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What Are the Major Elements of Native American Mythology?

By V. Sinnaeve
Updated May 23, 2024
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The major elements of Native American mythology include trickster figures, death as a universal theme, twin myths and oral tradition/storytelling. These elements that are present in Native American language and literature, along with unique perspectives on the world, society and cultures, differentiate Native American legends from Anglo-American and other mythology. All of these elements together set the plot for each story and teach cultural truths and values.

Trickster figures, such as Raven, Spider and Coyote, are characters in Native American mythology who represent the underside of human nature. Although they are not heroes who teach people how to do well, they are not evil. Rather, they make it clear that culture is imagined and has the potential to be changed. If there is enough motivation for such change, tricksters will assist by showing, for example, why it is dangerous for individuals to limit their own identities and always trust authority.

Death is a universal theme in most Native American folklore that usually results in the trickster being tricked, such as in the myth Coyote and the Origin of Death. Such stories signify cycles of life, death and rebirth. These legends teach the cultural importance of giving to others what is desired for oneself.

Twin myths are often present in many Native American legends, and often one twin is less dominant than the other in terms of depth, power and presence. Individuals who make positive choices and changes in their lives employ positive forces, and those who sit back and relax but never get anywhere employ the opposite. Hence twin myths, as a major element of Native American mythology, can teach the importance of finding balance, wholeness and meaning in life.

Although some people might believe Native American mythology is simply false legend or folklore, others believe that there is great truth in the details of Native American literature today. These stories have been carried down orally for generations, often by parents teaching their children about fundamental cultural truths. They have made their way from traditional oral narrative form into written stories, novels and poems.

In Native American mythology, the world is often considered the natural source of the feminine earth mother and her children, as outlined in the Zuni Talk Concerning the First Beginning. The moral of this story is that although people are born into certain environments, they all undergo changes in various aspects of their lives, symbolizing their search for balance. Humans' physical transformations make up their personal stories, hence creating their present identities and, in turn, allowing for universal communication to take place.

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Discussion Comments
By MrsPramm — On Aug 01, 2014

@pastanaga - The problem is that it's common practice for everyone to lump all this culture together. Even the fact that Native American myths and legends are more often considered as a whole than as a tapestry of different parts is almost universal. And often the culture that goes with the myths is a living one, so this is very disrespectful.

Even if there are comparisons to be drawn between the myths of different cultures, I think it still has to be made clear that they are actually different cultures and not just one culture with a few variations.

By pastanaga — On Jul 31, 2014

@Ana1234 - It's definitely true that these Native American tribes were culturally unique, but there are still some things that their myths might have in common. The commonalities might be there because there was trade between some tribes or they might be there because the flora and fauna and ways of living across a continent might have similarities and end up inspiring similar stories.

By Ana1234 — On Jul 30, 2014

There are some commonalities in Native American mythology, but people should keep in mind that these are often no more related than different myths all across the world. Every culture has tricksters and myths relating to death and rebirth.

Native American tribes live across a massive continent and most of them have little or no relationship with each other, any more than people in Europe might have with people in China.

Lumping them all together is insulting and foolish and takes away from the depth and diversity of them.

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