In Episode 7 I looked at a variety of weapons and objects from Celtic mythology, what kind of powers and uses can the objects of mythology hold, and do those fit my game design, or can I use those to inspire different objects? This week I thought we would go back to Mother Nature, and look at some of the mythology of the Native American and First Nations people. There is a huge variety of tribes, each with their own unique myths, but almost all of them are focused around nature and creation.
The stories, myths, and religions of the First Nations and Native Americans are deeply entrenched in symbolism and spirits. Their stories and mythology provide insight into weather, flora, fauna, and earth & sky. Through dance, songs, and rituals passed down by their ancestors, they share these stories and provide meaning and guidance for each generation.
Before you read any further, I think it is important to state that these are the stories that I have heard, and stories that I have discovered when researching mythology. By re-telling these stories in my own way, I in no way mean to disrespect the heritage of the people who have passed these stories down, and I highly encourage you the reader, to research and discover more about their history and beliefs. It is a fascinating culture, and by learning more about it, perhaps people will treat the Native American and First Nations people with the respect that they deserve. They were here first.
Let’s take a deeper look into some of the mythology from a variety of tribes…
- The Cherokee tribe was found in Oklahoma and the southeastern United States.
In Cherokee mythology the earth was simply a suspended island on a giant sea, it was formed when a little water beetle named Dâyuni’sï came from the sky and explored below the water. Having nowhere to rest, he dove down and brought up mud which quickly expanded to become the earth. Buzzard was sent down to make sure the mud was dry, but it wasn’t, as he tired, his wings and feet dragged in the mud and created valleys and mountains. When the mud finally dried the animals came down from the sky, but it was dark and they were cold. The animals took the sun and created a path for it to move east to west, but the sun was too close and many animals burned their skin. Several times they raised it higher to prevent it from being too hot, until they found the distance that was just right.
All the plants and animals were told to stay awake for 7 days to keep watch over their new land, but only the owl and panther could, so they were given night vision. Only the Fir trees, like cedar and pines, stayed awake, so the others were made to lose their leaves when it got cold.
The first people of earth were a young boy and girl, as they got older the boy became lonely and for some reason felt that by hitting her with a fish she would start having children. Apparently it worked and she started having kids every week until there was too many people, so the great spirit made it so she could only have 1 kid per year.
- The Cree were found in the central Canadian regions, from the prairies to the Northern territories.
The Cree had many stories tied to the animals of the forests, including Grandmother Fox, a wise old woman who would appear in the form of a fox. Grandmother Fox appears at key times in the past to provide advice to those that are able to see her, and would often provide magical items for their adventures.
There was 2 creatures of the lakes; one was an underwater serpent named Misikinebik, his stories were often told to young children as a warning of the dangers of the water. Hearing there was a giant horned serpent that ate people in the lake, probably kept the kids close to shore. If that wasn’t enough there was a Great Lynx named Mishipizhiw who lived in the deep waters of the lakes and drowned people that ventured to far.
We have probably all heard of the term Thunderbird, this was a common creature in stories across the Northern and Western tribes. The Thunderbird was a giant bird whose wings were so huge they caused the sounds of thunder. Different tribes had different names for Thunderbird, the Cree called him Piyesiw.
- The Blackfoot tribe was found throughout the Montana and Alberta region in North America.
The Blackfoot tribes had a slightly different take on the creation of earth, but it still involved mud. Their creator was an old man named Napioa who used mud from a turtle’s mouth. One of the greatest stories was about how the old man created the languages of the many native tribes. A massive flood covered the earth, when the flood was over Napioa gathered all the people on a mountain in Montana, and changed the water in each stream running off the mountain to a different colour. He directed the people to drink the water and then they could speak, but each colour of the water had them speaking a different language, except for those that drank the black water. All the people that drank the black water spoke the same language, these were the Blackfeet.
- The Sioux nation, consisting of numerous tribes, was located in the Minnesota, Iowa and Dakota regions of the US.
