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Introduction: Native American Origin Tales
by K. L. Nichols
The ancient Native American origin myths are traditional answers, from each tribe's perspective, to such universal questions as "Who are we? How did life begin? What is the meaning and purpose of life?" These symbolic explanations were passed down orally from one generation to the next for thousands of years and constitute one of the richest, as well as oldest, traditions in American literature.
Although many variations of these sacred myths exist, they generally include some kind of First Being that asexually creates the original sky parents who are sometimes known as Sky Father and Earth Mother. However, the main focus of the tales is often on the subsequent "generations"--the emerging primal forces symbolized as animal-like or insect-like "people" preparing the world for the coming of the later human-peoples (the present Indians) who would eventually populate the earth.
In the "Earth-Diver Myths" of the northeastern and plains Indians, the original sacred female figure falls through a hole in the sky (representing the passage of sacred power into this world) onto a watery void where the primal water-creatures magically create dry land--the earth--for the pregnant woman to rest on.
In the southwestern "Emergence Myths," these sacred powers originate in the innermost womb of earth, and the mediational figures must pass upward and outward through several wombs or cave-like worlds until they are "birthed" out onto the surface of the earth awaiting transformation into habitable land. The magical powers of Grandmother Spider or Spider Woman play a key role in many of these tales.
Another common feature of many origin myths is the symbolic motif of the Sacred Twins (or elder brother and younger brother) who must complete the world-transformation process by creating the topographical features of the world and by destroying the ancient monsters that threaten the existence of the future human peoples. However, what is most notable in these myths is the group nature of the creative process. It seems to involve all the sacred beings of the pre-human worlds as they collaborate, often unwittingly and sometimes in very strange ways, in the material, spiritual, and cultural evolution of the earth and the cosmos.
from Stith Thompson, Tales of the North
American Indians (1929)
A long time ago human beings lived high up in what is now called heaven. They had a great and illustrious chief.
It so happened that this chief's daughter was taken very ill with some strange affliction. Every known remedy was tried in an attempt to cure her, but none had any effect.
Near the lodge of this chief stood a great tree, which every year bore corn used for food. One of the friends of the chief had a dream in which he was advised to tell the chief that, in order to cure his daughter, he must lay her beside this tree, and that he must have the tree dug up. This advice was carried out to the letter. While the people were at work and the young woman lay there, a young man came along. He was very angry and said: "It is not at all right to destroy this tree. Its fruit is all that we have to live on." With this remark he gave the young woman who lay there ill a shove with his foot, causing her to fall into the hole that had been dug.
Now, that hole opened into this world, which was then all water, on which floated waterfowl of many kinds. There was no land at that time. It came to pass that as these waterfowl saw this young woman falling they shouted, "Let us receive her," whereupon they, at least some of them, joined their bodies together, and the young woman fell on this platform of bodies. When these were wearied they asked, "Who will volunteer to care for this woman?" The great Turtle then took her, and when he got tired of holding her, he in turn asked who would take his place. At last the question arose as to what they should do to provide her with a permanent resting place in this world. Finally it was decided to prepare the earth, on which she would live in the future. To do this it was determined that soil from the bottom of the primal sea should be brought up and placed on the broad, firm carapace of the Turtle, where it would increase in size to such an extent that it would accommodate all the creatures that should be produced thereafter. After much discussion the toad was finally persuaded to dive to the bottom of the waters in search of soil. Bravely making the attempt, he succeeded in bringing up soil from the depths of the sea. This was carefully spread over the carapace of the Turtle, and at once both began to grow in size and depth.
After the young woman recovered from the illness from which she suffered when she was cast down from the upper world, she built herself a shelter, in which she lived quite contentedly. In the course of time she brought forth a girl baby, who grew rapidly in size and intelligence.
