Creation, Trickster and Transformation Myths
While their mythologies defy simple classification, three main types of myths, features of which often occur in combination, are particularly important in the religion of Aboriginal peoples. The first group consists of creation myths that describe the origins of the cosmos and the interrelations of its elements. Here belong the Earth Diver myth, in which either the Great Spirit or the Transformer dives or orders other animals to dive into the primeval water to bring up mud, out of which he fashions the Earth (Eastern Woodlands, Northern Plains); the Trickster myths, which frequently but not always represent the Transformer as a comical character who steals light, fire, water, food, animals or even mankind and loses them or sets them loose to create the world as it is now (RAVEN among the Nuxalk, Tsimshian, Haida; Hare, NANABOZO or Nanabush among the Ojibwa; Frog in the Columbian Plateau; Coyote among the Blackfoot); and the Culture Hero myths, in which the Transformer appears as a human being of supernatural powers who brings the world into its present form by heroic feats (GLOOSCAP of the Mi'kmaq, Maliseet, Abenaki).
Especially in the Columbian Plateau and the Great Plains, there are said to be two Transformers (more precisely, a Transformer and a companion who is a brother, sister or other relative). They try to outdo each other in feats of strength, ability or cunning that result in the formation of the world as it now exists.
Many myths tell of the origin of the moon, the sun and the stars. In these myths there is usually a tension between the heavenly bodies; eg, the cool moon by night is said to be necessary to counteract the burning of the Earth and the killing of people by the heat of the sun. An Inuit myth tells of the sun and moon as brother and sister, but since they have engaged in incest in their human lives they are doomed to eternal separation. Among many forms of myth about human origins are those that tell of the Transformer changing various animals into people. Others tell of the origin of death. The second group of myths include the institutional myths, which tell of the origins of religious institutions, such as the SUN DANCE (northern Plains), sacred MEDICINE BUNDLES (Blackfoot, Cree, Ojibwa, Iroquois), winter ceremonies (Coast Salish, Nootka, Kwakiutl) and the Green Corn Ceremonial (Iroquois; see also FALSE FACE SOCIETY).
Where there is a belief that primordial times were very different from the present, the pattern in which the ancient mythic beings arranged their social and religious institutions becomes the norm for people now. Myths of the third group, the ritual myths, serve as detailed texts for the performance of ceremonials and rituals by which cosmic order is dramatically represented (Plains Sun Dance, Ojibwa MIDEWIWIN ritual and the Iroquois Green Corn Ceremonial). Fertility, birth, initiation and death rites are often clearly stipulated in mythology. Shamanic performances may also be described (see SHAMAN). Ceremonials are often preceded by stringent purification rites, such as sweat baths (eg, Salish, Blackfoot, Eastern Woodlands), fasting and sexual abstinence (see SWEAT LODGE). Feasting is a common feature of ceremonial performance.
The use of hallucinogenic drugs such as peyote appears to be limited and relatively recent in religious observances among Canadian Aboriginal people, although trance states seem to be reasonably common (eg, in Salish winter dancing, shamanic performances among many groups, and perhaps in the SHAKING TENT rituals).
Some myths appear to have lost their religious sacredness and, while considered to be basically true accounts of true mythic beings, have become folktales recounted for entertainment or instruction. All religious myths and many folktales have a moral or ethical dimension in which behaviour patterns are prescribed, prohibited, commended or condemned.
Myths of the Orpheus type are prominent in the Eastern Woodlands (Huron, Ojibwa, Montagnais-Naskapi, Iroquois, Ottawa), the Northwest Coast (Salish, Kwakiutl, Nootka, Haida, Tsimshian, Tlingit) and the Columbian Plateau (Thompson, Okanagan, Carrier; Salish, Interior). They tell of the Culture Hero or other prominent religious figure making a perilous journey to the realm of the dead to bring back a deceased loved one. These myths contain detailed characterizations of the land of the dead, and are important to an understanding of such diverse phenomena as the Plains Ghost Dance, concepts of the soul and many aspects of shamanism.
