Following up from my first post in North America Native mythology, we read that in the Pacific coast we find a great number of communities who are great storytellers. Some of the stories found on this book by Brian Swann are from a group of islands, Haida Gwaii, the islands of the boundary of the world. In there, shell fish can be taken twice a day, when the tide recedes, and salmon, halibut, cod, herring, eulachon, sea lion, seal and other species pass like an edible calendar through there.
This is a society that is divided in two moieties, the Raven and the Eagle. Moieties are divided by matrilineal families or clans and within a moiety, status depends on character, skill and luck in hunting. Moieties rule marriage, inheritance, the means of commemorating the dead and other essentials of social order. All of these social relations worked reciprocally between the two moieties.
In Haida Gwaii, a powerful visual art and oral literature is simultaneously rooted in the powerful forces of the village and in the hunter’s acutely personal relations with the wild. It is also rooted in the presence of the sea. It is not surprising that its most important mythological being, Manna, emerges from the waves. Neither that the primary realm of the gods is submarine.
In the stories of these communities we read about a map locating the world of surface people in relation to the world beneath the waves, including the forest and the sky. By paddling a canoe across the horizon, or by making a moral choice, beings passed from one world to another. The story “One they gave away” is an Haida mythological story told by a native Eagle moiety and it is about the daughter of a chief who lives in the islands and is on age to be married. Someone abducts her after many suitors are refused. A servant locates her lying mindlessly in a cave in the other world. This exploratory voyage or dream, which occupies much of the story, involves the death and resurrection of the girl’s mother, the taking by her brothers of superhuman wives and those wives taking the charge to reclaim the girl. The girl bears a child who is the abductor’s father reincarnated. He instructs her to return this child to the sea, midway between the islands and the mainland. Human beings are called surface people, ordinary surface birds of earth-surface people, which evokes the surface of the sea.
The importance of this story is that the old matrilineal order was centred on reciprocal relations between Raven people and Eagle people, and between human beings and the sea. According to this and other stories, this system was crushed under the force of insatiable greed and then displaced by a new order, patrilineal and fixated on the powers of a father in the sky. The war the father had witnessed was a catastrophe on a scale the older myth tellers had never known.
Another group of people living on the North Pacific coast were the Kwakiutl, or the Kwakwaka’ Wakw. These people lived on the shores of the many islands and inlets of the region and subsisted largely on the resources of the sea. They told a story called “Night hunter and day hunter”, which tells how the ancestors of the hereditary chiefs, through encounters with the spirit world, established institutions and acquired names and prerogatives that were passed down to their latter, day descendants. The story tells how day hunter went through a journey into the spirit world to return more powerful.
One institution found amongst these communities was the seal feast, a feast of harbour seals, one of the most prestigious events a chief could host. Precise etiquette governed the inviting, serving and eating. Another important institution was the Masking, a winter time ritual complex connected to world renewal. It included a number of dramatic masked dances performed by initiates of the elite. In the story, the ancestor hero acquires the prerogative of initiation for his descendants through his own initiation by spirits. As it is typical, the hero disappears into the world of the spirits, is healed and resurrected by spirits, and later he returns home full of spirits power, to be comfortably accommodated in the human realm. He performs dangerous and bizarre feats, but it is ultimately tamed and returned to a more or less human state, though he retains some spirit power.
Another interesting community which inhabited the lower Columbia river were the Chinookan. “The Sun’s myth” is one of the stories narrated by this group of people. On it we read about the trickster Mink, how is he born to a woman who has been impregnated miraculously by the sun. Teased by other children for having no father, the child goes to seek him. On the way he finds this family who owned lots of possessions. He is welcomed by the sun, and is allowed to take the Sun’s light about the world. He goes too low, causing fires, and the light has to be taken back. Amongst other things, the story seems to tell that the powers of the sun are incontrollable.
In the Navajo’s, there is a similar story in which twins are born to a woman in a similar fashion, seek their father, are tested by him at risk of death, show themselves to be true sons, and take back to earth the powers of lightning with which to destroy dangerous beings. Such testing occurs in many myths in which a man seeks to destroy his prospective or actual son-in-law. In all these instances the story is set before the present people have come, and the world they will inhabit still is formed. The story tells of the end of that previous world. The author’s interpretation of this story is that it might be about destruction and disease. The wish for power beyond that proper to the people, may reflect the desire to obtain and to monopolise the control of goods brought by whites to the mouth of the river. The myth erupted perhaps as a response of recent history, with the native’s amazement at europeans’ ways and possessions, and on the experience of sudden destruction.
Another interesting story is “Coyote, master of death true to life”, a narrative which starts from death and ends with life. It shows Coyote as a shape-changing chameleon, but only after overcoming death. In the first act of the story, it deals with the origin of permanent death, introducing a friend’s child death and his partner not wanting the dead to come back. When his child dies, he wants to change the rule, wants to bring his child back to life, but he can’t. In fact, two partners set out to bring their children back to live, and they almost succeed, but Coyote does not control his curiosity, and so the dead are gone forever. Coyote nevertheless manages to master the world of death, learns the ways of hunting and is praised. In the land of the dead , this Coyote does well what a man should want to do well, but the desire that has led him to follow his daughter becomes a reason to leave. He then comes from a world of darkness to a world of summer.
The story tells that mastering in the land of dead is about learning the opposite of what one has known. Mastery in the land of the living may also involve the opposite of what is expected. The land of the dead has ways that always stay the same. The land of the living is about play, a stage of improvisation with whatever is at hand, it can be a stage for the invention of an identity.
