A few years ago I was invited to Grand Ronde, Oregon for a speaking engagement with Chance Rush and his organization Cloud Boy Consulting. I had never been to that part of Oregon before and I was totally enchanted by the beauty of the countryside and the people. But I was even more impressed with the organization of the Grand Ronde tribe itself. I had never seen a tribal executive committee govern their tribe like a Fortune 500 company.
Like a handful of tribes, they owned a successful casino. But the casino wasn't the end all be all for the tribe. They used portions of their casino money to invest in the infrastructure of the town. (At that time they were busy with several road construction projects.) And instead of giving tribal members a monetary per cap, the tribe instead created college endowments. When a tribal member reached 18 years of age they had the opportunity to attend the college of their own choice. The tribe also had their own tribal college and were able to support tribal members with continuing adult education programs and vocational training. They even had an after school center for their tribal youth complete with several computers and an after school tutor. As I walked around the Grand Ronde tribal headquarters I felt a mixture of pride and maybe a little bit of jealousy.
I spent a decent amount of time in the Grand Ronde tribal library when I was free. The tribal library was easily on par with some of the public libraries that I've visited in the past. The librarians were always nice and they pointed me in the direction of some old books on tribal lore and mythology. It was here that I came across a book published in 1907 that contained several stories from the tribes of central California. There was a short story from the Tachi Yokuts that I liked called The Deer and the Antelope Race.
The deer & antelope race
In olden days the antelope and the deer once walked the wide grasslands together. But in time they began to contend against each other in all things. Eventually the antelope said: "I bet that I can beat you in a race." The deer laughed, "I think not." The antelope responded, "Let us see then." The deer replied,
"Fine, we shall run for six days straight," and the antelope agreed. The deer said, "We will go south and run to the north."
The two then traveled together far to the south even crossing the great western ocean in order to run northward to the ends of the Earth. The antelope said, "This will be my path on the west. You will take the path on the east." The deer agreed. Their path was the milky way. On the side where the antelope was set to run was a wide clear path; on the other side where the deer was set to run was a narrow path fraught with dark patches of nothingness. Too late did the deer realize that he would have to jump over these patches of darkness in order to win the race. The antelope said, "If I win this race, all of the wide open fields will be my country and you will have to abide in the brush." The deer confidently replied, "So be it, and if I win it will be the same for me." The two contestants then raced to the north for six days straight. For five days the Deer and the Antelope were even but on the six and final day the Deer grew weary from all of the leaping and the Antelope won the race.
So now he has the plains to live in, but the deer abides in the brush.
In many of the ancient myths and legends from the West (Rome, Greece, etc.), the main protagonists of the myths are often presented with a daunting task. These protagonists are then forced to travel deep into the underworld or to some other magical realm in order to seek out a boon or gift. This gift can be almost anything. Sometimes the gift is special wisdom or knowledge. At other times this gift can take on the form of magical abilities or powerful weapons. But perhaps the greatest of boons to be attained was the gift of self discovery. The heroes then return home to remedy the adversity and live happily ever after. If you've ever read Campbell's The Hero With a Thousand Faces you will immediately recognize this particular narrative formula.
However most Native American myths and legends don't fall so neatly into Campbell's work of comparative mythology. In my opinion, Indigenous myths do not mesh so well with myths from the West because they do not follow the traditional Three-act structure. So many Indigenous tales have no true beginning, middle, or end. The Kiowa trickster Sain-Day for example has always existed and there is no true chronological order to the many tales about him. He is always "Coming Along 1".
Some of the earliest of Native American tales present themselves as dreams. These particular stories always possess a certain esoteric quality to them and it was very hard for non-tribal members to categorize them. However, that didn't stop most 18th and 19th century Ethnologist from trying to classify and catalog these ancient myths of North America. Their efforts resulted in rather dry, unimaginative interpretations that were ultimately dismissed as mere explanations of natural phenomena. At other times these same Ethnologist often wrote that these old stories were created as a form of entertainment.
While the stories like Sain-Day and the Prairie Dogs are comical they weren't created solely for the purpose of entertainment. Instead these stories were meant to teach lessons much like biblical parables. The stories were also created to ensure that tribal members adhered to the social mores and honor codes of the tribe itself. Most importantly though these stories also served to connect members to the past in ways that are hard to express sometimes.
I always think of my grandmother whenever I come across a Sain-Day story in my readings. She told me many of these tales when I was very young. My grandmother in turn remembered hearing these stories from her own grandmother Thot-Sau-Nah when she was young. Her grandmother also learned these tales as a child. So when I hear or read a story that I've known as a child I can sometimes feel that deep connection to my people stretching all the way back into the ether. And to me that is the true meaning and purpose of storytelling, connection. If the "drum" is the heartbeat of the American Indian then the "story" is the blood flow that courses through the American Indian's veins.
