Sunday, 8 February 2015

Myths Told by the First Nations of Canada

Just a few hundred years ago, what is now called Canada has been the home of many different First Nations Cultures. And each of these Cultures had a variety of stories and/or myths. Please do some research about at least one of these First Nations and find out more about this particular culture's mythology. Please share here what you have learned from your research - in particular, what you think contemporary Canadians/ North Americans should learn from these earlier cultures.

Bill Reid's The Raven and the First Men - at MOA


  1. When researching Canadian First Nations mythology, I came across a story from the Dene people (who live in the Canadian arctic) that explains the creation of the seasons. The story begins in the time of the first people when there was only winter, and the earth always was cold and frozen. One day, four first people hunters came across a bear with a sack that held warmth and light. The hunters begged the bear for the sack, but he refused. Upon the hunters return to the village, they told the chief what they had come across. The chief decided that they would invite the bear to a feast and when the bear fell asleep, they would take the sack from him. However, when the bear came to the feast he didn’t bring the sack. The chief still welcomed the bear and feasted with him until the bear fell asleep. The next morning, the frustrated chief ordered four of his most skilled hunters to follow the bear home and steal the sack from him. The hunters obeyed and when they reached the bear’s cave they discovered that two other bears were guarding the sack. A fight ensued and some of the hunters were killed. However, just as one lay dying, he reached for the sack and opened it, spilling out warmth and light. The earth melted and new animals appeared on the landscape. From the point forth, the Dene people had summer.

    When I read the myth, I was struck foremost by the hospitality and respect the Dene people hold for the bear. The bear is treated as an equal (if not superior) as the first people hunters try and persuade him to give them his sack. And although they are hunters, they let the bear refuse and leave without harming him. From a Western perspective, one might expect that the hunters would attack and kill the bear. However, they respect the bear’s decision, and instead concoct a more cerebral plan to take the sack. This shows that they see the bear as a thoughtful, intelligent creature – contrary to Western portrayal of bears as merely terrifying beasts of strength. The first people also show the bear hospitality even though he has not brought the sack and their original plan is foiled. They honour him as a guest, letting him eat until his is full and they allow him to sleep there with them without causing him any harm. Again, when they decide to follow the bear and steal the sack from his cave, it is a cerebral plan. It is only when they discover that there are three bears guarding the sack that the first people resort to violence. Even still, the hunters lose their lives and it is only by chance that warmth and light are released. The hunters’ sacrifice is in keeping with First Nations tradition that nature is more powerful than human beings, and that we must submit to its strength.

    In Western culture, I feel like we need to have a greater respect for nature. Although a bear may not speak a human language, they are no less valuable and they are not inferior to humans. I believe that in Western civilization, we value (perceived) intelligence over all. If something does not fit the Western definition of intelligence it is not worthy of ones time and can therefore be exploited for one’s own gains. Western culture is individual centric and sees bettering oneself (sometimes at the expense of others) as an accomplishment. First Nations values, on the other hand, as expressed in this myth, focus on the larger group. Neither the four hunters, nor the chief are named. The one hunter who sacrifices his life to release warmth and light is not greatly described nor named a hero. The focus of the myth is what the first people did for the greater good of their people. And although they disrespected the bear in the end, they sought to reach a just agreement with a creature that they treated as an equal.

    I found the myth on this site:

  2. I remember when reading a Native American story when I was very young about the origin of fire. Probably the most well-known myth surrounding fire is the one of Prometheus but given the prominence of fire in all cultures, it's not surprising that there are so many other traditions that also cover this subject. The most striking part about the story that I remembered from my childhood is the descriptions of several animals after they carried fire for some distance. After doing some research, I discovered that there are several slightly different versions of this story. The one I had originally read was this one: in which it is a rabbit who brings fire for the other animals by hiding it in wood. To reignite the fire, they must rub sticks together.
    Another version is this one: in which it is Grandmother Spider who brings fire for the humans and teaches them how to use it. I think that one of the most interesting things about this story is how the physical attributes of the animals who carry fire are described. For example, deer have short tails because he ran through the woods with his (then) long tail on fire.

    Something that I think contemporary North Americans can take away from these stories is the idea that animals should be valued. They aren't there to be taken advantage of and abused like they frequently are these days. While these stories may not necessarily be realistic, I think that the lesson they impart about animals as an essential part of humanity's past is important.

  3. The area I grew up in North Vancouver is the traditional lands of the Tsleil-Waututh nation also known as “the people of the Inlet”. In the same way that UBC acknowledges that we are on the unceeded territory of the Musqueem nation, before assemblies and formal ceremonies my high school acknowledged that the school was on the unceeded territory of the Tsleil-Waututh nation. Members of the nation would perform traditional dances and chants, the school commissioned local artists to create traditional carvings and we were even taught the traditional practice of war boating. That being said I didn’t know a lot about the history of the nation.

    Upon doing some research I discovered that at one point this nation was ten thousand people strong and their territory was comprised of the majority of the Burrard Inlet past where the second narrows bridge is now. The Tsleil-Waututh nation writes that “Our ancestors’ survival was dependent on cycles of hunting, harvesting and preserving foods, and on trading using our land and water transportation networks and protocols we had with our neighbors.” Much of this nations myths are related to the ocean, but there is also a strong importance of the wolf figure, which has become the contemporary symbol to represent the nation.

    Here is a myth as told to Leonard George by Josephine Charlie who worked with Leonard on the CBC series The Beachcombers:

    Legend of the First Man and Woman
    “The wolf was very important to us because in a bad salmon year a wolf brought us half a deer, only keeping half for himself. We believe that the first man was transformed from a wolf as a gift. He was very lonely, and angry at being alone when everything else in nature had a partner. The Great Spirit gave him a vision of diving off a cliff into the ocean, for at the center of the world lived the Spiritual Grandmother. When he hit the water he went to the bottom and returned with two hands full of sediment which he was to place in a ceremonial manner in a circle of cedar boughs. He did so and the day ended.”
    “When the sun came up next day a beautiful woman was sitting there. She was to be the mother of his children and treated with great respect and love, a gift of mother earth. If he failed to comply his family would not flourish.”
    “That,” Josephine said to Leonard “is the story of your people’s creation.” – Leonard George

    Here are two resources about this nation:

  4. I also wanted to share this poem written by Chief Dan George who was born in 1899 and was the chief of the Tsleil-Waututh nation as well as a famous indigenous actor in his later years.

    "My Heart Soars"

    The beauty of the trees,
    the softness of the air,
    the fragrance of the grass,
    speaks to me.

    The summit of the mountain,
    the thunder of the sky,
    the rhythm of the sea,
    speaks to me.

    The faintness of the stars,
    the freshness of the morning,
    the dew drop on the flower,
    speaks to me.

    The strength of fire,
    the taste of salmon,
    the trail of the sun,
    and the life that never goes away,
    They speak to me.
    And my heart soars.