Vision Quest will help him discover his true self. He and his friends decide to visit the Bear Valley Wildlife Preserve, which is one of the several preserve areas in the Klamath region in southern Oregon. This particular preserve is a nesting place for bald eagles. Mitchell would also like to collect an eagle feather for his medicine bag. He didn't know that collecting any eagle parts is illegal. Enough about the story (please read it if you'd like to learn more).

Native American mythology sets great store by the animals around them. The stories imbued each animal with certain spiritual traits. The following information was derived from the Encyclopedia Mythica.

Wakan: Wakan or Wakan Tanka is the name the Lakhota Sioux use to specify the general spirit of god. Every creature and object has its own wakan, a spirit without limitation. Wakan tanka kin, the wakan of the sun, is the most important in the Sioux tradition.

Bear: Bear plays a major role in many Native American narratives. The animal represents the west and thoughtfulness. Many tribes tell narratives with Bear as the central figure.

Crow: Crow is one of the most prevalent mythological trickster characters, particularly for the northwest and Alaskan tribes.

Coyote: Coyote is the trickster character in southwest cultures, but is also sometimes portrayed as the creator, but he may at the same time be the messenger, the culture hero, the trickster, or the fool. He is also a power transforming character. In some stories he is a handsome young man, in others he is an animal, and others present him as a sacred power.

Eagle: Eagles are a powerful medicine. Elaborate headdresses of chiefs and leaders often feature eagle feathers. Sometimes equated to the Thunderbird, eagles are a symbol of strength.

Inktomi (Spider): The Spider, although most tales involve the trickster nature of the spider and center on morality lessons for the young, Inktomi also created Lakhota culture. Interestingly, the Spider has almost identical role in the myths of African cultures (Anansi).

Vision Quests: The Vision Quest is a rite of passage tradition for many North American tribes. Vision quest preparations involve a time of fasting, the guidance of a tribal Medicine Man and sometimes natural hallucinogens. The quest is undertaken for the first time in the early teenage years. The quest itself is usually a journey alone into the wilderness seeking personal growth and spiritual guidance from the spirit Wakan Tanka.

Traditionally, the seeker finds a place that they feel is special, and sits in a 10 foot circle and brings nothing in from society with the exception of water. Occasionally the seeker will urinate in the water as a means to purify it. A normal Vision Quest usually lasts two to four days within this circle, in which time the seeker is forced to look into his soul. It is said that a strong urge to leave the Quest area will come to the seeker and a feeling of insanity may set in. However, the seeker normally overcomes this by reminding him or herself of the overall outcome of the quest, causing the mind to stop wandering on random thoughts. The individual can generally find solace in the fact that he or she will not die in just two to four days. It is noted that few have claimed grand visions on their first Vision Quest. Native American spirits or wakan are said to be capable of speaking through all things, including messages or instructions in the form of an animal or bird. Generally a physical representation of the vision or message such as a feather, fur or a rock is collected and placed in the seeker's medicine bag to ensure the power of the vision will stay with the individual to remind, protect or guide him.

Medicine Bags: Medicine items attributed with various supernatural abilities for the bag would often be procured in a tribal custom known as a vision quest. This ceremony includes personal sacrifice: fasting and prayer over several days in a location isolated from the rest of the community, often involving hallucinogens. The purpose was to make contact with natural spiritual forces that help or guide people to reach their potential. The spirits, or totems would aid the individual to gather magical items, increase knowledge and aid personal growth.


  1. Nice post Marva. For my next story I'm into doing research on the Lepate Indians of the Appalachian Mountains. Not much can be found on them. I may ask for some hints on shamans from your fascinating posts into mythology and lore.

  2. Fascinating, Marva. Inktomi is also what some of the midwestern tribes called white invaders.

  3. The Native American history of this country is fascinating. I've read all the legends I can find and have researched the tribes in my area for a main character, Shadow Fletcher, a one-handed Native American park ranger with a touch of mystical abilities. One of the most interesting things I found was that England used Virginia as a dumping ground for Scottish prisoners of war, keeping them from returning to Scotland to fight again. Since no respectable English woman would wed a Scot, the men married Indian women and there are very few purebred tribal members in eastern Virginia today.

    Take care,

  4. Lorrie: Great! When you find some interesting tidbits on the Lepates, throw them my way.

    Tom: They probably called them much worse things, too.

    John: I look forward to reading your book. You do come up with fascinating topics.