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American Passages: A Literary Survey

Native Voices Stories of the Beginning of the World

[8113] Huron tribe, Pair of dolls (1830-50), courtesy of the Portland Art Museum, gift of Elizabeth Cole Butler [88.43.6-7].

Myths-deeply traditional stories that explain the origins of a phenomenon or cultural practice—serve as some of the foundational narratives for the stories told by a people. When authors recreate or adapt these myths for their own purposes, their audience must have a firm understanding of the myths in order to understand the stories that retell them. For instance, Herman Melville begins his novel Moby-Dick with the line “Call me Ishmael,” which invokes the Bible. Similarly, the main characters in Native American literatures often refer back to classical tales from the oral tradition, such as coyote tales, cultural hero stories, migration legends, and creation stories. Each of these stories has a standard set of characters, events, and elements. Knowing these original stories can help you better understand the written literature that preceded them.

Like other Native American oral narratives such as cultural hero and trickster stories, creation stories have etiological features or tags; that is, they describe how some familiar characteristic of the world came to be. Often the particular landscape and environment of the tribe enters into such stories; sometimes the location of the tribe is identified as the center of the world. The ceremonies that accompany these creation myths often enact a ritual return to a combined sense of origin and center, where healing and renewal can be found.

Like the biblical account in Genesis, Creation stories tell about the beginning of the world and how the people first came to be. Predominant among the tribes of what is now Canada and the eastern United States were earth-diver stories, which tell of how the world was created by beings who gathered mud from beneath the waters created by a great flood. Common in the Southwest and elsewhere were emergence stories, which often describe how the people originated in the womb of the Earth Mother and were called to the surface by Sun Father. Despite the many differences among various tribes’ versions of these stories, they generally establish how the world was created, how people developed out of ambiguously formed beings (who often had both animal and human characteristics), what each tribe took to be the basic relationships among people and between people and nature, and the origins of important tribal customs and structures.

Trickster tales, one form of creation story, vary according to their community, but they also share certain basic qualities. Tricksters are more than deceivers or trick players who make us laugh with their scatalogical humor: by crossing society’s boundaries they both break rules and show the importance of rules after the world has been created. They are also creators in their own right. Navajo storyteller Yellowman explains that he must tell about the trickster Coyote because, as he says, “If my children hear the stories, they will grow up to be good people; if they don’t hear them, they will turn out to be bad. … Through the stories everything is made possible.” As you read trickster tales, notice their unique characteristics. Consider the presence of traditional elements, such as animals (e.g., buffalo, coyote, spider, salmon), vegetables (e.g., corn), minerals, landscape, weather, colors, directions, time, dances, and the supernatural.

Teaching Tips

  • It is important that students begin to have a sense of the traditions of their own region. Investigate what resources are available from Native American storytellers in your area. If possible, invite a local Native American storyteller to your class or play a recorded performance from an audio- or videocassette. Your reference librarian should be able to help you locate resources.
  • Students can learn about the performative nature of storytelling by telling stories themselves. Have students pick one of the legends, memorize it, and recite it as an engaging story to the class. You may want to have students work in groups so that they can coach one another or work on smaller segments.

Author Questions

  1. Comprehension: What is a creation story? How does it differ from an emergence story?
  2. Comprehension: What is a trickster? What does a trickster do?
  3. Comprehension: What according to the Pima and the Iroquois existed at the beginning of time?
  4. Comprehension: In the Iroquois creation story the monsters are concerned when Sky Woman sinks into the dark world. What does their reaction tell us about the nature of monsters and the lower world?
  5. Comprehension: In the Pima emergence story, Juh-wert-a-Mah-kai had to rub his palm four times before the world was created. What else has to be done four times in the Pima stories? What does the number 4 come to mean by the end of the stories?
  6. Context: Listen to the audio clip about Coyote [8008]. Compare him to the trickster figures found in the Winnebago, Sioux, Koasati, Coville, Clatsop Chinook, and Navajo stories. Which of the trickster figures does he most resemble? Which does he differ from the most?
  7. Context: What are the themes and elements of some of the trickster tales? How do these compare to the gambler tales as described in the Extended Context “Sacred Play: Gambling in Native Cultures”?
  8. Context: Examine the Iroquois Cradle [8115] and the Huron Dolls [8113]. Do these appear to have been created by the good or bad mind of the Iroquois creation story? How do you know?
  9. Exploration: Is the Iroquois creation myth still an Iroquois text if it has been translated into English? Does such a translation so alter the meaning that it is no longer accurate to speak of it as Iroquoian, or should the fact of translation merely make readers more cautious, less eager to assume that they understand it? Is it better for non-Indians to have no access to such texts than to have texts that may be contaminated or inaccurate?
  10. Exploration: The theme of rival twins is widespread in the Americas and in the Bible. What cultural anxieties or issues does this theme address? What might account for its popularity?

Selected Archive Items

[8008 – not found in database – RL/LA] Greg Sarris, Interview: “Coyote” (2002),
courtesy of Annenberg/CBP and American Passages.
Greg Sarris, author, professor of English, and Pomo Indian, discusses the trickster Coyote.

[8113] Huron tribe, Pair of dolls (1830-50),
courtesy of the Portland Art Museum, gift of Elizabeth Cole Butler [88.43.6-7].
Dolls like these, made by the Huron tribe in the mid-nineteenth century, played a number of roles in traditional Native American culture, including being used to teach children their people’s history. The dolls were made from wood, wool, and cotton cloth and were adorned with metal and glass beads, leather, and real hair.

[8115] Iroquois, Cradle board (back side) (1830-50),
courtesy of the Portland Art Museum, gift of Elizabeth Cole Butler.
The “Iroquois Creation Story” speaks of the infants in Sky Woman’s womb. Cradle boards were common for infants throughout Native North America. One distinctively Eastern Woodlands technique was quillwork embroidery, which was later imitated using beads or paint. Cradles were often decorated with protective symbols to guard babies against human and supernatural adversaries.

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American Passages: A Literary Survey


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  • ISBN: 1-57680-564-6