The stories of the white buffalo are legendary, especially in the Lakota and Sioux tribes. The birth of a white buffalo holds great significance as a prophecy of peace, good fortune, good crops, and good health.
The Lakota story describes two young hunters coming across a beautiful woman known as White Buffalo Calf Woman, dressed in a white buffalo skin. The first hunter knew she was a sacred being, and out of respect, lowered his eyes. The second hunter’s lust for her beauty caused him to stare, and she called him over. They disappeared into a cloud of dust, and when the dust settled it was just the woman and a pile of bones. She told the first hunter that she had given him all of his desires, and now he had died a happy man.
White Buffalo Calf Woman sent the hunter back to his people to tell them she would return, and teach them how to pray. Some time later White Buffalo Calf Woman returned and taught the people the seven forms of prayer; purification in the sweat lodge, a child naming ceremony, a healing ceremony, an adoption ceremony, a marriage ceremony, a sun dance ceremony to pray for well-being of all people, and finally, the Vision Quest which allowed them to speak to the creator and determine purpose in their life.
After teaching the seven prayers, White Buffalo Calf Woman explained about the four ages of man, that she would return for the people of each age, and would restore harmony and spirituality to a troubled land. As she walked away, she stopped and became a black buffalo, she walked further and became a yellow buffalo, then a red buffalo, and finally before disappearing, she became a white buffalo calf. Each color was supposed to represent the four colours of man.
- If you ever wondered where the traveling motorhome name of Winnebago came from, it is from the Ho-Chunk and Winnebago tribes based in Wisconsin.
The stories of the Ho-chunk fell into one of two story types, the waikan stories about things sacred, and the worak stories which were about things recalled. The waikan stories were about spirits such as the Thunderbird, Waterspirit, Sun, or animal spirits of the forest, and each story could not end in tragedy. There is a strong belief that the waikan could not be told in the summertime, so to support their beliefs, I will not tell you any of those stories.
The worak stories did not have the summertime restrictions, and according to the legends, had to end tragically to provide a key lesson or morale. In all of these stories the hero was always a human being, usually an ancestor who made a bad choice or sacrificed themselves to save lives.
- The Haida people are a “local to me” tribe based in British Columbia.
A depiction of the Haida creation story, where Raven opens an oyster shell on the beach to find the first Humans. Sculptor: Bill Reid. University of British Columbia Museum of Anthropology.
The raven holds a special place in Haida mythology, it appears in many stories, taking on many different roles. Sometimes a creator, a magician, or a transformer, but more often than not, he is described as a Trickster. The stories of the raven are often focused on how to live a good and purposeful life, but the ravens examples are usually about the wrong way to do that. There is also many stories where the raven has helped humans against evil spirits. Stories of the raven depict him as a greedy debaucherous deviant thief and a lech that is full of mischief, but he is still considered a hero by the Haida people.
Some of that heroism most likely comes from the two stories of creation. The first depicted above where the raven released the first humans from an oyster shell that he found on the beach. The second, and more entertaining story, was that the raven was throwing a party, and didn’t have many guests, so he pulled the humans out of the ground to show how popular he was.
- The Kwakiutl or Kwakwaka’wakw tribes are also based in British Columbia, centralized around Nothern Vancouver Island and the Queen Charlotte Straight.
In Kwakwaka’wakw mythology the Thunderbird is considered the Lord of the Dance for the winter seasons tribal gatherings. Like other tribes, the Thunderbird is a supernatural being whose flapping wings cause thunder, and the blinking of his eyes cause lightning.
The Kwakwaka’wakw tribes also have another mythical being you may be familiar with, they call this giant of the forest Dzunukwa, other tribes of the Pacific Northwest call them sasquatch. Many of their stories refer to a female Dzunukwa sneaking through the forests and tricking children to approach by calling “hu-hu!” or imitating their grandmother’s voice. Sometimes she catches the children and eats them, and sometimes the children outsmart her and steal the Dzunukwa treasures. I did not find any stories that told me what treasures a sasquatch might have.
