First Nations Mythology
In First Nations cultures,
myths were passed down through generations by oral tradition. This was true for the
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.
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.
Feature Article: Weesakayjak Recreates the World
One character whose exploits have been featured in countless combinations and variations is the
shape-shifting Weesakayjak, who has appeared in traditional Aboriginal myths across the lands, often
under varying names. He is at times a clever and moral, and at other times shrewd and self-centered.
His colourful escapades are used to explain the origins of the world or to teach lessons about life.
Click on the link above to read one version of a very popular origin story.
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,