Tag Archives: Native American folklore

Mvskoke Thunderbird

Context: Informant is a member of the Mvskoke tribe. Although informant does not live within an indigenous community, and is about half native, they connect with their native culture through their mother’s heritage and traditions.

Informant: “The Thunderbird was something that I just always knew while I was growing up? Like how you don’t necessarily remember your parents teaching you like colors or your name you just grew up and it was integrated into your life. Different tribes and nations have their own interpretations of the Thunderbird, but it’s pretty universally a symbol of protection, often against bad spirits. It’s also important to note that not every “Native” symbol, story, etc. applies to every Indigenous person and community, but the Thunderbird is one that a lot of us from various Native cultures were taught about/have connections to. The Thunderbird is essentially an absolutely giant bird most closely resembling an eagle. You’ll see it on jewelry or pendants, etc. as a symbol of strength or protection as well! My tribe doesn’t have a lot of specific ties to the Thunderbird beyond viewing it as a symbol of protection, but there are others that have deep history and beliefs around it, including things like where it lives, different forms it can take on, what it means to see it in visions or dreams, etc. but since my tribe is a little more distantly connected to it it’s not my place to try and give super specifics!”

Background Information: Informant has a lot of respect for their native culture, and was happy to teach me about it.

Thoughts: The Thunderbird is interesting since it appears in multiple Indigenous tribe cultures. It’s interesting to see how this folklore will liken some tribes to one another, while creating distinctions among others. As the informant states, it is very important to remember that each tribe is very distinct and to not view the individual tribes as an overall ‘indigenous population.’ However, with this in mind, it is interesting to see the shared lore of different tribes. Even informant, who did not grow up within an indigenous community, knew the Thunderbird the same way all children know colors. The Thunderbird seems to be a thing of power, respect, dignity, and a unifying front for a diverse population of native Northern Americans

Legend of the owl.

H is a Caucasian-Native-American male originally from Tucson, Arizona. H is currently a corporate manager based in Austin, Texas.

H performed this folklore while visiting LA on a business trip. I met H in Downtown LA for lunch in order to collect folklore he had previously agreed to perform for me. The following is the second of two stories he provided. H first heard the following story from his grandfather.

H: Another legend is of the owl. The Apaches have nothing to do with owls, they see them as the night creature and if you see an owl, you run, my Grandfather would stop if we saw an owl and the trip would be over. The big owl in the Apache stories was evil, he was a giant. Sometimes he was man-like. They were able to paralyze humans with their stare or they could cry and everyone who heard it it was like thunder, and it would cause you to stop, uh, some owls were seen as cannibals and they would eat children, and so you avoided them. The Apaches claimed that the big owl was the sun of the sun, and.. when he was slain, his body hit the earth and his feathers flew off in every direction and those feathers transformed the owl that now live in the forest. And if you saw an owl, you turned and went home.

Reflection: Owls in Apache culture appear to have the same negative connotations that crows have in European culture. As far as I know, crows are not perceived the same way in Apache culture, so I find it interesting that their culture happens to consider the owl, a different type of bird, an evil portent. Based on H’s detail that owls in Apache legend have the power to paralyze people with their cries, there appears to be a direct link between how unsettling or intimidating a bird sounds and how it is perceived across European and Native American cultures. The deep “hoots” of an owl are an evil omen just as the harsh “caws” of a crow are associated with death in European culture.

The Tale of Salmon Boy

Main Piece:

The way that I heard it— so I heard different versions of it over time, like all my teachers told me slightly different stories. Um one of the field trips we went on in elementary school was going to the salmon hatchery which is the place where you hatch salmon…as I’m sure you could tell by the name (laughing). So we heard the story there as well. But basically what I heard the story was that there was this young boy who was not very respectful to the salmon. He would like spear them and just for fun he would like… torture the fish basically and just treat them horribly and was not respectful of the all of the things that having salmon meant, for their family, for their society, for him and he just was not was not aware. If he was aware he didn’t care, he was just a really selfish dude. And the gods got angry at the way he was treating their gifts to their society basically, and to teach him a lesson they turned him into a salmon. And he was living with the salmon and living their way of life and, um, going through the process of, you know, laying eggs in the river and going to the ocean, and going back to the river and he befriended the salmon and gained a lot of respect for their way of life. 

