Native American Legends
The indigenous peoples of the Americas comprise numerous different cultures. Each has its own mythologies. Some are quite distinct, but certain themes are shared across the cultural boundaries. Most Native American tribes have a long tradition of telling stories about their history and beliefs. These stories and legends weren’t written down, but were passed down orally from generation to generation.
There is no single mythology of the Indigenous North American peoples, but numerous different canons of traditional narratives associated with religion, ethics and beliefs. Such stories are deeply based in Nature and are rich with the symbolism of seasons, weather, plants, animals, earth, water, fire, sky, and the heavenly bodies. Common elements are the principle of an all-embracing, universal and omniscient Great Spirit, a connection to the Earth and its landscapes, a belief in a parallel world in the sky, diverse creation narratives, visits to the ‘land of the dead’, and collective memories of ancient sacred ancestors.
There are thousands of Native American stories, legends, and mythology. We have collected some samples of these stories from different tribes.
The Wolves Within
A Cherokee Legend
An old Cherokee is teaching his grandson about life. “A fight is going on inside me”, he said to the boy. “It is a terrible fight and it is between two wolves. One is evil – he is anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego.” He continued, “The other is good – he is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith. The same fight is going on inside you – and inside every other person, too.”
The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather, “Which wolf will win?”
The old Cherokee simply replied, “The one you feed.”
Here is the same story, but it is called, “Grandfather Tells” which is also known as “The Wolves Within”
An old Grandfather said to his grandson, who came to him with anger at a friend who had done him an injustice,”Let me tell you a story. I too, at times, have felt a great hate for those that have taken so much, with no sorrow for what they do. But hate wears you down, and does not hurt your enemy. It is like taking poison and wishing your enemy would die. I have struggled with these feelings many times.” He continued, “It is as if there are two wolves inside me. One is good and does no harm. He lives in harmony with all around him, and does not take offense when no offense was intended. He will only fight when it is right to do so, and in the right way. But the other wolf, ah! He is full of anger. The littlest thing will set him into a fit of temper. He fights everyone, all the time, for no reason. He cannot think because his anger and hate are so great. It is helpless anger, for his anger will change nothing.
Sometimes, it is hard to live with these two wolves inside me, for both of them try to dominate my spirit.”
The boy looked intently into his Grandfather’s eyes and asked, “Which one wins, Grandfather?”
The Grandfather smiled and quietly said, “The one I feed.”
Legend Of The Lost Salmon
A legend from the Yakima Tribe
(This story is about when the people ignored the directions of the Creator about caring for the salmon, the salmon disappeared. All of their attempts to bring the salmon back failed until Snake used his powers to revive the salmon. The people were not fooled by Coyote’s pretentious effort to revive the salmon.)
The Creator taught the people how to care for this food which was created especially for them. He said, “Do not neglect this food. Be careful that you do not break the rules in taking care of this salmon. Do not take more than you need”. He told them if they observed these rules, the salmon would multiply several times over as long as they lived.
At first the people diligently obeyed the rules, and they lived happily without problems. All along the river there were different bands of people living in their fishing villages, busy catching and drying their supply of salmon.
But one day something strange happened. The people became careless and they neglected to follow the instructions made by the Creator. They became greedy. They did not take care of the salmon. They let them go to waste when they caught more than they needed for their families. They would not listen to the advice from those who were trying to follow the rules. Suddenly the salmon disappeared.
When the salmon were no longer coming up the stream for the people to catch everybody frantically searched the rivers, but all in vain. There was not one salmon left to be found. Soon they became hungry, their little children were crying and the old people were forced to beg for food.
One day, while they were searching the river, they found a dead salmon lying on the bank of the river. They stared down at it in disbelief when they realized what had happened. They began to cry out in shame and lament their mistakes, “If we are given one more chance, we will do better. If only we could awaken this salmon, the other salmon might come up the stream.”
The people called a council and they talked about how they could give life back to the salmon. In legendary times those with supernatural powers could revive a lifeless creature by stepping over it five times. The people tried to use their own spiritual powers to revive the salmon. One by one they each stepped over the salmon five times, but to no avail.
There was a recluse named Old Man Rattlesnake. He never went anywhere always staying off by himself. He was very ancient and all the people called him “Grandfather”. Somebody said, “let’s ask Grandfather to help us! He is a powerful man. Let him revive the salmon!.” A messenger was sent. “Oh Grandfather, would you come and help us revive the salmon. Everybody has failed.” Old Man Rattlesnake listened and said, “What makes you think I am capable of reviving this lone salmon after everyone else has failed? I am an old man, how do you expect an old man like me to possess powers to do the impossible!”. The messenger was sad. “You are our last hope. Please help us, Grandfather”. Finally Old Man Rattlesnake agreed, “I will do my best”. He was so old it was very painful for him to move fast. He moved ever so slowly and it seemed like such a long way for one so old.
While Grandfather was on his way, Coyote tried desperately, using all his wily skills to convince the people he possessed supernatural powers. He was thinking to himself, “If I revive this salmon I will be a very famous person.” He stepped over it four times, and just as he was stepping over the fifth time, he pushed the salmon with the tip of his toe to make it appear as though it moved. He announced loudly, “Oh, look, my people, I made the salmon come to life. Did you see it move?” But the people were wise to the ways of Coyote and they paid him no attention.
Finally, Old Man Rattlesnake arrived. Painfully he crawled over the salmon four times. The fifth time something magical happened! Grandfather disappeared into the salmon and the salmon woke up and came back to life and the salmon came back to the rivers. The people learned their lesson well and took care to protect their salmon from then on.
