The Indigenous Knowledge in Native American Folk Tales
From a 21st Century, scientific perspective, we might have a hard time believing that folktales, myths and legends could possibly constitute a valid and reliable source of knowledge. This view is perhaps a result of the fact that the folktales and legends with which we are most acquainted are the creation myths of different indigenous groups which, in all fairness, frequently do seem unconvincing when compared to the scientific explanations of the Big Bang, the formation of the Solar System and the evolution of the different species that attempt to account for how we got here and why the Earth and life on it has taken the particular form that it has.
However, just because native folk tales generally fail to offer convincing explanations of the origins of the universe, this does not mean that they cannot be a valid source of other kinds of knowledge. Indeed when we read such stories with an eye to their underlying themes, these myths, folktales and legends can offer moral or ethical guidelines or act as a series of warnings about the importance of living in harmony with the ecosystem that are very much in keeping with modern environmental attitudes. Take, for example the following story of Gluscabi and the Game Animals from the Native American tribe of the Abenaki of the Northeast Woodlands:
Long ago Gluscabi decided he would do some hunting. He took his bow and arrows and went into the woods. But all the animals said to each other, "Ah-hah, here comes Gluscabi. He is hunting us. Let us hide from him."
So they hid and Gluscabi could not find them. He was not pleased. He went home to the little lodge near the big water where he lived with Grandmother Woodchuck. "Grandmother," he said, "Make a game bag' for me." So Grandmother Woodchuck took caribou hair and made him a game bag. She wove it together tight and strong, and it was a fine game bag. But when she gave it to Gluscabi, he looked at it and then threw it down. "This is not good enough," he said.
So then Grandmother Woodchuck took deer hair. She wove a larger and finer game bag and gave it to him. But Gluscabi looked at it and threw it down. "This is not good enough, Grandmother," he said. Now Grandmother Woodchuck took moose hair and wove him a very fine game bag indeed. It was large and strong, and she took porcupine quills which she flattened with her teeth, and she wove a design into the game bag to make it even more attractive. But Gluscabi looked at this game bag, too, and threw it down. "Grandmother," he said. "This is not good enough."
"Eh, Gluscabi," said Grandmother Woodchuck, "how can I please you? What kind of game bag do you want?" Then Gluscabi smiled. "Ah, Grandmother," he said, "make one out of woodchuck hair." So Grandmother Woodchuck pulled all of the hair from her belly. To this day you will see that all woodchucks still have no hair there. Then she wove it into a game bag. Now this game bag was magical. No matter how much you put into it, there would still be room for more. And Gluscabi took this game bag and smiled. "Oleohneh, Grandmother," he said. "I thank you."
Now Gluscabi went back into the woods and walked until he came to a large clearing. Then he called out as loudly as he could, "All you animals, listen to me. A terrible thing is going to happen. The sun is going to go out. The world is going to end and everything is going to be destroyed."
When the animals heard that, they became frightened. They came to the clearing where Gluscabi stood with his magic game bag. "Gluscabi," they said, "What can we do? The world is going to be destroyed. How can we survive?" Gluscabi smiled. "My friends," he said, "just climb into my game bag. Then you will be safe in there when the world is destroyed."
So all of the animals went into his game bag. The rabbits and the squirrels went in, and the game bag stretched to hold them. The raccoons and the foxes went in, and the game bag stretched larger still. The deer went in and the caribou went in. The bears went in and the moose went in, and the game bag stretched to hold them all. Soon all the animals in the world were in Gluscabi's game bag. Then Gluscabi tied the top of the game bag, laughed, slung it over his shoulder and went home.
"Grandmother," he said, "now we no longer have to go out and walk around looking for food. Whenever we want anything to eat we can just reach into my game bag." Grandmother Woodchuck opened Gluscabi's game bag and looked inside. There were all of the animals in the world.
"Oh, Gluscabi," she said, "why must you always do things this way? You cannot keep all of the game animals in a bag. They will sicken and die. There will be none left for our children and our children's children. It is also right that it should be difficult to hunt them. Then you will grow stronger trying to find them. And the animals will also grow stronger and wiser trying to avoid being caught. Then things will be in the right balance."
"Kaamoji, Grandmother," said Gluscabi, "That is so." So he picked up his game bag and went back to the clearing. He opened it up. "All you animals," he called, "you can come out now. Everything is all right. The world was destroyed, but I put it back together again."