- The Nuu-chah-nulth tribe, formerly known as Nootka, covered a large area of the Pacific Northwest.
Much like the Haida, the Nootka treat Raven as a hero, with many similar trickster stories usually based on his poor judgement getting him into trouble. In the Nootka stories it is often the Mink that takes on the role of the bad guy and he is not well liked by the people because of his poor hygiene, greed, arrogance and inapropriate sexual behavior. The often funny mink tales are also stories about how not to behave.
But, back to the raven, and one of the great creation stories of the Nootka…
Before there was light, the Old Fisherman kept the light in a small box at his lodge. The raven wanted this shiny object, but was not allowed in the lodge. Using his magic, the raven turned himself into a leaf, and was eaten by the Old Fisherman’s daughter, and was reborn as her son. Begging his grandfather to see the box, the Old Fisherman finally gives in. It is a magic box much like the Russian nesting dolls, each one is opened revealing another, until finally the last box is opened and the lodge is lit up by it’s brightness. The chld plays with the ball of fire for a while, then transforms back to the raven and flies out of the smoke hole at the top of the lodge, taking the ball high into the sky, creating the sun.
The raven was a colorful bird, his feathers were the colours of the rainbow, but flying so close to the sun, he fell back to earth with all his feathers blackened from the fire. The animals of the forest would go on to tell the stories of how Raven sacrificed his colours to bring daylight to the earth. Today, all ravens have black feathers, so it must be true.
- The Hopi tribes were found in the southwestern United States.
The Hopi tribes do not treat the raven as the creator, instead they have Tawa, a Sun Spirit. Tawa formed the world out of endless space, and helped create the first people with the assistance of Koyangwuti, the Old Spider Woman. Old Spider Woman formed the people out of clay, and Tawa fired or hardened the clay to bring them to life. Whenever a child is born in the Hopi tribe, mothers pray for a blessing from the sun.
Along with the sun, Maize (corn) is central to the Hopis beliefs, not only does it provide food, but it represents Mother. As babies drink their mothers milk for life, the Hopis eat the corn for life, as a vegetable, or dried and ground into meal for breads. The corn appears throughout their artwork, it is used in Hopi ceremonies, and included in prayers and treated as a true being and spirit.
- The Salish and Kootenai tribes were based throughout British Columbia, Idaho and Montana.
The Salish people have a different creator god, Amotken is an old man that lives alone in heaven and shares his kindness with the people. When he originally created mankind, he started by creating 5 women using 5 of his own hairs. When he asked the five women what they wanted to be, each of them had a different idea; one wanted to be wicked and cruel, one wanted to be good, one wanted to be mother of the earth, one wanted to be mother of the fire, and the last one wanted to be mother of the water. Amotken obliged, and said that wickedness might rule the earth for a while, but goodness would prevail in the end. Apparently Amotken was not only kind, but also very wise.
Much like the Australian Aborigines, the Native American and First Nations people have a deep mythology and belief in the spirits that were part of creating their world. With ties to nature and the earth and stars themselves being part of their beliefs, how can their stories influence your game ideas, and how can you incorporate lessons and morals in the same way that they have. If there is deeper meaning behind your games stories, perhaps the purpose of play, and retention and return for your games will be better too?
Tune in next time as we look into other cultures and their Mythologies.
Dave Warfield is the Head of Game Design at VFS
- Mythology 101: Episode 1 (Roman)
- Mythology 101: Episode 2 (Greek)
- Mythology 101: Episode 3 (Australian Aboriginal)
- Mythology 101: Episode 4 (Chinese)
- Mythology 101: Episode 5 (Dragons)
- Mythology 101: Episode 6 (Egyptian)
- Mythology 101: Episode 7 (Celtic)