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Before the Sky Was Blue: Creation Myths of America's First Peoples

written by: Linda M. Rhinehart Neas • edited by: Elizabeth Stannard Gromisch • updated: 10/24/2013

From the Zuni to the Cherokee to the Anishinaabe to the Inuit, the creation stories of the First Peoples weave a rich and varied image of how life began. While these myths are different from nation to nation, they all reflect the deep spirituality and a reverence for nature and all beings.

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    Mythic Attributes

    The basic characteristics of the Native American creation myth are:Native art 

    • a belief in the Great Mystery, Creator or Great Spirit.
    • an interplay between the sacred and the natural world.
    • the assistance of animals such as turtle, loon and raven.
    • the key role that women play in the myths — Earth Woman; Spider-Woman; Fair Weather Woman.
    • explanation of the universe that often depicts the bending or breaking of the laws of nature.

    The attributes of Native myths paint tales that instruct, inform and warn the listener. These creation or emergence myths were spoken from generation to generation. Not until the late 1900s did these myths find a place in written text.

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    Creator

    Native American emergence myths often begin with the Great Spirit or Creator, often called by a variety of names such as:

    • Unetlvnvhi (oo-nay-tluh-nuh-hee) – Cherokee for Creator,
    • Gitche Manitou – Algonquin for Great Spirit,
    • Wakan Tanka – Sioux for Great Spirit,
    • Awona-Wilona – Zuni for The One Who Is Everything,
    • Mahea – Iroquois for The Spirit of All and
    • Glooscap – Micmac for Master of All Creatures.

    Regardless of the name, the Creator held the knowledge of all things, but often utilized the creatures of Earth to aid in creation.

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    Sacred and Natural

    Ancient wisdom and a deep reverence for nature give emergence myths a blend of Heaven and Earth.

    In the emergence myth of the Iroquois, Sky-Woman falls from the heavens. She has neither wings to fly nor fins to swim. The land has yet to be created. The Great Turtle sees that Sky-Woman will perish if she is unable to stand on land. With the help of Loon, Sky-Woman Is held above the waters. The other animals take turns diving to the bottom of the sea to retrieve mud to create land, but they all fail except Coot, who manages a small bit under his tongue. Sky-Woman is able to use the mud to create the plains, valleys and mountains.

    In this story, the interplay between the sacred and the natural is an essential element. In addition, the birds and animals of Earth are key players in the drama that unfolds.

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    Women in Native Myth

    The woman, by virtue of being the vessel for the creation of life, plays an essential role in many of the creation myths of the First Peoples. An example of this is found in the Hopi story of Spider-Woman.

    The Hopi tell of Spider-Woman, sent by the Mighty Sky Chief to bring life all life to earth. When she arrives, she is sad to see that earth has not welcomed life. Everything is restless and fierce. Finally, Spider-Woman feels life stir within her. She gives birth to twin sons. The first she calls Hardener, because the earth is so hot and soft. She tells Hardener that with his cool hands he will harden the earth. Her second son she calls Soundmaker, telling him that from that day on everything on earth will be in tune with him. The twins work for many days until the earth is solid. When this happens, Hardener goes to the south becoming the South Pole and Soundmaker goes to the north becoming the North Pole. From these poles, the twins watch over the world, warning the People of discord when they reappear shaking the land and causing volcanoes to erupt.

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    Bending and Blending

    Many Native American emergence myths represent events that bend or blend the laws of nature. For instance, animals talk to humans, or fly to the stars.

    The Wabanaki tell how the "memory of the beginning of time lies in the trees, plants, soil, rocks, water and air. For they are the very body of Earth Woman, the Mother of All Beings." The myth goes on to tell how Earth Woman gives each creature a gift to show the strong tie she shares with them. For instance, chipmunk wears the sunset on his cheeks, wolf talks to the moon, and bee is as swift and busy as the flowing streams.

    Additionally, the Salish tell the story of an old woman who is childless. One day as she is searching for mussels, she finds a large shell with a baby inside. She works diligently to care for the child, who grows into a strong young man, who has supernatural powers. His skin glows, he never fails in his hunting, and he commands the wind. Eventually, he tells his foster-mother that he must leave, which causes her great sadness. However, he embraces her, explaining that she will never want for anything. He tells her to look for him in the sky, that way she will know the following day will be calm and bright. He then drapes a robin skin on himself, hugs the old woman and flies up into the sky. To this day, when the sky at sunset turns red and gold like a robin's breast, the People know the next day will be a bright one.

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    From the Beginning

    The characteristics in Native American creation myths bring a mixture of spirituality and inventive reasoning, thereby producing stories that explain the emergence of life on earth.

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