USC Digital Folklore Archives / Posts Tagged ‘Native American myth’
Folk Beliefs
Myths
Signs
Tales /märchen

The Owl: A Native American Bad Omen

Context:

My grandmother M is Native American and would often tell me stories about her life on a reservation in Arizona. I asked her about any stories that she carried with her as a child or even in adulthood that relate to her cultural background. She shared this story with me about her experience with an owl.

Main Piece:

The story I remember most is not of her life on reservation however a story that happened to her as an adult. My grandmother once told me that the owl is considered a negative omen in Native American culture. She also told me that she experienced this negative omen first hand and has since hated owls. Molly had seven sons and one of her eldest had purchased a motorcycle. He was in his twenties and was of age to purchase the bike but had never ridden one before. My grandmother told me that one day she had noticed an owl out during the day perched on a tree near her bedroom window. She found this very odd because of the time of day, and because she lived in East Los Angeles where seeing owls would be rare. The owl spoke a name to her, and she was very unsettled. The owl had spoken her son’s name. Her son had been home but was about to leave on his bike to hang out with his friends. My grandmother stopped him and told him to stay home because she had a bad feeling about him leaving. She didn’t tell him about the owl for fear that he wouldn’t believe her and would probably think she was crazy. That night, my uncle was in an accident on his motorcycle and died. To this day, my grandmother regrets having kept the owl from him.

Notes:

Stated by Native-languages.org, many Native American tribes consider the owl an omen of death. Hopi however, consider the owl a symbol of authority and wisdom. It is interesting that my grandmother didn’t look at the owl as a sign of wisdom given that her own tribe sees them that way. Possibly it was a sign of wisdom in that it gave her the warning signs and she was left to her own devices to solve the problem. My grandmother has never shared stories with me regarding anything supernatural. I don’t think that was something that they talked about because I don’t think they believed in it. Given that my father also had an experience regarding the death of my uncle and he is very logical and not easily swayed without proof, I believe there is truth to it.

 

 

For more on Owls in Native American folklore:

http://www.native-languages.org/legends-owl.htm

https://www.owlpages.com/owls/articles.php?a=64&p=2

Myths
Narrative

American Alabama Tribe Myth: Fire

Informant: I have a myth I heard from an Alabama tribeswoman I used to work with. Want to hear that one?

Interviewer: Sure.

Informant: At the start of the world, Bear owned Fire. It kept him and his people warm and let them see even when it was dark. One day, Bear came to a forest. On the forest floor, he found tons of acorns. He set Fire at the edge of the forest, and began to gorge himself on the delicious acorns. As the acorns around him began to run out, the wandered deeper into the forest.

While Bear was eating, Fire was burning at the edge of the forest. Soon, though, Fire had burned up nearly all of its wood. It began to shout “Feed me! Feed me!” to Bear, but Bear was too far away.

Man, however, was not far away, so he, hearing Fire’s cries, wandered over. Man hadn’t seen Fire before, so he asked it what he could feed it to help out. Fire explained that it ate wood, so Man picked up a stick and fed fire. Then he grabbed another, and another, until Fire’s hunger had been quenched. Man, meanwhile, warmed himself by the Fire. He sat nearby, feeding it wood and enjoying its warmth and colors.

After a while, Bear returned to Fire, but Fire was angry at Bear for abandoning him. Fire blazed brighter and brighter until it was blinding to Bear, and told Bear to leave it alone. Fire’s heat scared Bear away, and Bear could not get close enough to carry Fire back with him. Man and Fire were left alone, and that is how Fire came into the possession of Man.

Context: My informant is an eighty year old woman from a very scientifically/factually inclined Midwestern family. This performance was done over Facetime with my informant, since she lives in Seattle. Otherwise, however, it resembled a classic storytelling situation.

Background: My informant heard this story from one of her coworkers while working at a company in Alabama. It stayed with her because she enjoyed how well the story personified the wildness of Fire, but also thought its dependence on other beings for “food” made a lot of sense. Furthermore, the fact that Fire had not been found by Man, but rather had been inherited by a member of the natural world also stuck with her.

Analysis: Personally, I thought the story was great. It shares many similarities with myths I’ve heard from my own home region in the Pacific Northwest, primarily through its use of animals as characters and its personification of elements such as fire. It also demonstrates a really interesting progression where an important facet of our own life – in this case Fire – is not discovered by the ingenuity of mankind alone. Rather, mankind receives Fire from nature, as if we were successors of animals and part of the natural world, rather than detached from it.

Myths
Narrative

The Myth of Suha and the Superstition Mountain Flood- Pima Indian Legend

“After man was created near the Verde and Salt Rivers by the Great Butterfly, the Earth Maker became mad at mans behavior and decided he might drown them. He decided to warn them through voices in the wind and called out to Suha, a Pima Shaman. The North Wind came to him first, telling the people to change their ways or else they would be destroyed by floods. He warned his people but they didnt change their ways. The East Wind came next with its warning but Suha was unable to change his people. The North and South Winds later came, but with no avail. The South Wind then warned Suha and his wife to gather spruce gum and stock it with nuts, water, and deer meat to nourish them when the food would come, for he and his wife were obedient to the warnings. A flood later came, destroying the valley due to the peoples selfishness. He and his wife crawled into their gum ball and closed the door tightly, waiting for the floods to subside. Finally, the rains subsided and they landed upon Superstition mountain and descended onto the valley where they created a new people that prospered there for thousands of years.”

            When I visited my family in Arizona over spring break, my aunt told me this story after taking a hike through the Superstition Mountains. She has always been fascinated by Native American legends and myths, especially those of the Navajo, Anazazi, Pima, and Hopi for whom Arizona was called home. My aunt was born in California but moved to Arizona with my uncle in the 90’s due to his job. She had been a stay at home mom, but after my cousin grew up she decided to take a job as a librarian and read several books about Native American folklore, learning hundreds of stories about the origins of man and the creation of the earth.

I found this myth particularly interesting because its not the first time I’ve heard a version of it. It sounds almost identical to that of Noah and the Ark, though with different motifs. Water is a universal symbol for purification, so it’s no surprise that it is the medium of choice across cultures when retelling the cleansing of the earth. The Epic of Gilgamesh from Mesopotamia is also another similar story I can think of that too utilizes a great flood. It’s fascinating to see that both the New and Old World came up with almost identical stories to describe the history of earth and its people despite lacking contact until the 1500’s.

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