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Stith Thompson

American Folkorist


A selection from

Narrated by Lloyd James

Download mp3 file: Tales of the North American Indians

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Nearly three centuries have passed since the first American Indian tales were recorded by Europeans. The Jesuit Fathers in their Relations beginning with 1633 report tales current among the tribes with whom they had come into contact. From them we have at this early date rather good versions of the Iroquois creation myth, of "The Sun Snarer" and of "The Empounded Water". These tales have the same form when collected in the twentieth century as they had in the early seventeenth.Though tales were reported sporadically during the next two centuries by travellers and explorers, it was not till the second quarter of the nineteenth century that any considerable body of this folk-lore became available. Through the labors of Henry Rowe Schoolcraft, the legends of the Ojibwa and their neighbors were reported at some length...His work serves as a landmark in the history of the recording of American Indian tales.

Prominent among these will be found mythological stories dealing with the world before it was in the present state. The primary purpose of such tales is to show the preparation for the present order of affairs. They often treat of demigods or culture heroes. They explain origins of animals, or tribes, or objects, or ceremonies, or the universe itself. The true creation myth, as Professor Boas points out, is almost wholly lacking, but origin myths of a sort are found over a large territory. The Zuñi myth and the California myths are about as clear examples of the creation myth as are to be found. Stories of the "Glooscap" type, in which the culture hero (in a world assumed as already existing) acts as an originator of various aspects of culture and is responsible for many changes in topography, are much more prevalent. In the Southwest and the Southeast, migration legends tell of the emergence of the tribe from lower worlds in mythological times.

Aside from such rather well-developed mythological tales, there are a number of separate incidents or episodes that evidently belong to the same world of thought. The whole purpose of such tales is to explain by some happening in an earlier world the existence of some phenomenon in present-day life. Without the explanation the tale is pointless.

Attempts at exact definition of "myth" as distinguished from "tale" seem futile. It is quite certain that no satisfactory classification of tales can be made on the basis of whether some phenomenon is explained or not. By far the greater number of explanations he has studied are not organic: they are not necessary to the story, but are added as an ornament or for other reasons. The same explanations combine freely with a great number of different tales. Nor can more successful classification be made on the basis of ritualistic significance, or on that of personification. All these things appear and disappear—the tale remains as the only permanent element.

A second class of tale is that relating the deeds of a trickster. Sometimes the buffoon is a human being, but more often he is an animal endowed with human characteristics. Usually it is quite impossible to tell whether animal or person is in the mind of the narrator. The distinction is never very clear. In the most human of these tales...the animal nature of the trickster seems always in the background of the narrative. Sometimes the trickster appears outside his proper cycle and confusion between the two natures is especially marked.

A third large division of American Indian tales concerns the life of human beings under conditions at least remotely resembling the present. To be sure, in all of these the marvelous occupies a large place. Transformation, magic, otherworld journeys, ogres, and beast marriages abound. But the characters are thought of as distinctly human. The general background is the tribal life and environment. The resemblance to the European tale in method and material is often striking. The characters and the setting are usually as vague as in a story from Grimm, the events as definitely established by convention. Motivation is usually weak, frequently quite absent. But to the average educated reader this type of tale is often more interesting than either the mythological story or the trickster cycle. We seem to have at least a partial expression of the life of the people from whom the tales come.

A large group of these stories we may call "hero" tales, for they concern themselves with the exploits of a hero (or often of twin heroes). The tales usually relate attempts made to kill the hero and his successful escapes from death. He often deliberately seeks dangerous enemies and overcomes them. Frequently the hero is subjected to tests by his father-in-law—an incident bearing very interesting resemblances to the European Son-in-Law Test theme.

From one area to another the hero differs in type. On the North Pacific Coast the heroes of even this kind of tale may be of the animal-human type; in California and on the Plains his supernatural birth is stressed; the unpromising hero turned victor is common on the Plains, the Plateau, and among the Iroquois. Twin heroes are frequent on the Plains and in the Southwest.

On the North Pacific Coast the hero cycle merges with the next to be mentioned—tales of journeys to the other world. In these stories there is, from the point of view of the civilized reader, a confusion of worlds. Usually the "other world" is pictured as above; sometimes as below; sometimes as across a vast river or sea. The cosmological concepts of the particular tribe are always in the background of these tales, and a real understanding of what the narrator has in mind can often be gained only by a serious study of the religious ideas of the tribe. In spite, however, of tribal differences, such simple concepts as a star-world, a sky window, a rope to the sky, a rainbow-bridge to the upper world are to be found everywhere. For example, "The Star Husband" is told over the entire width of the continent.

In the discussion of the trickster cycle, mention has been made of the confusion between man and animal. This same confusion exists in the many stories of beast marriages. Animals carry off human girls or marry human husbands. They have offspring—sometimes human, sometimes animal, sometimes capable of becoming either at will. Sometimes the animal spouse is a transformed person. The tales regularly end with the transformation of the animal spouse to human form, or with an escape from the animal.

In the stories of certain tribes the recent influence of the Europeans is very apparent. The French in Canada, the Spanish in the Southwest, and the (blacks) in the Southeast have contributed many tales to the tribes in their respective territories. Usually the Indians recognize these definitely as borrowings. European phraseology, background, and ideas abound. Not fewer than fifty well-known European tales are current among the American Indians.

As the discussion of types has several times implied, there is a difference in the tales of the American Indian as we pass from one culture area to another. The same themes may—usually do—appear, but there are differences, nevertheless. Certain kinds of tale or hero or setting may be favorites with one tribe and not with another. Explanatory stories may prevail here; hero myths there; trickster tales in a third tribe.

In spite of the intrusion of stories from the whites during the past few centuries, the body of older American Indian tales is very clearly established. These tales have been here for a very long time—long enough for the incidents to travel over the entire continent. That they have some sort of relation to myths of the Old World seems in many cases most probable, but until the exact nature of parallels has been studied and a large number of them traced, speculation is perhaps unwise. Certain very clear instances of ancient migration of tales from Asia even now appear, but only very careful and detailed investigation will make any larger generalization safe.

The American Indian tale offers ample material for much profitable study. The groping toward literary style, the attempt to narrate interestingly, the primitive conception of humor—such are only a few of the possibilities of their use for the student. To the general reader they hold out great attractions as a characteristic product of our native Americans. We may well be grateful to the faithful collectors who have gathered such a wealth of material for our profit and enjoyment.

More information about Stith Thompson from Wikipedia

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