When the daughter had grown to young womanhood, the mother and she were accustomed to go out to dig wild potatoes. Her mother had said to her that in doing this she must face the west at all times. Before long the young daughter gave signs that she was about to become a mother. Her mother reproved her, saying that she had violated the injunction not to face the east, as her condition showed that she had faced the wrong way while digging potatoes. It is said that the breath of the West Wind had entered her person, causing conception. When the days of her delivery were at hand, she overheard twins within her body in a hot debate as to which should be born first and as to the proper place of exit, one declaring that he was going to emerge through the armpit of his mother, the other saying that he would emerge in the natural way. The first one born, who was of a reddish color, was called Othagwenda, that is, Flint. The other, who was light in color, was called Djuskaha, that is, the Little Sprout.
The grandmother of the twins liked Djuskaha [Little Sprout] and hated the other, so they cast Othagwenda [Flint] into a hollow tree some distance from the lodge.
The boy who remained in the lodge grew very rapidly, and soon was able to make himself bows and arrows and to go out to hunt in the vicinity. Finally, for several days he returned home without his bow and arrows. At last he was asked why he had to have a new bow and arrows every morning. He replied that there was a young boy in a hollow tree in the neighborhood who used them. The grandmother inquired where the tree stood, and he told her; whereupon then they went there and brought the other boy home again.
When the boys had grown to man's estate, they decided that it was necessary for them to increase the size of their island, so they agreed to start out together, afterward separating to create forests and lakes and other things. They parted as agreed, Othagwenda [Flint] going westward and Djuskaha [Little Sprout] eastward. In the course of time, on returning they met in their shelter or lodge at night, then agreeing to go the next day to see what each had made. First they went west to see what Othagwenda [Flint] had made. It was found that he had made the country all rocks and full of ledges, and also a mosquito that was very large. Djuskaha asked the mosquito to run, in order that he might see whether the insect could fight. The mosquito ran, and sticking his bill through a sapling, thereby made it fall, at which Djuskaha [Little Sprout] said, "That will not be right, for you would kill the people who are about to come." So, seizing him, he rubbed him down in his hands, causing him to become very small; then he blew on the mosquito, whereupon he flew away. He also modified some of the other animals that his brother had made. After returning to their lodge, they agreed to go the next day to see what Djuskaha [Little Sprout] had fashioned.
On visiting the east the next day, they found that Djuskaha had made a large number of animals which were so fat that they could hardly move; that he had made the sugar-maple trees to drop syrup; that he had made the sycamore tree to bear fine fruit; that the rivers were so formed that half the water flowed upstream and the other half downstream. Then the reddish-colored brother, Othagwenda [Flint], was greatly displeased with what his brother had made, saying that the people who were about to come would live too easily and be too happy. So he shook violently the various animals--the bears, deer, and turkeys--causing them to become small at once, a characteristic that attached itself to their descendants. He also caused the sugar maple to drop sweetened water only, and the fruit of the sycamore to become small and useless; and lastly he caused the water of the rivers to flow in only one direction, because the original plan would make it too easy for the human beings who were about to come to navigate the streams.
The inspection of each other's work resulted in a deadly disagreement between the brothers, who finally came to grips and blows, and Othagwenda [Flint] was killed in the fierce struggle.
The Jicarilla Genesis (Jicarilla Apache)
from James Mooney, American Anthropologist, Vol. XI., No. 7, Washington, D.C., July, 1898, pp. 197-209.
In the beginning the earth was covered with water, and all living things were below in the underworld. Then people could talk, the animals could talk, the trees could talk, and the rocks could talk.
It was dark in the underworld, and they used eagle plumes for torches. The people and the animals that go about by day wanted more light, but the night animals -- the Bear, the Panther, and the Owl -- wanted darkness. They disputed long, and at last agreed to play the
käyoñ'ti game to decide the matter. It was agreed that if the day animals won there should be light, but if the night animals won it should be always dark.
The game began, but the Magpie and the Quail, which love the light and have sharp eyes, watched until they could see the button through the thin wood of the hollow stick, and they told the people under which one it was. They played once, and the people won. The morning star came out and the Black-bear ran and hid in the darkness. They played again, and the people won. It grew bright in the east and the Brown-bear ran and hid himself in a dark place. They played a third time, and the people won. It grew brighter in the east and the Mountain-lion slunk away into the darkness. They played a fourth time, and again the people won. The Sun came up in the east, and it was day, and the Owl flew away and hid himself.
