Native American Creation Myths

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The creation myth, or cosmogony (a composite of the Greek words kosmos and genesis – order and birth), is the most important story humans have to tell. That is because it serves as a model for everything we do. Creation myths, like all myths, are universal expressions that aim to explain a culture’s place and role in the world, and they still have anthropological relevance to cognitive processes, logic, and thinking in modern culture (Tychkin 2015). This paper reviews creation myths documented in North America, especially ones that highlight soil and the Earth as central themes to help explain the origin of humans and their world. In today’s post-Freudian era, few would regard dreams as simply untrue stories unworthy of study. Rather, to the extent that unconsciousness is believed real, dreams function as metaphorical or symbolic constructs that contain elemental truths about the dreamer and his or her beliefs. Similarly, myths supply valuable information about both the inner psyche and world view of a particular culture (Levi-Strauss 1963; Malinowski 1926; Sepie 2017). Because no one was there to witness and document our origins, humans have a universal need to construct oral histories to explain the purpose of life and our place in this world.

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In the classic Alpha: The Myths of Creation, Charles Long (1963) identified five basic types of creation myths: (1) creation from nothing (ex nihilo, usually but not exclusively in monotheistic religions like Judaism, Christianity, and Islam), (2) emergence from a hole in the earth, (3) world-parent myths (involve a union, separation, division, sacrifice, or dismemberment), (4) creation from chaos — preexisting, undifferentiated primal elements, and (5) earth-diver myths, which involve diving deep in primordial waters to collect soil for creation. There are, of course, many variations and combinations of these five types (Leeming 2010). Ex nihilo creation myths are found around the world and are probably the most common of all types. Emergence and earth-diver myths most directly include soil for many Native American creation stories. These stories often involve use of clay, dust, or mud to make humans. Even the ex nihilo creator uses clay in the later stages of the creation process and chaos myths are often based on clay as the raw material to be molded (Leeming 2010). Clay or some earthen material, however, is essential in all earth-diver myths. The Hopi goddess Spider Woman, for example, thought of human beings by singing and then formed them from clay. That soil is ubiquitous in so many early creation myths is not surprising given that it was so familiar in everyday life experiences; for example, its use as a basic raw material for making buildings, paintings, figurines, pottery, etc., and serving as the foundation of the Earth’s surface, where humans walk, plant crops, and live their lives.

Earth-diver creation myths can be found in many parts of the world, but they are very important in Native American cultures of North America and they are especially common for Algonquian, Siouan, Iroquoian, and many California groups (Leeming 2010). Earth-diver myths stress the creation of Earth rather than the larger cosmos, with animals often playing an important role in primeval waters, typically with a dualistic tension of good and evil forces. These myths usually begin with primeval waters and one or more rarely two creators who set out to create Earth. Various animals often assist these missions by diving deep to bring up earthen material. North American earth-diver myths emphasize a culture hero or heroine, sometimes a trickster who is mischievous or even amoral. There is sometimes an evil brother who struggles with a good brother for dominance. Algonquian earth-diver myths tend to be post-flood stories, in essence a second creation. The Anishinabe (Ojibwa) have a post-flood story in which the culture hero Nanabozho and a few animals survive to create a new world. 

Nanabhozo dove into the waters to search for mud for a new earth, but the waters were too deep (Leeming 2010). Several animals tried too but also failed until the lowly muskrat finally took his turn. After a long time he floated to the surface dead, but carrying bits of earth in his closed paw to make the world. Siouan tribes tell earth-diver myths in which the creative agent is more of a trickster than creator. Coyote is a widespread trickster in many Native American myths in the Southwest, Great Basin, and the Plains. An example is that Navajo, who regard Coyote as an unpredictable and ambivalent being who tests the limits of acceptable behavior (Cooper 1987). Among the Crow, Coyote sends a duck deep into the primeval sea to find the soil to begin creating the world. Coyote breathed on the mud and it became Earth and then plants, animals and people. The Kukulik Inuit of St. Lawrence Island in the Bering Sea off Alaska say that Raven acted as an earth-diver to find sand with which to make the Earth and separated pebbles from the sand to make humans.

The dive is treacherous and many divers lose their lives, as plants, animals, and humans are created by Mother Earth. Whether or not the dive is viewed as a metaphor for descending into an unconscious world in search of consciousness, Mother Earth clearly serves as the source of all life (Leeming 2010). Dundes (1962) sees the earth-diver myths as a case of pregnancy envy on the part of males. Versions of the earth-diver myth with the twin motif serve to mediate the duality inherent in life experiences and existence itself. In the Iroquoian myths, for example, the bad twin creates powerful and dangerous animals of the hunt, while the good twin, favored by his mother, creates good domestic animals and edible plants. Conflicts between two opposing forces can thus be expressions of the conflict between choosing a hunter-gatherer versus an agricultural way of life. Myths help humans to mediate between Binary oppositions (homogenous ones like summer and winter, land and water, earth and sky, upper and lower, left and right, noble and commoner, strong and weak, elder and younger, etc.; or logically heterogeneous ones such as stability and change, state and process, being and becoming, synchronic and diachronic, simple and ambiguous, unequivocal and equivocal (Levi-Strauss 1963, 1995).

Emergence myths, by contrast, involve the gradual creation of particular people in a particular place, a specific emergence site. For many Native American tribes in the American Southwest, that means the center of the world, the place where their people emerged. In New Mexico, Keresan-speaking people such as the Acoma, Laguna, and Zia say that two sister-spirits lived in a dark underworld where they were taught and fed by a goddess called Thinking Woman. Further west, the Zuni were nurtured by Mother Earth before emerging from the underworld darkness nurtured by Mother Earth. Hopi, the westernmost Puebloans, believe they were guided by Spider Woman through three worlds, maturing morally and physically as they traveled, before entering the present world, the Fourth, through a hollow reed and a sipapu (a symbolic hole in house floors and kivas, a type of ceremonial structure) through which humans emerged from the underworld to the present world. 

The Nanih Waiya Cave, the possible source of the Choctaw emergence myth described by Bushnell (1910; Cherry 2006), is the end of a long passage where humans and grasshoppers emerged from a large cavern in the earth’s interior where Aba, the Great Spirit, created humans by forming them of yellow clay. Creeks of the Southeast and other groups are more concerned with their migration account of wanderings after they emerged from the ground (McKee 1989; Swanton 1931). Arikara of the northern Plains believe they dug their way out and emerged in the east and then traveled west, led and nurtured by Mother Corn to the place where they settled. The Kiowa say they were led by ants from the underworld through a hollow log and into the world. An Apache myth describes how buffalo aided underworld beings by using their horns to build a ladder up to a hole so they could enter the world. Emergence myths must be ancient, with the mammalian birth process serving as a metaphor. In these myths people gestated in different forms within Mother Earth, often assisted by a midwife-goddess, and struggled through various stages before emerging from the underworld. 

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Native American Creation Myths. (2021, Dec 29). Retrieved September 28, 2022 , from
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