Then all of the animals came out of the magic game bag. They went back into the woods, and they are still there today because Gluscabi heard what his Grandmother Woodchuck had to say. (Caduto)
Clearly there are many elements of this story that we should not take as truth: the idea that humans were once able to talk to animals, the creation of a magic bag that is never full or even the explanation for why Woodchucks have no hair on their stomachs.
However, looking beyond these superficial elements of the tale it becomes clear that the story also outlines a series of moral, ethical and environmental guidelines which could be seen as very much in keeping with modern thought. For example, the idea that we should not take more from the environment than we need or the idea that we need to try to achieve balance in our relationship with the natural world around us or that we should look after the world for our children. Clearly these are ideas that are gaining currency at the moment as the world becomes more environmentally conscious and they are ideas that many of us, especially those in the Green movement, would count as knowledge.
There are even some life lessons that we can extract from the story, such as the necessity of reflecting on the consequences of our actions and the importance of taking advice from those who are more experienced than us. Again many of us would agree that these are fundamentally sensible rules of behaviour. In this way the heart of myths like these may be seen as repository of valid knowledge that it is important to pass on from one generation to the next.
Reading the text from a feminist perspective we can also see how the story implicitly reinforces the gender relationships that would have existed in the society at a time, and in this way the story also served to promote a worldview that, while we may hesitate to call it ‘knowledge’, was certainly a truth about the way the world functioned at the time. In this way these stories may also serve as a reminder to us that the knowledge that we pass on is not always the knowledge that we intended.
Another example of the way in which valid knowledge claims can be extracted from the folk tales of the American Indian peoples can be seen in the story Manabozho and the Maple Trees from the Anishinabe tribes of the Great Lakes Region.
A long time ago, when the world was new, Gitchee Manitou made things so that life was very easy for the people. There was plenty of game and the weather was always good and the maple trees were filled with thick sweet syrup. Whenever anyone wanted to get maple syrup from the trees, all they had to do was break off a twig and collect it as it dripped out.
One day, Manabozho went walking
around. "I think I'll go see how my friends the Anishinabe
are doing," he said. So he went to a
So Manabozho went down to the river. He took with him a big basket he had made of birch bark. With this basket he brought back many buckets of water. He went to the top of the maple trees and poured the water in so that it thinned out the syrup. Now thick maple syrup no longer dripped out of the broken twigs. Now what came out was thin and watery and just barely sweet to the taste.
"This is how it will be from now on," Manabozho said. "No longer will syrup drip from the maple trees. Now there will be only this watery sap. When people want to make maple syrup they will have to gather many buckets full of the sap in a birch bark basket like mine. They will have to gather wood and make fires so they can heat stones to drop into the baskets. They will have to boil the water with the heated stones for a long time to make even a little maple syrup. Then my people will no longer grow fat and lazy. Then they will appreciate this maple syrup Gitchee Manitou made available to them. Not only that, this sap will drip only from the trees at a certain time of the year. Then it will not keep people from hunting and fishing and gathering and hoeing in the fields. This is how it is going to be," Manabozho said.
And that is how it is to this day. (Caduto)
Once again to argue about whether or not Maple Syrup ever dripped from trees or whether someone like Manabozho ever existed is to miss the point. The knowledge being conveyed in this story is the moral (or at least socio-cultural) claim that in order to prosper and succeed we must work hard and that laziness and gluttony will only weaken the mind and the body. This is a knowledge claim about life that many people would see as being true, indeed it was a central tenet of the beliefs of the Puritan Pilgrims who founded America, and in fact the ‘moral message’ behind this story is perhaps even more relevant in today when most Westernised nations are in the grips of an obesity epidemic and countries such as the UK and United States are considering imposing ‘sugar taxes’ on soft drinks.
From a political perspective, Manabozho’s allegorical decision to dilute the Maple Syrup flowing from the trees for the good of the people of the Anishinabe tribe is a version of the very same paternalistic knowledge claim that the leaders of a country / group / make when they claim that the wise few in power have to make decisions that contradict the will of the people because the people frequently don’t know what’s in their own best interest.
Clearly the Anishinabe had no idea that at some point in the 21st Century the world would be facing an obesity epidemic … but once again these examples show us that if we look beyond the superficial elements of a folktale or myth we can see how these stories make knowledge claims about morality, societies and social structures that many people (especially our politicians) would like to believe are true.