Great Spirit Myths
Among societies that have practised agriculture at some time in their history, many groups believe in a senior Great Spirit or Great Mystery (Wakan Tanka of the Plains societies and Kitchi Manitou of the eastern Algonquians). In general, supernatural mystery or power is called Orenda by the Iroquois, Wakan by the Plains peoples and MANITOU by the Algonquian societies, and is potentially beneficent, though it can be dangerous if treated carelessly or with disrespect. This mystery or power is a property of the spirits, but it also adheres to the Transformer, Trickster, Culture Hero, or spirit figures. Shamans, prophets and ceremonial performers are endowed with it. The spirits of all living things are powerful and mysterious, as are many natural phenomena and ritually significant places. Ritual objects such as rattles, drums, masks, medicine bundles and ritual sanctuaries are filled with mystery (see CALUMET; MEDICINE WHEELS).
Most Northwest Coast groups consider time to be divided into the present and a remote mythological period when things were different from now, and believe that the state of things in the present was brought into being by the Transformer. Concepts of the future are developed principally as they refer to the death of the individual and his afterlife. The world of the dead is usually believed to lie at a great distance from the world of the living, often beyond a great river, on islands far out at sea, in the remote mountains or in the underworld. It can only be reached after a difficult journey by the dead, or a perilous one for the living (eg, shamans, the spirit figures of the Orpheus myth).
The world is believed to have a circular surface covered with a domelike overworld. These levels are joined by a "cosmic axis" which may be represented by a "world tree," a "rainbow bridge" or the "backbone of the worlds" (the Milky Way). Religious myths of the Star Husband (Temagami Ojibwa), the Chain of Arrows (Tlingit) or the Stretching Tree (Chilcotin) tell of contacts made between humans and the world beyond via this axis. Ceremonially, such elements as columns of smoke, central house posts or the central pole of the Sun Dance lodge represent this axis. Whirlpools or caves may represent the way to the underworld.
Many groups tell of a primeval sea or world deluge. Most recognize at least six cardinal directions (the four corners of the world, plus the zenith and the nadir). Northwest Coast societies such as the Kwakiutl divide the year into two major seasons: the summer ("profane") time and the winter ("supernatural") time, in which most religious ceremonials take place. Agricultural societies such as the Iroquois have more complex ceremonial calendars organized around the harvest times of various food plants, with a life-renewal ceremonial usually held in midwinter.
A key concept among First Nation and Inuit societies is the notion of the Guardian of the Game, a supernatural person who is said to control or hold stewardship over one or all of the animal species, especially those hunted by man. Typical examples are to be found in the Bear ceremonial of the Abenaki and Montagnais-Naskapi, the Spirit of the Buffalo in Plains societies, and Sedna the sea goddess and Guardian of the Seals among the Inuit.
Of several religious figures, shamans are the most notable. They function as healers, prophets, diviners and custodians of religious mythology, and are often the officiants at religious ceremonies. In some societies, all these functions are performed by the same person; in others shamans are specialists. Healing practitioners may belong to various "orders," as in the Midewiwin or Great Medicine Society of the Ojibwa, or to secret or closed societies (Kwakiutl, Blackfoot). The Ojibwa Midewiwin was a closed society containing four (sometimes eight) orders of men and women who could be consulted at any time of sickness or communal misfortune and who performed the annual Midewiwin world-renewal ceremonial in late summer.
Shamans were co-ordinators of the Plains Sun Dance (Blackfoot, Sarcee), which was also a world-renewal ceremonial. Closed, or even secret, shamanic societies played an important role in the Winter Ceremonial of the Kwakiutl, Nootka and other Northwest Coast societies. Shamans were associated with powers generally thought to be beneficial to the community, but were believed in some cases to use their powers for sorcery. Shaman-prophets and diviners were concerned with predicting the outcome of the hunt, relocating lost objects and determining the root causes of communal discontent and ill will. Blackfoot, Cree, Ojibwa and other societies had diviners who made their prophecies (perhaps in trance states) in the dramatic Shaking Tent ceremony. Shamans in Cree, Blackfoot and Ojibwa societies were custodians of the sacred medicine bundles containing objects and materials endowed with great mystery and power.
Natural causes were recognized for many diseases, especially physically curable ones; others were commonly believed to be the result of intrusion into the body of objects placed there by sorcerers. The shaman-healer's treatment of such diseases was dictated by his tutelary spirit, but usually consisted of the shaman ritually sucking the disease agent out of the body, brushing it off with a bird's wing, or drawing it out with dramatic gestures.
Illness could also result from "spirit loss." The shaman-healer's action was then directed to recovering the patient's spirit (either his soul or his guardian spirit power, or both) and reintroducing it to the body. Personal or communal disorders were often held to be the result of disrespectful behaviour toward game animals, sacred objects or natural phenomena.