And this is where things get a little fuzzy and in the details of the different versions I heard was— one version I heard was that once he gained respect for the salmon, he befriended this other salmon that had taken him in and was like, making sure he was protected because he had no idea what he was doing as a fish… like you would if you were a human and turned into a fish… But there was another boy in the tribe that Salmon Boy knew, and that boy killed the fish he had befriended and was treating the fish horribly. And Salmon Boy was horrified and lost somebody that was very important to him and it, um, changed him and changed the way that he viewed salmon and the world, and having learned his lesson, he was turned back into a human and he was changed forever, you know. He was far more respectful and very careful with the way he interacted with salmon, and he still ate them because it was food, but he did it in a much more respectful way as opposed to actively torturing. 

So that was one version, but I heard another one where instead of it being a friend of Salmon Boy’s that got hurt, it was he himself that got hurt, and so the friend he’d known from the tribe that still remained human speared him instead of the [fish] friend, and treated him horribly and then he, like, you know, turned back into a human. And the other dude was like “oh no!” This is not the proper terminology obviously but that was the gist of it, that then he was treated horribly and then he goes to the salmon and learned his lesson that way. 

Background: 

My informant, one of my friends, is a 20-year-old USC student from Washington state. Having grown up there her whole life, a significant part of her education from K-12 focused on the history of Washington state with emphasis on the Native groups that live there. She told me that Washington State History was a mandatory graduation required course for her and her peers, where they would learn “a lot about all the elements of their culture, words specific to the Pacific Northwest, so obviously salmon was one of them.” As stated in the main piece, this story was often told to her by various teachers. To my informant, the meaning of the story of Salmon boy was about “being respectful of the environment and being respectful even when you are using it. There are spirits and animals and you have to treat them gently, and not be cruel, and not think that you’re better than anything around you.” 

Context: 

This story came up after I asked my informant that in one of my previous classes, we studied the Native American groups in the Pacific Northwest, and I told her that I heard a story about Salmon Boy. I asked if she happened to know the story, when she said yes, I asked for the versions she’d heard.

Analysis: 

 The story of Salmon Boy is a well known tale (told as a  among the people of the Pacific Northwest, whether they’re Native American or not. What I liked is that my informant was able to tell me two different versions of the story that she heard, showcasing Alan Dundes’ idea of multiplicity and variation within folklore that allows it to grow as it’s told over and over to different groups of people. With a story that has two very different endings, it’s interesting to consider the way that it was used and during what circumstances. For example, it could’ve been told to misbehaving children as a cautionary tale with a tragic ending, but simultaneously, the other version could have emphasized the themes of forgiveness and growth.

What I also found interesting about this piece is that it’s considered Native American folklore, yet it’s continuously taught in schools across the Pacific Northwest. As a whole, the United States doesn’t hold folklore on the same pedestal as it does anthropology in part because of the country’s colonialist roots, meaning that a good percentage of folklore within origins in the United States is that of Native Americans’. Additionally, this exchange serves as an example of active and passive bearers: I had only heard of the story of Salmon Boy in an academic setting, but couldn’t remember it enough to tell it on my own. My informant on the other hand, became the active bearer by being able to recite two versions of the story, having grown up hearing them so often in her youth.

Paiute Indian Cure for Warts

Background:

As the main text of this piece describes, my informant learned this cure from a friend whose Grandfather was a Paiute Indian. Although he lived in a rural area between Cloverdale and Boonville, California, the man probably brought his knowledge of the treatment from somewhere in the Great Basin area that the Paiutes inhabited before genocide was committed upon them by white settlers.