One final example of the ways in which folk tales and myths can make valid knowledge claims about the world can be seen in another Gluscabi story from the Abenaki, Gluscabi and the Wind Eagle:
Long ago, Gluscabi lived with his grandmother, Woodchuck, in a small lodge beside the big water. One day Gluscabi was walking around when he looked out and saw some ducks in the bay. "I think it is time to go hunt some ducks," he said. So he took his bow and arrows and got into his canoe. He began to paddle out into the bay and as he paddled he sang. But a wind came up and it turned his canoe and blew him back to shore. Once again Gluscabi began to paddle out and this time he sang his song a little harder. But again the wind came and blew him back to shore.
Four times he tried to paddle out into the bay and four times he failed. He was not happy. He went back to the lodge of his grandmother and walked right in, even though there was a stick leaning across the door, which meant that the person inside was doing some work and did not want to be disturbed. "Grandmother," Gluscabi said, "What makes the wind blow?" Grandmother Woodchuck looked up from her work. "Gluscabi," she said, "Why do you want to know?" Then Gluscabi answered her just as every child in the world does when they are asked such a question. "Because," he said.
Grandmother Woodchuck looked at him. "Ah, Gluscabi," she said. "Whenever you ask such questions I feel there is going to be trouble. And perhaps I should not tell you. But I know that you are so stubborn you will never stop asking until I answer you. So I shall tell you. Far from here, on top of the tallest mountain, a great bird stands. This bird is named Wuchowsen, and when he flaps his wings he makes the wind blow."
"Eh-hey, Grandmother," said Gluscabi, "I see. Now how would one find that place where the Wind Eagle stands?" Again Grandmother Woodchuck looked at Gluscabi. "Ah, Gluscabi," she said, "Once again I feel that perhaps I should not tell you. But I know that you are very stubborn and would never stop asking. So, I shall tell you. If you walk always facing the wind you will come to the place where Wuchowsen stands."
"Thank you, Grandmother," said Gluscabi. He stepped out of the lodge and faced into the wind and began to walk. He walked across the fields and through the woods and the wind blew hard. He walked through the valleys and into the hills and the wind blew harder still. He came to the foothills and began to climb and the wind still blew harder. Now the foothills were becoming mountains and the wind was very strong. Soon there were no longer any trees and the wind was very, very strong. The wind was so strong that it blew off Gluscabi's moccasins. But he was very stubborn and he kept on walking, leaning into the wind. Now the wind was so strong that it blew off his shirt, but he kept on walking. Now the wind was so strong that it blew off all his clothes and he was naked, but he still kept walking. Now the wind was so strong that it blew off his hair, but Gluscabi still kept walking, facing into the wind. The wind was so strong that it blew off his eyebrows, but still he continued to walk. Now the wind was so strong that he could hardly stand. He had to pull himself along by grabbing hold of the boulders. But there, on the peak ahead of him, he could see a great bird slowly flapping its wings. It was Wuchowsen, the Wind Eagle.
Gluscabi took a deep breath. "GRANDFATHER!" he shouted. The Wind Eagle stopped flapping his wings and looked around. "Who calls me Grandfather?" he said. Gluscabi stood up. "It's me, Grandfather. I just came up here to tell you that you do a very good job making the wind blow."
The Wind Eagle puffed out his chest with pride. "You mean like this?" he said and flapped his wings even harder. The wind which he made was so strong that it lifted Gluscabi right off his feet, and he would have been blown right off the mountain had he not reached out and grabbed a boulder again.
"GRANDFATHER!!!" Gluscabi shouted again. The Wind Eagle stopped flapping his wings. "Yesss?" he said. Gluscabi stood up and came closer to Wuchowsen. "You do a very good job of making the wind blow, Grandfather. This is so. But it seems to me that you could do an even better job if you were on that peak over there." The Wind Eagle looked toward the other peak. "That may be so," he said, "but how would I get from here to there?" Gluscabi smiled. "Grandfather," he said, "I will carry you. Wait here."
Then Gluscabi ran back down the mountain until he came to a big basswood tree. He stripped off the outer bark and from the inner bark he braided a strong carrying strap which he took back up the mountain to the Wind Eagle. "Here, Grandfather," he said. "let me wrap this around you so I can lift you more easily." Then he wrapped the carrying strap so tightly around Wuchowsen that his wings were pulled in to his sides and he could hardly breathe. "Now, Grandfather," Gluscabi said, picking the Wind Eagle up, "I will take you to a better place."
