If you’re looking to learn more about Native American mythology, you’ve come to the right place.
In this article, we’ll take a deep dive into the fascinating world of the indigenous peoples of North America.
We’ll explore the different tribes and their creation stories, the gods and goddesses they worshipped, and the central role that nature played in their beliefs.
You’ll learn about the powerful spirits that governed the natural world, the epic tales of heroines and heroes, and the traditions and rituals that have been passed down through the generations.
So come along with us and discover the rich and diverse world of Native American mythology.
Be sure to check out my World Mythology 101 article for an overview of all major mythologies in the world.
What is Native American Mythology?
Native American mythology (meaning the mythology shared by North American First Peoples) refers to the traditional stories and beliefs of the Indigenous peoples of the Americas.
These cultures have a rich history of oral storytelling, and their mythologies often revolve around themes of nature and the relationship between humans and animals.
Some common motifs include shape-shifting, parallel worlds in the sky or underground, and visits to the land of the dead.
Many of these myths feature trickster figures, who use humor to convey important moral and spiritual messages.
The stories were often closely tied to religious rituals and ceremonies, such as the sun dance.
Although each tribe has its own unique mythology, there are some shared elements across cultural boundaries.
Types of Native American Myths
Throughout all of North American, there were hundreds of separate tribes, and while many died out after the arrival of Europeans due to illness and genocide, many tribes and their legends lived on.
Here are just a few of the main “categories” of myth when it comes to North America:
- Northeast: Native American myths from the Anishinaabe, Ho-Chunk, Iroquois, Seneca, and Wyandot tribes feature female deities and explore the complex relationships between humans and animals.
- Great Plains: In Native American mythology of the Great Plains, stories often feature buffalo, the sun, and the supernatural hero Blood Clot Boy. A common theme is making a journey, often to a supernatural place.
- Southeast: In Native American mythology of the Southeast, important myths deal with the origins of hunting and farming, and the origins of sickness and medicine. Animism, the belief in the soul of all objects, places, and creatures, was an important practice, and the Green Corn ceremony was an annual celebration of a successful corn crop
- Caribbean: In Taíno mythology, the spiritual beliefs of the maritime Maipurean island settlers express a creator deity, cyclical spontaneous birth, and a view of reality as illusion. Today’s members of the community have established different views of their mythology, including ancestor veneration and deity and spirit veneration.
- California and the Great Basin: In Native American mythology of Northern California, myths are dominated by the sacred creator/trickster Coyote and include significant characters such as the Sun People and the Star Women. Important ceremonies include funeral customs and the commemoration of the dead, as well as puberty rites.
- Southwest: In Native American mythology of the Southwest, myths tell how the first human beings emerged from an underworld to the Earth. Themes include the origins of tobacco and corn, horses, and a battle between summer and winter. Some stories describe parallel worlds in the sky and underwater.
- Plateau: In Native American mythology of the Plateau region, myths express the people’s intense spiritual connection with their landscapes and emphasize the importance of treating animals with respect. Sacred tricksters include Coyote and Fox.
- Arctic: In Native American mythology of the Arctic, the landscape of tundra, snow, and ice is central to the myths, which feature the winds, the moon, and the giants. Some accounts say that Anguta is the supreme being who created the Earth and sea, and his daughter Sedna created all living things. Sedna is also regarded as the protecting divinity of the Inuit.
- Subartic: In Native American mythology of the Northwest Coast, some myths reflect the extreme climate and the people’s dependence on salmon. The landscape is populated by both benevolent and malevolent giants.
- Northwest: In Native American mythology of the Pacific Northwest, the dominant sacred trickster is Raven, who brought daylight to the world and appears in many other stories. Myths explore the people’s relationship with the coast and rivers, and there are stories of visits to parallel worlds beneath the sea and up in the sky.
Prominent Native American Myths
Of the many stories that exist among North American mythology, some of the major ones are:
- The Great Flood: Waynaboozhoo, a man who survived a great flood, enlists the help of animals to create a New World by using mud from the Old World. After several failed attempts by other animals, a small coot named Aajigade succeeds in bringing back a particle of mud and is brought back to life by Waynaboozhoo. The land is then shaped and grows, eventually becoming a home for all living things.
- The Story of Corn and Medicine: The Cherokee myth “The Story of Corn and Medicine” tells the story of the creation of the earth and animals, and how humans’ mistreatment of animals resulted in the creation of disease and medicine. It also explains the origins of corn, hunting, and night vision.