Still the people were below and did not see many things, but the Sun stayed higher up and saw more. The Sun looked through a hole and saw that there was another world, this earth above. He told the people and they wanted to go there; so they built four mounds by which to reach the upper world. In the east they built a mound and planted it with all kinds of fruits and berries that were black in color. In the south they built another mound and planted on it all kinds of fruits that were blue. In the west they built another mound and planted upon it fruits that were yellow; and in the north they built a mound, and on it they planted all fruits of variegated colors. . . .
The mountains had stopped growing while their tops were yet a long way from the upper world, and the people debated how they could get up to the earth. They laid feathers crosswise for a ladder, but the feathers were too weak and they broke. They made a second ladder of larger feathers, but again they were too weak. They made a third ladder, of eagle feathers, but even these were not strong enough to bear their weight. Then the Buffalo came and offered his right horn to make a ladder, three others came and offered their right horns also. The Buffalo horns were strong, and by their help the people were able to climb up through the hole to the surface of the earth; but their weight bent the Buffalo horns, which before were straight, so that they have been curved ever since.
When the people had come up from under the earth they fastened the Sun and Moon with spider threads, so that they could not get away, and sent them up into the sky to give light. But water covered the whole earth, so four Storms went to roll the waters away. The Black-storm blew to the east and rolled up the waters into the eastern ocean. The Blue-storm blew to the south and rolled up the waters in that direction. The Yellow storm rolled up the waters in the west, and the Varicolored-storm went to the north and rolled up the waters there. So were formed the four oceans -- in the east, the south, the west, and the north. Having rolled up the waters, the Storms returned to where the people were waiting at the mouth of the hole.
First went out the Polecat, but the ground was still soft, and his legs sank in the black mud and remain black ever since. They sent the Tornado to bring him back, for the time was not yet. The Badger went out, but he, too, sank in the mud, and his legs were blackened, so they sent the Tornado to call him back. The Beaver went out, wading through the mud and swimming through the water. He began at once to build a dam to save the water still remaining in pools, and he did not return. The Tornado was sent after him and found him at work, and asked him why he had not come back.
"Because I wanted to save the water for the people to drink," said the Beaver.
"Good," said Tornado, and they went back together. They waited again, and then sent out the Crow to see if it was yet time. The Crow found the earth dry, and many dead frogs, fish, and reptiles lying on the ground. He began picking out their eyes, and did not return until Tornado was sent after him. The people were angry when they found he had been eating carrion, and they changed his color to black, which before was gray.
The earth was now all dry, excepting the four oceans around it and the lake in the center, where the Beaver had dammed up the waters. All the people came up. They went east until they came to the ocean; then they turned south until they came again to the ocean; then they turned west until they came again to the ocean, and then they turned north, and as they went each tribe stopped where it would. But the Jicarillas continued to circle around the place where they had come up from the underworld. Three times they went around, when the Ruler became displeased, and asked them where they wished to stop. They said, "In the middle of the earth;" so he led them to a place very near to Taos and left them there, and then the Taos Indians lived near them. . . .
While the Jicarillas were moving about they by accident left a girl behind them near the place where they had come up from the underworld. The girl's name was
Yo'lkai'- îstû'n, the "Whitebead woman." The Sun shone upon her as she sat and she bore a boy child, and the Moon beamed upon her as she slept and she bore another boy child. The first born was stronger than the second, as the Sun is stronger than the Moon. When the boys were large enough to walk the Sun told her where to find her people, and she went to them.
The boys lived with their mother near Taos. . . .
Soon afterward the Sun sent word to the woman to send his son to him. The Moon-boy staid at home with his mother, but the Sun-boy went and found his father at home. His father received him kindly and gave him a bow and arrows and a dress of turquoise, with turquoise bracelets and wristguard and a necklace of turquoise beads for his neck. Then the Sun said to him, "Now you shall be called
Nayé- nayesxû'ni, 'The destroyer-of-dangerous-things,' because I shall send you to destroy many dangerous things which annoy the people."