Coyote begins as a partner and a father. He leaves his partner to follow his daughter to the land of the dead. He leaves his daughter to return. We find during the story two social ties, then one, then none. That is Coyote’s nature, to be beyond social ties and against them, to be forever the possibility of what is not. In each half of the myth, he pays a price before he succeeds. This is true both when he seeks the good of others and when he seeks only to satisfy himself. He earns success in the land of the dead and in the land of the living. His successes are adaptation in the land of the living and deceive in the land of the dead. Coyote is a principle of inversion, a form of what might be called the negative. Deception as a counterpoint to the living, so is adaptation in the land of the dead. The ways to which Coyote adapts are opposite those of the living. The myth ends with Coyote sarcastically exultant and alone.
Coyote is alive among the dead and ever changing among the living. But these are the living of the world of myth people. They themselves will be transformed when the myth period ends, and the Indian people, who tell these stories, come. The entire genre and its world is based on inversion, on consideration of the counterfactual. The people of the myths and Coyote himself become again what they were when the stories are told. But Coyote, at least in this myth, becomes almost a pure example of the principle of myth itself. He becomes almost inversion itself, imaginative experiment with experience, play with appearance, transformation and transcendence of identity.
Looking now at the area of the great basin and Plateau, we read that in the pantheon of the legendary beings of the Saliskan people, one rises above the rest: the Smiling one, or Smiley. Smiley out does even his closest transformer peers: Coyote and Son of Carrot Root, who are culture heroes. He tames monsters, ogres and cannibals. He stands up as culture hero, and his exploits are written in tomes. The legend Sptekwl tells us about a time and a place, as a kind of dimension, another reality, in which elements of the landscape are anthropomorphised. In this dimension, beings wear different skins on transformed shapes. The story tells of a mythic past, but a truthful and real world, when animals talked and walked as men. It tells how the Grizzly woman tries to kill Smiley and his three brothers after killing Smiley’s parents, cutting his father’s penis and his mother’s breasts. The grizzly woman’s cubs try killing Smiley but the latter and his brothers kill the cubs. The youngest cub is roasted and set on a stake. Grizzly woman devours her own cub, thinking is Smiley. It follows a chase until Smiley gets the support of the people to lead Grizzly woman into a painful death trap.
The story is not so much about Smiley’s victory, than about Grizzly women’s defeat. She is the developed character, expressing jealousy, horror, rage, and pain. She shows lots of emotion, Smiley very little emotion. Smiley needs Grizzly woman in the story, almost like a diametric opposite. She is evil, irrational, treacherous and fierce. Smiley is good, calculating, elusive and cunning. Why Grizzly woman acts so viciously? Killing her own husband and co-wife, cutting his penis and her breasts? American oral literature acted perhaps as a psychological safety valve to release social pressure in a highly structured culture. In the safe domain or other reality of the performance, motifs would have had a cathartic effect on the members of an audience, allowing them to release negative, pent-up emotion.
Implicit in the legend is Grizzly woman’s status as a remarried widow. Perhaps Grizzly woman embodies the anger and jealousy of the new wife and the fear and insecurity of the old wife, where they both have to share a husband and a household. Such emotions could not be shown in reality, so they are shown in myth. Another provability is that Grizzly woman plays the role of that evil creature, found in the north west coast, the basket ogress, who carries on her back a large basket filled with snakes, crabs. A basket where she places children she has stolen.
Another community we are going to comment are the wind river Shoshone of Wyoming, who sang religious songs during ghost dance performances of the past. The Shoeshone name for religion is Naraya, the side/shuffling step of the dance. Naraya means wind river Shoeshone ghost dance. The ghost dance religion came from a dream by Wovoka, a northern Paiute prophet from Nevada, who prophesied the end of the present world, the return of the dead, and a new world of aboriginal abundance free from disease and death itself.
The 1890 massacre of Sioux who gathered at Wounded Knee, in South Dakota, which happened when Sioux were on a ghost dance performance, delivered a powerful message to other adherents to this religion. As a consequence Wovoka called for the abandonment of ghost dance performance. The dance give a detailed poetic vision of the natural world. Locals believed that when those songs were sang, it made berries and grass grow, it made water run. Dance kept away illness. When locals did not feel well, they danced. The purpose of the Naraya was to protect adherents’ health and to ensure abundance of water, plants and animals. Its purpose was also to perform rituals at harvest times, in areas such as the great basin, which was scarce in food and water. Song and dance was basically central and had a religious function. Men and women held hands in a circle, sted-sliding clockwise. Male song leaders started off the song and then those dancers who wished to sing joined in. The dreams of certain leaders determined when to perform the dance. It was believed that a dream was the time and place in which to receive sacred knowledge and power.
White clay man and wood stick man were two important characters of Naraya song, personifications that capture the essence of the religious focus. White clay was used in sun dance religion for purification, shamans used it to dry out disease, epitomising concern for health, while wood stick man was the maker of green things. Both characters brought to its ancient great basin and wind river Shosbone concerns and responses to them, through the round dance and the Naraya.
Communities in the great basin believed that fog, which is so necessary for animal and plant life, was a spirit or soul becoming when leaving the body of the death. According to a ghost dance prophecy, fog over the mountains might mean a crowd of souls returning to life. In some poems we read about the concern for water and the speedy return of spring, symbolised by melting snow. Myths tell about this process of melting snow and the whole purpose of myths story-telling was basically to help bringing about this natural phenomenon.
The eagle is another character, very much mentioned in myth in North America, and relates to religious ceremonies aiming at healing the sick. The eagle is in fact a sacred bird of the wind river Shosbone and many other Native American tribes. Other characters appearing as important mythological characters in Naraya myth are water, greenery and the sun. Just to mention the symbology of one of them, water is a form of soul, the essence of life itself, which becomes an amorphous airy fog.
Based on book: Coming to Light: Contemporary translations of native literatures of North America by Brian Swann
Pictures taken from: