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A Brief Guide to Native American Myths and Legends

Image of A Brief Guide to Native American Myths and Legends: With a new introduction and commentary by Jon E. Lewis
Book Number: 
Date Fred Read: 
September 2015
Fred's Rating: 
Lewis Spence
Total Pages: 

Editor Jon E. Lewis updated with his 16-pp Introduction and his commentary the 1914 edition of the book ‘Myths and Legends of the Native American Indians’ by Lewis Spence (1874-1955), a Scottish folklorist and mythologist whose many works included ‘The Myths of Mexico and Peru.’ This was a gift book.

The Amazon Kindle edition of this book has the website

I give the Kindle website here because it is identical in content to my paperback book and it has the option ‘Look inside.’ This option allows you to read everything up through page 13 of Jon E. Lewis’ 17-pp Introduction. I especially recommend you to look at the last three of the four maps, which show you the locations of the very many Native American tribes, which includes all of the tribes of Canada, the U.S. and much of those in northern Mexico. I ignored the first map ‘The Native American Wars’ since it only shows wars west of the Mississippi River. Also the book focuses not on war but on the myths and legends – the ‘native’ religions – of the original people of North America.

The last three maps cover these three regions: East and Southeast, Northwest and North, and West and Southwest. These maps use various types of shading to indicate the types of geography and resources for the tribes with common lifestyles. As the book’s Table of Contents spells out, there is a 3-pp section listing the tribes by region. There are way too many tribes for me to list them all in this review, but I give next for each of nine groupings of tribes their number, major languages, and major myth types:

  • 1. Artic: 13 tribes, speaking Eskimo – Aleut; tricksters, sea goddesses, shamans
  • 2. Subartic: 15 tribes, speaking Athapascan; trickster, Earth Diver, transformer
  • 3. NW Coast: 18 tribes, speaking Salishan, Na-Dene; transformer, trickster, stories based on lineage, heroic myths, Bear myths
  • 4. California: 19 tribes, speaking Penutian; origin myths, animal myths, tricksters, and transformers
  • 5. SW: 9 tribes, speaking Uto-Aztecan-Tanoan; emergence myths, migration myths, trickster
  • 6. Great Basin: 11 tribes, speaking Uto-Aztecan; trickster, hero and heroine, transformer, dying gods
  • 7. Plains: 20 tribes, speaking Siouan, Caddoan, Na-Dene; culture hero, trickster, stories and legends featuring buffalo
  • 8. SE: 13 tribes, speaking Muskogean; culture hero, emergence myths, trickster and tales featuring councils of animals
  • 9. NE: 33 tribes, speaking Algonquian-Kutenai, Iroquois-Caddoan; trickster stories, culture hero

The total number of tribes is 151, with different groupings speaking from one to three major languages. The most populous NE has four, shown as two pairs, but the text describes Algonquian and Iroquois as the dominant one of these pairs. I was surprised that shamans were not listed more often – perhaps this meant to Lewis Spence or Jon E. Lewis that shamans were more involved in healing and less involved in mythology. I was not at all surprised to see a ‘trickster’ in every group. (Kokopelli in Hopi, but he was also a fertility god and a healer as well as a prankster or trickster). A transformer was also a common god, and this god usually helped youth become warriors; in some tribes he also helped women transform well from a girl into a woman. It’s unclear if he helped with other positive transformations. Negative transformations were never mentioned.

As the book’s Table of Contents spells out, there is a 4-pp A-Z listing of the names of chief gods, spirits, and mythical beings of North America. I counted 74 names, but several were different names in different languages for the Great Spirit. As I said above the presence of a trickster did not surprise me at all. But the absence of one name was a surprise for me – there is no name for the Devil because Native American religions had no concept of Hell, at least not until Europeans gave them hell by the Europeans evil and deadly treatment of Native Americans. But this book does not get into that – instead it focuses on the myths and legends, songs and dances, of thanks or of pleas for help to the Great Spirit. In spite of many different lifestyles and languages, the stories (perhaps the word parables would be more appropriate) were similar. An animal god was always about an animal common to the region where the tribes lived. Usually this was a big animal like a buffalo or a bear, but trickster animals like the unusually intelligent crow or jay were involved in stories – or parables – that had a message to be deciphered by the listener to the oral stories.

The Table of Contents shows chapters with the name of Native American nations (consisting of several tribes), like the Algonquian, Iroquois, Sioux, Pawnees (in Ch. 3, 4, 5, and 6, respectively). Chapter 7 covers the myths and legends of the North and the NW Indians. Taking into account the differences in the geography and the available flora and fauna therein, similar parables were not uncommon. I enjoyed them all, for I tried to envision how they would affect different listeners – children, youths, young adults, mature adults and the elderly.

I have no idea how accurate this book, first written about 100 years ago, would have seemed to Indians in 1914, and from then up to the Native Americans of today. But I saw no major flaws or omissions based on my very limited knowledge of Native American myths and legends, so I recommend this enjoyable book to all and rate it at four stars.

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