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American Passages: A Literary SurveyUnit IndexAmerican Passages Home
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1. Native Voices   

1. Native Voices

•  Unit Overview
•  Using the Video
•  Authors
- Chippewa Songs
- Louise Erdrich
- Ghost Dance Songs
- Thomas Harriot
- Black Elk & John G. Neihardt
- Simon J. Ortiz
- Leslie Marmon Silko
- Stories of the Beginning of the World
- Luci Tapahonso
- Roger Williams
- Suggested
•  Timeline
•  Activities

Authors: Stories of the Beginning of the World

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

Stories of the Beginning of the World Activities
This link leads to artifacts, teaching tips and discussion questions for this author.
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.

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