- Origins of fire: The Cherokee tell a story of how fire was created in the beginning of the earth when the Thunders beings sent lightning to put fire in a sycamore tree. The animals all met to decide how to retrieve the fire, but it was little Water Spider who was able to bring back a small piece of coal in her basket.
- Origin of Poison: In Choctaw mythology, the small creatures such as snakes, bees, and wasps agreed to take on a vine’s poison in order to protect the Choctaw people from its effects. They also each agreed to give warning before attacking in order to prevent unnecessary harm to people.
- The Do-yo-da-no: In Iroquois mythology, the Twin Gods, Hah-gweh-di-yu and Hä-qweh-da-ět-gǎh, are born from Sky Woman. Hah-gweh-di-yu creates the sun and moon, plants the first grain of corn, and creates the first people, while Hä-qweh-da-ět-gǎh brings harmful things to the world. The myth also serves as a moral tale about good and evil behavior.
Native American Mythology Characters
Next, here are some of the most significant characters to feature in North American mythology:
- Coyote: Another popular trickster figure in North American mythology, Coyote was known for his mischievousness and his love of practical jokes. He was also associated with death and the afterlife.
- Azeban: In Abenaki mythology, Azeban is a lower-level trickster spirit in the form of a raccoon. Azeban deceives other animals and beings for food or other services, but is not malevolent or dangerous. In one story, a woman names one of her six dogs after Azeban because it has the characteristics of the raccoon trickster.
- Angwusnasomtaka: Angwusnasomtaka is a kachina in Hopi mythology who is considered the mother of all hú and all kachinas. She leads the initiation rites for children into the Powamu and Kachina societies.
- Igaluk: Igaluk is a powerful lunar deity in Inuit mythology. He is known as Aningaaq in Greenland. Igaluk is the brother of Malina, the sun goddess, and their union causes solar eclipses.
- Black God: Black God is a fire god in Navajo mythology who is credited with inventing the fire drill and discovering how to generate fire. He is also associated with witchcraft and is sometimes portrayed as old, slow, and helpless, or as a trickster.
- The Sky Beings: In Blackfoot mythology, the Sky Beings are the creations of the creator god, Apistotoki. They are personifications of celestial bodies and are important in Blackfeet heritage, with the Milky Way serving as a sacred pathway to the afterlife. The Sky Beings include the sun god Natosi, the moon goddess Komorkis, the morning-star Lipisowaahs, and the Bunched Stars Miohpoisiks.
Native American Mythology Sources
North American mythology is a vast and complex subject, with many different stories and traditions coming from various indigenous cultures across the continent. Here are a few literary sources that are considered to be particularly important in shaping our modern understanding of these myths:
- The Sacred Formulas of the Cherokees: This book, compiled by James Mooney in 1891, is a collection of sacred formulas, prayers, and medical prescriptions used by the Cherokee people. These formulas are believed to have been handed down through the generations, and are an important source of information about Cherokee beliefs and customs.
- The Myth of the North American Indians: This book, written by Lewis Spence in 1917, is a comprehensive study of North American mythology. Spence collected and analyzed myths from many different indigenous cultures, and his work remains an important source of information about the beliefs and customs of these cultures.
- The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge: This book, written by Carlos Castaneda in 1968, is a first-person narrative of the author’s experiences with a Yaqui Indian sorcerer named Don Juan. The book is considered to be an important source of information about Yaqui shamanism and its place in North American mythology.
- The Way of the Shaman: This book, written by Michael Harner in 1980, is a practical guide to shamanic practices, based on the author’s experiences with indigenous cultures around the world. The book is considered to be an important source of information about shamanism and its place in North American mythology.
Native American Mythology Creatures
North American mythology is filled with incredible creatures that feature in many different stories. Here are a few of the most fascinating:
- The Wendigo: This creature is said to be a humanoid monster with glowing eyes and long, sharp teeth. It is believed to be a spirit of the cold and the famine, and it is often associated with the harsh winters of the northern regions of North America.
- The Thunderbird: This massive bird is said to be able to create thunder and lightning with its wings. It is often depicted as having the head of an eagle and the body of a giant bird. In some stories, it is said to be able to lift entire whales out of the ocean with its talons.
- The Skin-walker: These creatures are said to be shape-shifters that can take on the form of any animal they choose. They are often associated with witchcraft and are said to be able to cast spells and curses on their enemies. Some stories say that they are the spirits of evil people who have died and returned to haunt the living.