Digital American Literature Anthology
Dr. Michael O'Conner
Millikin University, Decatur, IL

Unit One: Native Peoples, Native Influences

The study of American literature begins with the voices, traditions, and stories of the peoples who were on the North American continent before the arrival of Europeans in the fifteenth century.

Native American origin myths, hero legends, and trickster tales are some of the more recent additions to the American literary canon. Some of these materials predate the European arrival on this continent and were passed down from generation to generation through dynamic, subtly-changing oral performances. Early explorers, missionaries, English-speaking natives, and anthropologists wrote down these native stories, making them available as American literary works that we study today. However, the written versions of these once-oral tales come to readers at a cost. Critics worry about how much has been lost in the translation of these works from their original languages to English. They also worry about the loss of the dynamic orality of these tales, when they were once reshaped and adapted to a particular setting and audience as they were told aloud. Finally, they worry about a modern reader's grasp of key cultural elements that often lie beneath each tale. Still, some of the best of these stories as they exist today are informative, insightful, and entertaining and they offer a glimpse into the rich and complex foundations of a particular nation or tribe.

In reading and studying these works, scholar Andrew Wiget recommends:

See his complete essay at:

Professor Paul Reuben expands on Wiget's advice with this introductory material, at:

Franz Boas, an early 20th century anthropologist, explains specific key concepts of native American tales from his essay, "Mythology and Folk-Tales of the North American Indians," in this manner.

Creation or Origin Stories
The idea of creation, in the sense of a projection into objective existence of a world that pre-existed in the mind of a creator, is also almost entirely foreign to the [native] American race. The thought that our world had a previous existence only as an idea in the mind of a superior being, and became objective reality by a will, is not the form in which the Indian conceives his mythology. There was no unorganized chaos preceding the origin of the world. Everything has always been in existence in objective form somewhere. (390)

. . . a number of types of origins may be distinguished, - first, origins due to accidental, unintentional occurrences; second, the formation of the present order according to the decisions of a council of animals; third, development due to the actions of two antagonistic beings, the one benevolent and wishing to make everything easy for man, the other one counteracting these intentions and creating the difficulties and hardships of life; as a fourth type we may distinguish the culture-hero tales, the narrative of the migration of men or deities who wander about and set things right. (393-394)

Trickster Tales
We shall next turn to a consideration of the trickster tales. In a sense these have been referred to in the previous group, because many of the trickster tales are at the same time origin tales. If, for instance, Coyote tricks the birds by letting them dance near the fire, and their red eyes are accounted for in this way, we have here an origin story and a trickster tale. At present we are not concerned in this feature, but rather in the consideration of the question whether certain features can be found that are characteristic of the whole cycle as developed in various regions. First of all, it seems of interest to note the degree to which the whole group of tales is developed. It is absent among the Eskimo, moderately developed in California, probably not very prominent in the aboriginal myths of the Southwest, but most prolific on the Northwest coast, the Northern Plateaus, and in the East. Whether it is a marked feature of the Athapascan area cannot be decided at present. Some of the heroes of the trickster cycle have been noted before. Raven, Mink, Bluejay, on the Northwest coast; Coyote on the Plateaus; Old Man among the Blackfeet; Ishtiniki among the Ponca; Inktumni among the Assiniboin; Manabosho, Wishahka, and Glooscap among various Algonkin tribes, - are some of the prominent figures. Although a complete list of all the trickster incidents has not been made, it is fairly clear that a certain number are found practically wherever a trickster cycle occurs. I have already stated that one group of these tales is confined to the Western Plateaus, another one to the northern half of the continent. At present it is more important to note, that, besides these widely distributed elements, there seem to be in each area a number of local tales that have no such wide distribution. The characteristics of the tales appear most clearly when the whole mass of trickster tales in each region is studied. A comparison of the Raven, Mink, and Bluejay cycles is instructive. The background of the Raven stories is everywhere the greedy hunger of Raven. Almost all of the Raven tales treat of Raven's endeavors to get plenty of food without effort; and the adventures relate to his attempts to cheat people out of their provisions and to the punishment doled out to him by those who have suffered from his tricks. Quite different in type are the Mink stories. Here we find throughout an erotic background. Mink tries to get possession of girls and of the wives of his friends, and his tricks have almost exclusively this one object. Occasionally only a trick based on his fondness for sea-eggs is introduced. The Bluejay adventures may be characterized in still another way. Generally it is his ambition to outdo his betters in games, on the hunt or in war, that brings him into trouble or induces him to win by trickery. He has neither a pronounced erotic nor a notably greedy character. The tricks of the Plateau cycles are not so easy to characterize, because the deeds of Coyote partake of all the characteristics just mentioned. Coyote attempts to get food, and his erotic adventures are fairly numerous; but on the whole these two groups are considerably outnumbered by tricks in which he tries to outdo his rivals. (394-395)