His father told him to go first against a great Frog which lived under the water in a lake by Taos, and sucked in everybody who came near. His breath was like sleet lightning at night, and he had sucked so many people under the water that there were very few Taos Indians remaining.
. . . . His father gave him also a wheel of black stone, a wooden wheel of blue, another wheel of yellow stone, and a varicolored wheel of wood. He gave him likewise four firesticks, black, blue, yellow, and varicolored.
When the boy returned to Taos . . . [he] went down to the lake and stood on the east shore early in the morning as the Sun was coming up. The Frog put his head up from the lake and tried to suck him in, but the boy could not be moved, and the Frog dived under the water again. Then the boy threw the wheel of black stone into the center of the lake, and the water fell a little. He went around to the south shore and threw in the blue wheel, and the water fell yet a little more. He stood on the west shore and threw in the yellow wheel, and the water grew shallow and muddy. Then he went around to the north and threw in the varicolored wheel of wood, and at once the water was dried up, and he saw the Frog's house in the center of the lake, like a pueblo house, with four doors, one on each side, and a row of stepping stones from each door to the edge of the lake.
He went around to the east side of the lake, where he had stood at sunrise, and crossed over on the stepping stones to the first door. On each side of the door stood guard a Pueblo Indian who had been sucked in by the Frog. They had been put there to warn the Frog should an enemy approach ; but the boy only spoke to them and they were unable to move. At the south door he found two bears on guard, sitting upon their haunches. At the west door he found two immense snakes, with heads erect and hissing, and at the north door he found two panthers. To each in turn he spoke, and they were motionless and allowed him to pass. Then he went inside the house, and there he found the Great Frog sitting in a room from which a door opened on each of the four sides. He asked the Frog where were all the people who had been sucked into the lake, but the Frog said he knew nothing about them. The boy knew this was not true, so he took out his four firesticks and twirled them rapidly until the room was full of thick smoke that choked the Frog, and it fell down dead. Then he told the two Pueblo guards to release their people, and they opened the four doors around the sides of the room, and all the rooms were filled with Pueblos who had been sucked under the water by the Frog. There were also a great many little frogs, the children of the Great Frog; but they were too small to be dangerous, so the boy let them live, but told them they should never grow larger. From them came the present small frogs. The boy returned to Taos with all the people he had set free from under the water. The Pueblos were very grateful to have their friends restored to them and invited him to bring his mother and brother to Taos for anything they needed. He brought them there to visit for a while, and then went back to his father, the Sun, to see what was for him to do next. . . .
His father told him of still other dangerous things which must be exterminated before the people could go about their affairs in safety. It is a long story -- the whole lifetime story of
Náyenayesxû'ni -- and space forbids the recital of all the adventurous details. He was sent next by his father to destroy two giant Bears that lived in a mountain west from Santa Clara and ravaged the whole country around. The Indian arrows only glanced from the bodies of the animals without harming them, but the boy's father showed him how to kill the he-bear by shooting him through the heart, which was in the palm of his right fore foot. The she-bear was killed by a bolt of lightning darted by the Sun himself. The bodies were burnt and the two cubs were commanded to grow no larger, and bears remain of that size ever since.
There was also a rock, known as
Tsê'-nanlki'ñ, "Rock-that-runs," which "lived" at Cieneguilla, east of the Rio Grande and southwest of Taos. The rock was alive and had a head and a mouth and used to roll after people and overtake and crush them and then swallow them. By the help of his father, the Sun, the boy shot an arrow through the rock and killed it. The rock is still there, lying on a level flat -- a black rock as large as a house, with its "face" to the west, and with a spot on the north and on the south side where the arrow went through, and red streaks running down from them where the blood ran down to the ground.
Other monsters he destroyed, until at last his father told him there was only one more left. This was a great winged fish which dwelt in a lake somewhere in the west and lived upon human hearts. It used to fly above the trails and dart down upon its victims, crushing in their breast-bone to get at the heart. The Sun gave this last work to the Moon-boy, who had stayed at home all this time to take care of his mother. The two brothers went on together until they came to the lake and waited for the great fish to fly out. When it came the Moon-boy struck it on the head and stunned it with a lightning bolt which the Sun had given him. Then as it lay motionless he shot four arrows into its heart. Cutting the body open, he lifted out the heart upon the four arrows and thrust it into the moon, and we see it there now.
