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First Nations Mythology

coyote In First Nations cultures, myths were passed down through generations by oral tradition. This was true for the Cree, Saulteaux, Nakoda and Chipewyan peoples of the Treaty 6 area, who told stories about animals, spirits, and the supernatural to entertain one another as well as to teach valuable lessons. Myths helped unite communities by giving them a sense of shared understanding about the origins of the world, their people, and their histories. As affirmed by Peggy Brezinski in Knots in a String: An Introduction to Native Studies in Canada, “Myth can be used to refer to the sacred truth of a people. A myth is what a group of people believe to be true about the world and their place in it.”

The myths that made their way across the Treaty 6 area were numerous and diverse in scope. Some recounted grand theories about the origins of the world, while others were simple and sometimes amusing lessons about everyday life. Almost every band had a few members who were gifted in the art of storytelling, and communities would gather around to listen to them as they told old stories and created new ones. A good storyteller possessed an active imagination and knew how to describe events to evoke the best reaction, whether it was for the sake of entertainment or to relay a serious message.

bear Different storytellers told the same stories in different ways. For this reason, stories slowly changed across distance and time, often acquiring new characters or themes. With inter-band marriages came the mixing of old stories or the creation of new ones, and as groups migrated they incorporated their changing landscapes into their mythology and spirituality. The fluidity and variation in the stories was seen as natural and expected, not as a cause for concern, nor as detrimental to a story’s power or message. Twentieth-century anthropologist Clark Wissler recalls an Elder who “pulled up a common ragweed, saying, ‘The parts of this weed all branch off from the stem. They go different ways, but all come from the same root. So it is with the different versions of myth’.” 1

Coyote, Bison, Bear, Wolverine, Wolf, Eagle, Beaver, Turtle, and Owl, are just some of the animals who have spiritual presence and symbolic meaning to the peoples of Treaty 6 and beyond. Their roles and characteristics vary in stories told in different communities, but common links can be seen throughout. Eagle, has the power to carry prayers up to the Creator, and has long been considered one of the most sacred beings to the First Nations of the plains and mountain regions. For acts of compassion or bravery, Eagle rewards people by dropping a feather. Bears signify strength or introspection; Wolves are teachers of self-esteem and perseverance, and Beavers represent strong family and home life. Powerful and supernatural Spirits, such as the Earth Spirit or the Sky Being, or the Four Spirits who look after the North, South, West, and East, and are known across the lands by many different names. Spiritual encounters or visions from Spirit helpers are not uncommon. “Spirit helpers, often animals who appear in human form, come to people in visions and dreams. They teach them their power songs and explain how to make and care for sacred objects.” 2

Stories of creation, migration, and band history have been passed down through generations by community storytellers and Elders who recognize the cultural significance of the stories. Myths that were first recounted on cold winter nights or on late summer evenings have survived over many centuries. In the past, stories helped people make sense of the world and their place within it, as individuals and as members of a community. The continued strength of the oral tradition, preserved and passed on by community Elders and storytellers, will ensure that the mythologies will be available for future generations.

1 Susan Berry and Jack Brink, Aboriginal Cultures in Alberta: Five Hundred Generations (Edmonton, Provincial Museum of Alberta, 2004), 62.
2 DeMaillie, Raymond J, and Douglas R. Parks. “Tribal Traditions and Records.” In DeMallie, Raymond J. Handbook of North American Indians, Volume 13, Part 2. (Washington: Smithsonian Institution, 2001), 1062.

Berry, Susan, and Jack Brink. Aboriginal Cultures in Alberta: Five Hundred Generations. Edmonton: Provincial Museum of Alberta, 2004.

Brizinski, Peggy. Knots in a String: An Introduction to Native Studies in Canada. Saskatoon: University of Saskatchewan Extension Press, 1993.

DeMallie, Raymond J, and Douglas R. Parks. “Tribal Traditions and Records,” in DeMallie, Raymond J. Handbook of North American Indians. Volume 13, part 2 of 2. Washington: Smithsonian Institution, 2001.

Paget, Amelia M. People of the Plains. Intro. Sarah Carter. Regina: Canadian Plains Research Centre, 2004.

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