The Culture Hero
Wherever the desire to benefit mankind is a more marked trait of the cycle, there are generally two distinct persons, - one the trickster, the other the culture-hero. Thus the culture-hero of the Pacific coast gives man his arts, and is called "the one who sets things right." He is not a trickster, but all his actions have a distinct bearing upon the establishment of the modern order [explanations for the way things are or the proper rules for living]. Perhaps the most characteristic feature of these culture-hero tales is their lack of detail. Many are bare statements of the fact that something was different from the way it is now. The hero performs some very simple act, and ordains that these conditions shall be changed. It is only when the culture-hero concept rises to greater heights, as it does in the South, that these tales acquire greater complexity. Here may also be mentioned the animal tales that belong neither to the trickster cycle nor to the origin tales. It is hardly possible to give a general characterization of these, and to distinguish local types, except in so far as the importance of the tale is concerned. (396-396)

Key Lecture: Dr. Donna Campbell provides important approaches to learning and understanding native American works through her lecture outline at:

Questions for Each Assigned Work

Questions of Fact (often the stuff that quizzes are made of)

For each assigned piece of writing, try to record any relevant information related to reporting the facts about the story: who, what, when, where, why, and how?

Reflection and Application

What is the theme, point, or moral of the writing?
How does the author wish readers/listeners to consider the subject?

Specific Questions for Creation and Origin Stories

Note that in coming assignments, a good deal of the American literature written by explorers, colonists, and settlers concerns itself with the interactions between these European writers and Native Americans. Be prepared to note and record observations and evolving attitudes towards native inhabitants through the writings of Columbus, las Casas, Cabez de Vaca, Smith, Bradford, Morton, Rowlandson, Franklin, and Cooper.

Concisely describe the difference and similarities between a trickster and a culture-hero in native stories.

What are the major differences between origin/creation stories, such as earth-diver tales and emergence tales?

Using Donna Campbell's lecture, locate specific examples of some of the literary/oral devices she describes that appear in Native American myths and legends.

Before the 1960s, Native Americans were sometimes depicted in a negative fashion or as idealized stereotypes in popular culture (children's books, novels, radio, TV, movies). Can you offer examples of some of these portrayals? (for example, in classic black and white western films)

How are Native Americans portrayed today in the news and in popular media?

Four Origin Stories from Around the World for Comparison/Contrast

Babylonian Creation story - Enuma Elish (1200 BC)
A God (Marduk) battles a Goddess (Tiamat).
Marduk destroys Tiamat, rips her corpse in two
Two halves are the earth and the skies
Marduk now rules over all (other gods, too)
Sun, moon, planets, stars, weather created and set in motion.
Dry land (Babylon) created as terrestrial counterpart to heaven.
Creation of men and women from blood of Kingu, Tiamat's husband
Men and women were created to do the work of the gods

Jewish Creation Story, Genesis (600 BC)
A single male God, YHVH.
Universe darkness, void, no forms.
Light created.
Firmament created - a rigid dome over the earth separating the earth and heaven.
Dry land created.
Sun, moon, stars created.
Creation of men and women, charged to obey the word of God
God rests and sanctifies the Sabbath.
A serpent (evil one) corrupts humans, banishment from Eden (terrestial counterpart to heaven)
Battling brothers, Cain/Able
God destroys humankind with flood to start over.