Context:

This remedy was introduced to my informant by a childhood friend of hers who, upon seeing the wart on her thumb, asked to show her how to treat it.

Main Piece:

“So I had a wart on my bone of my thumb knuckle, and it would go away– I would get like the wart remover at the store, and I’d put it on and it would go away but it would come back. And my friend G who’s grandfather was Paiute Indian had these fish bones that he had saved when he was alive for just this process. Um–He had stored this fish-bone-jar in his pantry and he was long past but the fish was caught at the creek on their property and I believe it was a steelhead. And–uhhh–she told me that her grandfather told her if you take these fish bones and you put them in your wart, going in one side and coming out the other side in as many different angles as you could, the wart would fall off and never return. And so I did that and it looked like I had a little porcupine on my thumb and I had to put a Bandaid over it so it didn’t catch on things, but it eventually fell off with the fishbone spikes and it never came back!”

Analysis:

Because this treatment worked for my informant, it’s a perfect example of the effectiveness of folk medicine. While many people of Western society disregard the potential benefits of folk medicine, much of it promises value. Even though modern medicine is thought to be much more precise and successful than its folk counterpart, many folk remedies have undergone hundreds or thousands of years of trial and error. This has allowed their tradition-bearers to understand which natural compounds are good for use in medicine along with their specific applications, and which are not. Illustrating the idea I’ve just presented is the fact that many cures which we consider to be modern medicine are compounds synthesized from plants that are commonly used in folk medicine.

Serrano and Cahuilla Dragonfly Song

Main Piece:

I: It’s called the Dragonfly Song, it’s like a lullaby kind of song– so you sing it, and like if your heart is good, and it’s like– you don’t have anger or resentment or like bad feelings, or revenge, or any of those things– but like basically if you have good intentions like a good heart and you sing it dragonflies will come to you and they’ll sit on you. And like it’s really neat to like see it happen, like– they’ll fly around you and then they’ll come fall on you. And, they’ve never like… landed on me because (indicates that she is referring to the good intentions) but like I’ve seen like them go to other people. And so it’s like a really neat– I think people do it with hummingbirds too, but like it’s– so, it’s a lullaby that repeats the 4 verses over again, but the lullaby verses are like “Ooshkana ooshkana oh oh, ooshkana oosh” (these lyrics are typed out phonetically). And it repeats in different variations four times and you have to sing it in verses of 4.

Background:

My informant is a good friend from high school. She is a part of the Cahuilla and Chippewa Indigenous Nations and explains that she learned this Dragonfly Song from a Serrano elder, though it was not the first time she had heard it. She believes that her mother might have sung this lullaby for her when she was a baby. She explains that her parents were actively involved in Indian Country, working with Native children in the community, and her father was the director of a foster care agency that was specifically for Native Youth but also worked with rehabilitating families. She says it was probably during one of their group sessions with the youth where Ernest Siva, the Serrano elder, was a guest and sang this song. This song is meaningful to her because of the symbolism of the dragonfly as a messenger from the spirit world.

Context:

This is a transcript of a conversation between my friend and me over the phone. I have talked to her a few times about my folklore class and explained the collection to her. She was happy to help and talk about some of her traditions.

Thoughts:

My friend and I have talked often about our respective traditions with each other, but there are so many that we have not talked about in detail. This is the first time I learned about the Dragonfly Song and thought it was beautiful. She explained to me that in Cahuilla culture, the dragonfly is thought to be a messenger from the spirit world, and thus, is the connection of the physical world to the spirit world. The need of having a good heart and good intentions in order to attract dragonflies when singing this song illustrates how the spirit world is regarded in Cahuilla culture: healing and nourishing. Its purpose as a lullaby also indicates the importance of children and the youth, as being able to sing this song and attract dragonflies (proof of having a good heart and good intentions) to soothe a child transfers the positive energy and intentions to them.

For more on the Dragonfly Song, see:

Siva, Ernest. Voices of the Flute: Songs of three Southern California Indian Nations. Ushkana Press, 2004.