The Story Behind the Story
Based on traditional Native American beliefs across North America
The stories written in this book are based on authentic Native American myths, legends, and stories. Some of them are practically word-for-word as they were told to me personally. Some of them go back sixty years or even more to when I first heard them. Some of them are based on the Native American legends and stories, but with fictional details that I’ve added as the author of this book.
Native American indigenous people who lived on the North American continent for thousands of years before the arrival of European, usually white, explorers and settlers conceived of these myths and developed the legends for a wide variety of reasons and purposes. They often employed artistic forms like petroglyph carvings, symbols painted or drawn on tanned animal skins like buffalo hides and deerskins, similar designs in porcupine quillwork or shell beadwork, to illustrate many of their stories and beliefs.
But the verbal telling of the stories was by the memory of persons in their tribes and bands. Whether around camp and council fires, in lodges, wigwams, and tipis, between parent and child, elder and young person, from a member of one tribe to someone from another tribe.
Whatever the occasion, the stories made up what the scholars often refer to as “oral tradition.” The Native American peoples lacked written languages to accompany the verbal telling. And each storyteller had the possibility of adjusting the story in its telling.
The following categorization is strictly my own telling. It is not claimed to be any academic or “official” classification. It is simply my personal observation as I heard the stories and legends when they were told to me. And the stories I chose to include in this book were sometimes selected to illustrate this variety.
Some of the myths, stories and legends were developed to explain realities in the world around them for which they had no other explanation. Some explained important, prominent, even sacred, geographical and topographical features. Examples in the book include the Sleeping Bear Dune legend, based on the famous Sleeping Bear dune, the National Lakeshore that bears its name today, and the Manitou Islands that lie opposite the dune out in northern Lake Michigan. Also, the even more famous Horseshoe Falls of the Niagara Falls formation and its serpentine shape.
Some of the myths were told to explain Native American beliefs about Creation, the origin of places, things, animals and people. The sacredness of Mackinac Island as the “first dry land” after a prehistoric great flood, and how it was created, is a good example. Another example explains the reason that bobcats and lynxes are so similar as to appear like close cousins, but why the lynx is different in several respects.
Many natural phenomena that were regular parts of the Native American world and life had myths and stories to explain how and why they are as they are. What the people were seeing when the aurora borealis or northern lights appeared in the night sky as “curtains” of shimmering pastel-colored light. Why there were rare albino animals like the white buffalo or an albino deer and what they meant when they appeared.
And as northern lights and albino animals were understood by tribes across the continent to have special spiritual meanings and connections to the unseen Spirit World, so were stories told about what it means when a great owl perches and hoots near a village or lodge in the evening. And the spiritual importance of wild strawberries and many other common items. Even when Christian missionaries “converted” Native American people to the Christian faith in more recent centuries, spiritual significance would be attached to such things as the appearance of the head of a little woodcock, the “mixed up little bird.”
And often stories were obviously created and told for such delightful reasons as to entertain small children, and adult. People with such close attention to the intimate details of the natural world around them as Native Americans certainly understood the actual reasons that birch tree trunks were mostly white with smudgy, roughly bird-shaped, “winged” black marks on them. The marks were left over from the growing tree trunk shedding small, early developing branches, leaving remnants where the branches once attached to the trunk. In the same way, they well understood that the horizontal black stripes on the white trunks were expansion marks from the tree widening as it grew. But what fun to tell the story of the little bird and the brave birch tree!
And a story like the origin of the Potawatomi Partridge Dance? Good advice to suggest an important lesson for a young man seeking a girlfriend or even a future wife.
It is the sincere hope of this author that the retelling of these stories will not only in some small, imperfect way help to preserve culture and tradition, but also provide you with fun and good reading.