Iroquois (Northeast US) Creation Story
upper world and lower world of darkness
Sky Woman pregnant with twins falls into the dark lower world
Turtle creates the earth island for Sky Woman to lay on
good twin and evil twin, fight even in the womb,
when they are born Sky Woman dies
good twin uses Sky Woman's head for sun, body for the moon
good twin creates elements of the rest of the world
good twin creates humans out of the dust, breaths spirit into them
twins fight, good twin kills evil twin
Evil Twin becomes the Evil Spirit

Pima (central Arizona, Southwest) Creation Story
a void of nothingness with one being, Juhwerta Mahkai, Doctor of the Earth
He rubs off parts of himself to create the world
Creates ants and creates a Person (Noo-ee, Buzzard) out of his eye
Doctor of the Earth makes mountains, seeds, sun, moon, stars
Doctor rubs off parts of his breast to make man and woman
First people perfect, don't die, eat everything then each other - killed off falling sky
Second people all gray - killed off
Third people smoked - killed off
Sun and Moon have a child, Coyote
Seeurhuh, Older Brother, comes out of the North
Older brother creates humans, gives them bows & arrows
A Great Flood kills the people, some on Superstition Mnts turn to stone
Various gods made more people, all the various Southwestern tribes

Jicarillas Apache (Northern New Mexico) Creation Story
all people, birds, beast live far beneath the earth in darkness
Sun and Moon tell people to leave this world by passing up through a rift in the sky
They pile up a mountain of sand and add seeds, growing the mountain larger
with poles and buffalo horns a ladder is constructed to get to the rift/passage in the sky
upper world is covered with water and Four Winds try to partially dry it out
animals are sent up to explore (Crow, Badger, Skunk, Beaver)
then all the people pass up to the upper world
Sun is held back by Spider, but the people tear the web away
the People finally find their home in the mountains near Rio Chama, northern New Mexico

Specific Questions related to Trickster Tales

1.) Google the word, “Trickster” or research it in Wikipedia. How does the meaning of the word affect the way that we think about these stories before and after reading them?

2.) In the Winnebago Trickster Cycle, the main character talks to the others in the story as brothers. What meaning does this have in the story and to the author?

3.) What is your impression of the event when the Trickster dresses up as a woman and marries the chiefs’ son? How do you think the author intended the audience of the tale to understand it?

4.) During the episode of the Winnebago Trickster and the flower/bulb, what lesson does the author/speaker try and relate to the listener or reader?

5.) Close to the end of the story there is the episode of the Winnebago Trickster running into trees and asking them for directions. How does this relate to Native American Culture and what they may believe in?

6.) In the Sioux trickster tale, Ikto (Iktomi) is able to trick and defeat Iya, The Eater. Expand the moral/lesson of this story to contemporary twenty-first century society. What is eating/consuming/endanger the people today? Think broadly about this.

7.) Almost all these varied "trickster" tales are about someone being tricked, taken advantage of, poked fun at, and involves baudy, sexual, or "bathroom" humor. What versions of these kind of tales or stories exist in modern society?

8.) In order for any unique culture to exist and survive, it must pass on its history, cultural background, ethics and morals to the next generation. As opposed to these Native American tales, how did or is this transfer functioning today with U.S. "culture"? How did the transfer happen with you, individually?


Works Cited

Boas, Franz. "Mythology and Folk-Tales of the North American Indians." The Journal of American Folklore, vol. 27, no. 106, Oct. - Dec., 1914.

Campbell, Donna M. "Early Native American Literature: Brief Outline Guide." Literary Movements. Dept. of English, Washington State University, 2010.

Reuben, Paul P. "Chapter 1: Early American Literature to1700 - Native American Oral Literatures." PAL: Perspectives in American Literature- A Research and Reference Guide. 2017.

Wiget, Andrew. "A Talk Concerning First Beginnings: Teaching Native American Oral Literature." Electronic Archives for Teaching the American Literatures. Ed. Randy Bass, 2012.

Other Resources

YouTube: "Keep America Beautiful" Ad from 1970s







Dr.Michael O'Conner, Millikin University