When their work was done and the world was made safe, the boys said their last words to the people and started after the Sun along the trail to the west. Twelve men went with them. As they journeyed they came to twelve mountains, one after another, and inside of each mountain the brothers placed a man to wait forever until their return. They went on and on until they went into the western ocean, where they are living now in a house of turquoise under the green water.
More Information on Emergence/Migration Myths:
The Pueblo Migration Story: An Interior Journey--excerpt from Leslie Marmon
Silko's essay "Landscape, History, and the Pueblo Imagination."
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In the beginning there were only two: Tawa, the Sun God, and Spider Woman, the Earth Goddess. All the mysteries and power in the Above belonged to Tawa, while Spider Woman controlled the magic of the Below. In the Underworld, abode of the Gods, they dwelt and they were All. There was neither man nor woman, bird nor beast, no living thing until these Two willed it to be.
In time it came to them that there should be other Gods to share their labors. So Tawa divided himself and there came Muiyinwuh, God of All Life Germs; Spider Woman also divided herself so that there was Huzruiwuhti, Woman of the Hard Substances, the Goddess of all hard ornaments of wealth such as coral, turquoise, silver and shell. Huzruiwuhti became the always-bride of Tawa. They were the First Lovers and of their union there came into being those marvelous ones the Magic Twins -- Puukonhoya, the Youth, and Palunhoya, the Echo. As time unrolled there followed Hicanavaiya, Ancient of Six (the Four World Quarters, the Above and Below), Man-Eagle, the Great Plumed Serpent and many others. But Masauwhu, the Death God, did not come of these Two but was bad magic, who appeared only after the making of creatures.
And then it came about that these Two had one Thought and it was a mighty Thought -- that they would make the Earth to be between the Above and the Below where now lay shimmering only the Endless Waters. So they sat them side by side, swaying their beautiful bronze bodies to the pulsing music of their own great voices, making the First Magic Song, a song of rushing winds and flowing waters, a song of light and sound and life.
"I am Tawa," sang the Sun God. "I am Light. I am Life. I am Father of all that shall ever come."
"I am Kokyanwuhti," the Spider Woman crooned. "I receive Light and nourish Life. I am Mother of all that shall ever come."
"Many strange thoughts are forming in my mind -- beautiful forms of birds to float in the Above, of beasts to move upon the Earth and fish to swim in the Waters," intoned Tawa.
"Now let these things that move in the Thought of Tawa appear," chanted Spider Woman, while with her slender fingers she caught up clay from beside her and made the Thoughts of Tawa take form. One by one she shaped them and laid them aside -- but they breathed not nor moved.
"We must do something about this," said Tawa. "It is not good that they lie thus still and quiet. Each thing that has a form must also have a spirit. So now, my beloved, we must make a mighty Magic."
They laid a white blanket over the many figures, a cunningly woven woolen blanket, fleecy as a cloud, and made a mighty incantation over it, and soon the figures stirred and breathed.
"Now, let us make ones like unto you and me, so that they may rule over and enjoy these lesser creatures," sang Tawa, and Spider Woman shaped the Thoughts into woman and man figures like unto their own. But after the blanket magic had been made, the figures remained inert. So Spider Woman gathered them all in her arms and cradled them, while Tawa bent his glowing eyes upon them. The two now sang the magic Song of Life over them, and at last each human figure breathed and lived.
"Now that was a good thing and a mighty thing," said Tawa. "So now all this is finished, and there shall be no new things made by us. Those things we have made shall multiply. I will make a journey across the Above each day to shed my light upon them and return each night to Huzruiwuhti. And now I shall go to turn my blazing shield upon the Endless Waters, so that the Dry Land may appear. And this day will be the first day upon Earth."
"Now I shall lead all these created beings to the land that you shall cause to appear above the waters," said Spider Woman. Then Tawa took down his burnished shield from the turquoise wall of the kiva and swiftly mounted his glorious way to the Above. After Spider Woman had bent her wise, all-seeing eyes upon the thronging creatures about her, she wound her way among them, separating them into groups.