1. All true Sain-Day stories always begin with "One day Sain-Day was coming along."
I once had the opportunity to travel to Macy Nebraska, way back in 2005, for a speaking engagement and basketball exhibition. Councilmember and native basketball legend Barry Webster brought us in and it was a wonderful experience. I believe that our group's message of staying drug and alcohol free reached many of the students that filled the basketball gymnasium that day. But for me the highlight of that entire trip was sitting down and speaking with a few of the Omaha tribal elders who were also in attendance.
In the high school cafeteria an older gentleman told me a great story about pride and arrogance. Why he shared this particular story with me? I don't know, maybe I came off as a little arrogant on the basketball court. But the story struck home and its one that I wish that I had recorded. Sometimes the written word can surpass the spoken, except when those words are spoken by a tribal elder.
How the Wren Became Chief of the Birds
Once in olden days, the mighty birds of the land held a great council to decide whom amongst their number would be their chief.
Humming bird with his shimmering coat of green and ruby was there. He dazzled all with his blinding speed as he darted to and fro. But he tired quickly and was deemed far too small to ever be the leader of the avian clans.
Crane was there with his shiny coat of white feathers. He amazed the gathering with his great stamina and superb fishing skills. But in the end he was deemed not fierce enough to lead the great host of birds.
Horned Owl was there with his mysterious, luminous eyes. He impressed the great gathering with his fierce hunting skills and ability to see even into the blackest of nights. But the bright sun made his head hurt and most of the other birds feared his sinister reputation. He was deemed unworthy to lead the bird nation.
Eagle was there with his sharp eyes and majestic bearing. He impressed the great council with his ferocity and impressive hunting skills. He stunned the gathering with his great speed and powerful wings. Almost all in attendance believed that he should be the leader of the great bird clans.
However Wren, with his dull colored coat of feathers and small stature, spoke in objection. He suggested a contest to determine who should be the leader of the great bird nations. Eventually it was decided that the bird who could fly the highest above the clouds would be elected as the chief of the avian race. Eagle laughed at Wren for his temerity and unmitigated gall. Of all the birds in attendance only Hawk could compete with Eagle in this particular contest. What hope did Wren have?
The next day the bird council sat on a great cedar tree and prepared themselves for the contest. Eagle and Hawk eyed each other warily and most of the other competitors believed that it was a forgone conclusion as to who the winner would be. None noticed the little Wren quietly hide in the Eagle's thick feathers.
At last all of the contestants were ready. With a loud scream from Screech Owl the contest began. The great host of birds rose up as a great black cloud. The mighty gathering flew higher and higher until at last the ephemeral clouds were within sight. Hummingbird grew tired and could go no further so he returned to the earth. Next Sparrow grew fatigued and he withdrew from the contest. Cardinal and Robbin also grew weary and had to return the ground below.
The remaining host reached the misty clouds. But once there Crane and Stork grew extremely tired and decided to return to the earth below. Soon after, Horned Owl and Sea Gull both withdrew from the contest as neither could fly any further. In the end it became a contest of wills between Eagle and Hawk. Both struggled to fly higher and higher above the clouds yet they continued upward. The air grew very cold and soon the stars could be seen twinkling in the darkening sky above. At last hawk could go no further and he slowly circled back down to the earth. With a triumphant cry Eagle proclaimed himself the winner. Just then Wren burst free from beneath Eagle's feathers. Wren flew high above the clouds and Eagle vainly tried to catch up with the audacious small bird. But Eagle was totally spent and he at last made his way back to earth.
The other birds were surprised to see Eagle return so reticent and angry and they could not understand his distress. It was then that they noticed that Wren was not among their number. They looked up amongst the clouds and saw a tiny speck making its way back down to the earth. In shock the gathering realized that it was the little Wren.
For his cleverness Wren was elected as the leader of the bird nation. And that is how Wren became chief of the birds.
T. D. Hill (Wichita, Kiowa, Pawnee) is a Native American artist, writer, and motivational speaker
What Reviewers are saying...
"The Age of Myths and Legends will take you on an exciting journey through Native American folklore. T.D. Hill artfully draws together characters from many indigenous traditions including his own, exposing both the uniqueness of each story and the commonalities across them. Hill’s beautiful paintings also give these fearsome creatures full visual effect. A valuable and thorough collection of the earliest folktales and teachings of Native American elders."
"Hill takes you on a mesmerizing journey through the tales of monsters and evil beings in Native American folklore. The similarities among the tales across peoples fascinated me and gave me goose bumps, especially when great distances separated the peoples! Hill's art masterfully adds a visual chill to the image his words paint, eliciting an extra shiver of delighted terror."
"Perfect for those who love mythology, and especially mythology of the First Americans. I’m definitely looking forward to the next in the series."