Guardian Spirit Quest
The Guardian Spirit Quest once occurred throughout most of the Aboriginal groups of Canada; it is undergoing a revival in Northwest Coast religions, especially among the Coast Salish. Males, especially at puberty but also at other times of life, made extended stays in remote areas while fasting, praying and purifying themselves by washing in streams and pools. The goal was to seek a vision of, or an actual encounter with, a guardian spirit - very frequently an animal, but also a mythological figure. Establishment of contact with a guardian spirit was held to make an individual healthy, prosperous and successful, particularly in hunting and fishing. The guardian spirit could be hinted at (Salish) or even directly represented or dramatized (Kwakiutl) in songs, masks, TOTEM POLES, house paintings, facial and body painting, or in personal religious regalia.
Seasonal ceremonials and "life-crisis" rituals are very common. Among the seasonal rituals are "firstfruits" and harvest ceremonies, and New Year life- and creation-renewal rites (Ojibwa Midewiwin ceremony, Plains Sun Dance, First Salmon rites of the Northwest Coast). Among the life-crisis rituals are ceremonies at birth or the giving of a name, at puberty, marriage and death, all of which are normally accompanied by some solemnity. The 17th-century Huron Feast of the Dead may have incorporated features of both seasonal and life-crisis rituals.
Contact with European religious systems has produced several types of religious reactions among Aboriginal peoples, although it has brought change in some way to all Aboriginal religious forms. Some First Nation religions eventually rejected European forms and turned to "nativistic movements," which seek to revive previous religious practices and beliefs (eg, the Iroquois HANDSOME LAKE RELIGION). "Syncretistic religions" seek to combine traditional Aboriginal forms with European observances (eg, the SHAKER RELIGION of the Salish area and the Native American Church of the Plains). Other religious movements radically opposed European forms (eg, the 19th-century Ghost Dance of the Dakota and other Plains Aboriginal communities).
First Nation and Inuit religious institutions should be understood in the context of the kinship, political and social-control institutions with which they are intricately interrelated.
Author DEREK G. SMITH
John W. Friesen, Aboriginal Spirituality and Biblical Theology: Closer Than You Think (2000); Michael B, Davies, Following the Great Spirit Exploring Aboriginal Belief Systems (2002); Laurence J. Kirmayer and Gail Guthrie Valaskakis, Healing Traditions: The Mental Health of Aboriginal Peoples in Canada (2009).
Links to Other Sites
Canadian Aboriginal Writing and Arts Challenge
The website for the Canadian Aboriginal Writing and Arts Challenge, which features Canada's largest essay writing competition for Aboriginal youth (ages 14-29) and a companion program for those who prefer to work through painting, drawing and photography. See their guidelines, teacher resources, profiles of winners, and more. From the Historica-Dominion Institute.
Aboriginal Canada Portal
The Aboriginal Canada Portal provides First Nations, Métis, and Inuit online resources and information about related government programs and services. A Government of Canada website.
Encyclopedia of Canada's Peoples
The website for the "Encyclopedia of Canada's Peoples." Click on the links for feature articles about Canada's many multicultural communities, access to their extensive digital archives collection, learning modules, and much more. From "Multicultural Canada."
FirstVoices Language Archive
A website devoted to Canada's indigenous languages. Features program information, multimedia dictionaries, and related resources. Produced by The First Peoples' Cultural Foundation.
Raid on Deerfield
A narrated history of the 1704 Raid on Deerfield and its aftermath from Native and European perspectives. Also features fascinating stories about Native societies, cultures, trade practices, and traditions. This multimedia website is from the Memorial Hall Museum in Deerfield, Massachusetts.
Four Directions Teachings
Elders and traditional teachers representing the Blackfoot, Cree, Ojibwe, Mohawk, and Mi’kmaq share teachings about their history and culture. Animated graphics visualize each of the oral teachings. This website also provides biographies of participants, transcripts, and an extensive array of learning resources for students and their teachers. In English with French subtitles.
Canada’s First Nations
This extensive multimedia website profiles the history, culture, and language of Canada's First Nations peoples. Also examines the impact of European contact on First Nations communities. A joint project of the University of Calgary and Red Deer College.
Older Than America - Tantoo Cardinal
Watch a video featuring Tantoo Cardinal discussing how her life story relates to the themes of her movie "Older Than America." From the Tantoo Cardinal website.