"Thus and thus shall you be and thus shall you remain, each one in her own tribe forever. You are Zunis, you are Kohoninos, you are Pah-Utes...." The Hopis, all, all people were named by Kokyanwuhti then.
Placing her Magic Twins beside her, Spider Woman called all the people to follow where she led. Through all the Four Great Caverns of the Underworld she led them until they finally came to an opening, a sipapu, which led above. This came out at the lowest depth of the Pisisbaiya (the Colorado River) and was the place where the people were to come to gather salt. So lately had the Endless Waters gone down that the Turkey, Koyona, pushing early ahead, dragged its tail feathers in the black mud where the dark bands were to remain forever.
Mourning Dove flew overhead, calling to some to follow, and those who followed where his sharp eyes had spied out springs and built beside them were called "Huwinyamu" after him. So Spider Woman chose a creature to lead each clan to a place to build their house. The Puma, the Snake, the Antelope, the Deer, and other Horn creatures, each led a clan to a place to build their house. Each clan henceforth bore the name of the creature who had led them.
The Spider Woman spoke to them thus: "The woman of the clan shall build the house, and the family name shall descend through her. She shall be house builder and homemaker. She shall mold the jars for the storing of food and water. She shall grind the grain for food and tenderly rear and teach the young. The man of the clan shall build kivas of stone under the ground. In these kivas the man shall make sand pictures as altars. Of colored sand shall he make them, and they shall be called 'ponya.' The man too shall weave the clan blankets with their proper symbols. The man shall fashion himself weapons and furnish his family with game."
Stooping down, she gathered some sand in her hand, letting it run out in a thin, continuous stream. "See the movement of the sand? That is the life that will cause all things therein to grow. The Great Plumed Serpent, Lightning, will rear and strike the earth to fertilize it; Rain Cloud will pour down waters, and Tawa will smile upon it so that green things will spring up to feed my children."
Her eyes now sought the Above where Tawa was descending toward his western kiva in all the glory of red and gold. "I go now, but have no fear, for we Two will be watching over you. Look upon me now, my children, ere I leave. Obey the words I have given you, and all will be well. If you are in need of help, call upon me, and I will send my sons to your aid."
The people gazed wide-eyed upon her shining beauty. Her woven upper garment of soft white wool hung tunic-wise over a blue skirt. On its left side was woven a band bearing the Butterfly and Squash Blossom, in designs of red and yellow and green with bands of black appearing in between. Her neck was hung with heavy necklaces of turquoise, shell and coral, and pendants of the same hung from her ears. Her face was fair, with warm eyes and tender lips, and her form most graceful. Upon her feet were skin boots of gleaming white, and they now turned toward where the sand spun about in whirlpool fashion. She held up her right hand and smiled upon them, then stepped upon the whirling sand. Wonder of wonders, before their eyes the sands seemed to suck her swiftly down until she disappeared entirely from their sight.
Grandmother Spider Steals the Fire (Choctaw)
A Story of the Choctaw People of Tennessee and Mississippi
The Choctaw People say that when the People first came up out of the ground, People were encased in cocoons, their eyes closed, their limbs folded tightly to their bodies. And this was true of all People, the Bird People, the Animal People, the Insect People, and the Human People. The Great Spirit took pity on them and sent down someone to unfold their limbs, dry them off, and open their eyes. But the opened eyes saw nothing, because the world was dark, no sun, no moon, not even any stars.
All the People moved around by touch, and if they found something that didn't eat them first, they ate it raw, for they had no fire to cook it. All the People met in a great powwow, with the Animal and Bird People taking the lead, and the Human People hanging back. The Animal and Bird People decided that life was not good, but cold and miserable. A solution must be found! Someone spoke from the dark, "I have heard that the people in the East have fire." This caused a stir of wonder, "What could fire be?" There was a general discussion, and it was decided that if, as rumor had it, fire was warm and gave light, they should have it too. Another voice said, "But the people of the East are too greedy to share with us," So it was decided that the Bird and Animal People should steal what they needed, the fire!
