Britain has its grand tales of King Arthur and his Round Table, Ireland its “little people” and soul-snatching sluagh, while Scandinavia has more trolls than Twitter. In fact, most European nations have origin stories rife with magic, myth and creativity.
But the origin stories and legendary feats associated with the USA are cut off at the knees. We usually start with the pilgrims, and barely consider anything that came before. These tales – and those of our Founding Fathers – encourage us to worship hard work, initiative and enterprise. And so we celebrate Davy Crockett, king of the wild frontier; George Washington, who could not tell a lie; and little Laura of the Little House stories, who’s full of moxie that sees her through any frozen prairie winter. There’s no hint of the supernatural in these stories.
It wasn’t always this way. The rich and varied stories of Native Americans are full of magic and mysticism – and insight into the human condition. In the 19th century, some Americans of European descent were anxious that these fables, myths and legends wouldn’t get lost. Anthropologists set out to record them – the last remnants of an oral tradition that had been destroyed by our push for westward expansion.
In The Algonquin Legends of New England (1884), Charles G. Leland collected tales from the Passamaquoddy, Micmac, Wabanaki, Penobscots, and the other tribes who made up the Northeast Algonquin nations. He believed these stories to be ancient, passed down first through song, but eventually all but wiped out when the nations mostly died off following European colonisation.
Being of European descent, Leland tried not to put his own opinion on the stories:
“I believe that when the Indian shall have passed away there will come far better ethnologists than I am, who will be much more obliged to me for collecting raw material than for cooking it.”
The anthropologist imagined that these stories would be essential for generations to come, yet they are not part of our children’s education. Though the data on this is not centralised, an informal survey reveals that most of what contemporary American school children learn about Native Americans are the sad events of colonisation, disease, and the abysmal Trail of Tears under the Jackson administration.
Grade school students who are local to Native American nations learn something of their myths and legends, but this is neither reinforced nor built upon, and soon replaced by European traditions. In fact, it took some digging into the Gutenberg Project for me to find these stories at all.
Reading them, it’s clear that the US would gain culturally if these myths were as much a part of our tradition as European legends. They open up a realm of imagination that can be matched in Beowulf or the Edda, but with characteristics of a natural environment that is uniquely North American. The characters and stories are infused with this landscape, and much of the magic is derived from the connection that Native American nations felt to place.
One story from the Micmac and Passamaquoddy is of the frightful Chenoo, a “being who comes from the far, icy north, a creature who is a man grown to be both devil and cannibal”. A family builds a wigwam for winter, and as the father is out hunting, a violent Chenoo enters the camp.
Thinking fast, the mother, instead of cowering in fear, approaches him as she would her own father, embracing him, bringing him into their warmth, sharing food. Though she fears for her death, the Chenoo transforms suddenly, taking up the axe not to fell her, but to help collect firewood. Her kindness makes monster into man.
Then there are the tales of Glooskap, a father figure of creation, who made all the animals and altered them for the benefit of the man; as when he realised he made moose too big for man to kill, and therefore made it smaller. A legend tells that men were once animals and that, though they became humans, “there was always something which showed what they were”.
There are rages between toads and porcupines, maidens who marry mountains, a partridge who builds canoes, and rabbit magicians – so many of these tales would make great Hollywood films. Many of them have women as protagonists, not only as mothers and wives, but also as warriors: passionate figures around whom terrific action sequences could be built. Horror flicks about the Chenoo and origin stories about Glooskap would be a welcome respite to the incessant Marvel superhero narratives.
If we are actively interested in not diminishing the Native American nations, then we must incorporate their stories as part of the foundational myths and legends of the modern USA. In a genre full of ultra-realistic frontier tales, we could use a dose of magic and myth – and we can find it within our own borders, rather than importing it from Europe. There is so much more we can learn about ourselves, the land, and where the ancestors of this place came from.
What stands in our way today is not prejudice against Native Americans, but a desire to uphold and keep sacred their words – to protect them from the prying eyes and imaginations of non-natives. If it’s not straight ignorance that keeps Americans of European descent from telling these stories, it’s a fear of being culturally appropriative. As an instruction on where their fear comes from, Coachella attendees in warbonnets were attacked on social media, while the Boy Scouts of America have been criticised for incorporating Native American tradition and ritual into their practices. The custom of smudging with sage is something non-Native Americans apparently oughtn’t do.
But when a minority culture and its traditions are isolated, and not incorporated into the dominant culture, those traditions will eventually be lost. That dominant culture will continue as before.
American Hindus celebrate Christmas, Christian families celebrate Passover, and the stories of the Founding Fathers, especially since the musical Hamilton made cultural waves, are open to everyone. So, too, should the stories of Native American nations rise to the forefront of American consciousness and be part of our cultural vocabulary. Isolating them, and the people who created them, as though in a museum to be preserved, helps no one, not even the people that museum is supposedly protecting.
That Native Americans of New England might be reluctant to share these stories with the public at large is understandable. The United States public and government have not been even close to fair to the nations, their people, or their culture. It makes sense to want to keep control over their stories – to make sure they are brought into the broader cultural light in a respectful and dignified way.
But the myths are bigger than a people – they are historical accounts of the consciousness of those living on this land going back centuries. It is a huge cultural contribution and should be amplified, even if this is “cultural appropriation”.
Native American cultures will never again be dominant in this land. Elevating the stories left behind, bringing them into the fold of the dominant cultural traditions, and incorporating them as part of what we are and what we know – this the best way to honour them, and to infuse our history and imagination with the magic it’s missing.
Instead of letting these glorious, enticing narratives fall into the dustbin of history, America needs to own them, retell them, and let them live in us – even those of us who have no claim to Native American ancestry.