He began to walk toward the other peak, but as he walked he came to a place where there was a large crevice, and as he stepped over it he let go of the carrying strap and the Wind Eagle slid down into the crevice, upside down, and was stuck. "Now," Gluscabi said, "It is time to hunt some ducks."
He walked back down the mountain and there was no wind at all. He waited till he came to the treeline and still no wind blew. He walked down to the foothills and down to the valleys and still there was no wind. He walked through the forests and through the fields, and the wind did not blow at all. He walked and walked until he came back to the lodge by the water, and by now all his hair had grown back. He put on some fine new clothing and a new pair of moccasins and took his bow and arrows and went down to the bay and climbed into his boat to hunt ducks. He paddled out into the water and sang his canoeing song.
But the air was very hot and still and he began to sweat. The air was so still and hot that it was hard to breathe. Soon the water began to grow dirty and smell bad and there was so much foam on the water he could hardly paddle. He was not pleased at all and he returned to the shore and went straight to his grandmother's lodge and walked in.
"Grandmother," he said, "What is wrong? The air is hot and still and it is making me sweat and it is hard to breathe. The water is dirty and covered with foam. I cannot hunt ducks at all like this." Grandmother Woodchuck looked up at Gluscabi. "Gluscabi," she said, "what have you done now?" And Gluscabi answered just as every child in the world answers when asked that question, "Oh, nothing," he said.
"Gluscabi, "said Grandmother Woodchuck again, "Tell me what you have done." Then Gluscabi told her about going to visit the Wind Eagle and what he had done to stop the wind. "Oh, Gluscabi," said Grandmother Woodchuck, "will you never learn? Tabaldak, The Owner, set the Wind Eagle on that mountain to make the wind because we need the wind. The wind keeps the air cool and clean. The wind brings the clouds which gives us rain to wash the Earth. The wind moves the waters and keeps them fresh and sweet. Without the wind, life will not be good for us, for our children or our children's children."
Gluscabi nodded his head. "Kaamoji, Grandmother," he said. "I understand." Then he went outside. He faced in the direction from which the wind had once come and began to walk. He walked through the fields and through the forests and the wind did not blow and he felt very hot. He walked through the valleys and up the hills and there was no wind and it was hard for him to breathe. He came to the foothills and began to climb and he was very hot and sweaty indeed. At last he came to the mountain where the Wind Eagle once stood and he went and looked down into the crevice. There was Wuchowsen, the Wind Eagle, wedged upside down.
"Uncle?" Gluscabi called. The Wind Eagle looked up as best he could. "Who calls me Uncle?" he said. "It is Gluscabi, Uncle. I'm up here. But what are you doing down there?" "Oh, Gluscabi," said the Wind Eagle, "a very ugly naked man with no hair told me that he would take me to the other peak so that I could do a better job of making the wind blow. He tied my wings and picked me up, but as he stepped over this crevice he dropped me and now I am stuck. And I am not comfortable here at all."
Then Gluscabi said, “Ah, Grandfath ... er, Uncle, I will get you out." And he climbed down into the crevice. He pulled the Wind Eagle free and placed him back on his mountain and untied his wings. "Uncle," Gluscabi said, "It is good that the wind should blow sometimes and other times it is good that it should be still." "The Wind Eagle looked at Gluscabi and then nodded his head. "Grandson,” he said, “I hear what you say."
When we read beyond the superficial elements of this story, we can see that it is once again making valid knowledge claims about the importance of balance, the way in which inconvenient things can sometimes be necessary and, even at a potentially more scientifically accurate level, about the way in which natural processes play an important role in keeping the world comfortable and free from pollution. Perhaps by reading beyond the superficial in this way, we will be able to access some of the socio-cultural, political, moral (and maybe even early scientific) knowledge claims that can be found in the folk tales of indigenous groups such as the Native Americans.
Caduto & Bruchac. Keepers of the Earth.
Cockerell, Jennifer. “Doctors Urge 20p tax on Sugary Drinks”. The Independent. Posted: 13/07/15. Web. Visited: 15/07/15. http://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/health-and-families/health-news/doctors-urge-20p-tax-on-sugary-drinks-to-fund-lowprice-fruit-and-vegetables-10384038.html.
Shughart & Brownell. “Should there be a tax on Soda?”. The Wall St. Journal. Posted: 12/07/15. Web. Visited: 15/07/15. http://www.wsj.com/articles/should-there-be-a-tax-on-soda-and-other-sugary-drinks-1436757039