But, who should have the honor? Grandmother Spider volunteered, "I can do it! Let me try!" But at the same time, Opossum began to speak. "I, Opossum, am a great chief of the animals. I will go to the East and since I am a great hunter, I will take the fire and hide it in the bushy hair on my tail." It was well know that Opossum had the furriest tail of all the animals, so he was selected.
When Opossum came to the East, he soon found the beautiful, red fire, jealously guarded by the people of the East. But Opossum got closer and closer until he picked up a small piece of burning wood, and stuck it in the hair of his tail, which promptly began to smoke, then flame. The people of the East said, "Look, that Opossum has stolen our fire!" They took it and put it back where it came from and drove Opossum away. Poor Opossum! Every bit of hair had burned from his tail, and to this day, opossums have no hair at all on their tails.
Once again, the powwow had to find a volunteer chief. Grandmother Spider again said, "Let me go! I can do it!" But this time a bird was elected, Buzzard. Buzzard was very proud. "I can succeed where Opossum has failed. I will fly to the East on my great wings, then hide the stolen fire in the beautiful long feathers on my head." The birds and animals still did not understand the nature of fire. So Buzzard flew to the East on his powerful wings, swooped past those defending the fire, picked up a small piece of burning ember, and hid it in his head feathers. Buzzard's head began to smoke and flame even faster! The people of the East said, "Look! Buzzard has stolen the fire!" And they took it and put it back where it came from.
Poor Buzzard! His head was now bare of feathers, red and blistered looking. And to this day, buzzards have naked heads that are bright red and blistered.
The powwow now sent Crow to look the situation over, for Crow was very clever. Crow at that time was pure white, and had the sweetest singing voice of all the birds. But he took so long standing over the fire, trying to find the perfect piece to steal that his white feathers were smoked black. And he breathed so much smoke that when he tried to sing, out came a harsh, "Caw! Caw!"
The Council said, "Opossum has failed. Buzzard and Crow have failed. Who shall we send?"
Tiny Grandmother Spider shouted with all her might, "LET ME TRY IT PLEASE!"
Though the council members thought Grandmother Spider had little chance of success, it was agreed that she should have her turn. Grandmother Spider looked then like she looks now, she had a small torso suspended by two sets of legs that turned the other way. She walked on all of her wonderful legs toward a stream where she had found clay. With those legs, she made a tiny clay container and a lid that fit perfectly with a tiny notch for air in the corner of the lid. Then she put the container on her back, spun a web all the way to the East, and walked tiptoe until she came to the fire. She was so small, the people from the East took no notice. She took a tiny piece of fire, put it in the container, and covered it with the lid. Then she walked back on tiptoe along the web until she came to the People. Since they couldn't see any fire, they said, "Grandmother Spider has failed."
"Oh no," she said, "I have the fire!" She lifted the pot from her back, and the lid from the pot, and the fire flamed up into its friend, the air. All the Birds and Animal People began to decide who would get this wonderful warmth. Bear said, "I'll take it!" but then he burned his paws on it and decided fire was not for animals, for look what happened to Opossum!
The Birds wanted no part of it, as Buzzard and Crow were still nursing their wounds. The insects thought it was pretty, but they, too, stayed far away from the fire.
Then a small voice said, "We will take it, if Grandmother Spider will help." The timid humans, whom none of the animals or birds thought much of, were volunteering!
So Grandmother Spider taught the Human People how to feed the fire sticks and wood to keep it from dying, how to keep the fire safe in a circle of stone so it couldn't escape and hurt them or their homes. While she was at it, she taught the humans about pottery made of clay and fire, and about weaving and spinning, at which Grandmother Spider was an expert.
The Choctaw remember. They made a beautiful design to decorate their homes, a picture of Grandmother Spider, two sets of legs up, two down, with a fire symbol on her back. This is so their children never forget to honor Grandmother Spider, Firebringer!
More Information on Grandmother Spider
Native American Women: Living with Landscape--Bales' scholarly article on Native American women's roles in myth and traditional Native culture.
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NOTE: These pages are for educational use only. The introductions were written by
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