Today when you catch a salmon, and you are preparing it for eating or preserving, if you break the spine you will find a white membrane inside. That is old Man Rattlesnake who gave life back to the salmon.
A Yinnuwok Legend
This is a tale the old men tell around the fire, when the stars are blown clean on a windy night, and the coyotes are howling on the Cree Jump. And when, sometimes, over the wind, comes clearly the sound of running horses, their hearers move a little closer to one another and pile more wood on the fire.
This is a story from a long time ago, say the Old Ones. What the man’s name was, no one knows now, and so they call him “The Traveler.”
Long ago, The Traveler was a wealthy chief. A warrior in his young days, he had taken many scalps, many horses, and many another trophy of value. And he had increased his possessions by hard dealings with the less fortunate, and by gambling with younger men who were no match for his cunning.
His fellow tribesmen did not love him although they admired his bravery, for in times of hardship, when other chiefs shared freely whatever they had, he drove hard bargains and generally prospered from the ills of others. His wives he had abused till their parents took them away; his children hated him, and he had no love for them.
There was only one thing he cared for: his horses. They were fine horses, beautiful horses, for he kept only the best; and when a young warrior returned from a raid with a particularly good horse, The Traveler never rested until (whether by fair means or not) he had it in his possession. At night, when the dance drum was brought out, and the other Indians gathered round it, The Traveler went alone to the place where his horses were picketed, to gloat over his treasures. He loved them. But he loved only the ones that were young, and handsome, and healthy. A horse that was old, or sick, or injured, received only abuse.
One morning, when he went to the little valley in which his horses were kept, he found in the herd an ugly white stallion. He was old, with crooked legs, and a matted coat, thin, and tired looking.
The Traveler flew into a rage. He took his rawhide rope, and caught the poor old horse. Then, with a club, he beat him unmercifully. When the animal fell to the ground, stunned, The Traveler broke his legs with the club, and left him to die. He returned to his lodge, feeling not the slightest remorse for his cruelty.
Later, deciding he might as well have the hide of the old horse, he returned to the place where he had left him. But, to his surprise, the white stallion was gone. That night, as The Traveler slept, he had a dream. The white stallion appeared to him, and slowly turned into a beautiful horse, shining white, with long mane and tail – a horse more lovely than any The Traveler had ever seen.
Then the Stallion spoke, “If you had treated me kindly,” the stallion said, “I would have brought you more horses. You were cruel to me, so I shall take away the horses you have!”
When The Traveler awoke, he found his horses were gone. All that day, he walked and searched, but when at nightfall he fell asleep exhausted, he had found no trace of them. In his dreams, the White Stallion came again, and said, “Do you wish to find your horses? They are north, by a lake. You will sleep twice, before you come to it.”
As soon as he awakened in the morning, The Traveler hastened northward. Two days’ journey, and when he came to the lake there were no horses. That night, the Ghost Stallion came again. “Do you wish to find your horses?” he said. “They are east, in some hills. There will be two sleeps before you came to the place.”
When the sun had gone down on the third day, The Traveler had searched the hills, but had found no horses. And so it went night after night the Stallion came to The Traveler, directing him to some distant spot, but he never found his horses. He grew thin, and feet sore. Sometimes he got a horse from some friendly camp; sometimes he stole one, in the night. But always, before morning, would come a loud drumming of hoofs, the Ghost Stallion and his band would gallop by, and the horse of The Traveler would break its picket, and go with them.
And never again did he have a horse; never again did he see his own lodge. And he wanders, even to this day, the old men say, still searching for his lost horses.
Sometimes, they say, on a windy autumn night when the stars shine very clearly, and over on the Cree Jump the coyote’s howl, above the wind you may hear a rush of running horses, and the stumbling footsteps of an old man. And, if you are very unlucky, you may see the Stallion and his band, and The Traveler, still pursuing them, still trying to get back his beautiful horses.
A Wyandot (Huron) Legend
Many years ago the world had two parts. Animals lived in the lower part, which was completely covered in water and had no land or soil. Above was the Sky World, where the sky people lived. The Sky World had lots of soil, with beautiful mountains and valleys. One day a girl from the Sky World went for a long walk and became very tired.
“I’m so tired, I need to rest,” she said. She sat down under the spreading branches of an apple tree and quickly fell asleep. Suddenly, there was a rumbling sound like thunder and the ground began to crack. A big hole opened up next to the apple tree.
“What’s happening?” screamed the frightened girl. She tried to move but it was too late. She and the tree slid through the hole and tumbled over and over towards the watery world below.
“Help me! Help me!” screamed the girl. Luckily two swans were swimming below and saw the girl tumbling down from the sky. “Come on!” yelled one swan. “Let’s catch her before she hits the water.” “Okay!” yelled the other. The swans spread their wings together and caught the girl on their soft feather backs. “Whew! That was lucky,” said the girl. “But what do I do now? I can’t get back up to the Sky World and I can’t stay on your backs forever.”
“We’ll take you to Big Turtle,” said the swans. “He knows everything.” After hearing what happened, the Big Turtle called all the animals in the water world to a meeting. He told them an old story about soil being found deep under the water. “If we can get some of that soil, we can build an island on my back for you to live on,” said the Big Turtle.
“Sounds good to me,” said the young girl.
The Otter, Beaver and Muskrat started arguing over whom would dive for the soil. “I’ll go,” said the sleek Otter, brushing his glossy fur. “No! I’ll go,” said Beaver, slapping the water with his big flat tail. “I’m the best swimmer,” said Muskrat “I’ll go.”
“Aaaachooo!” sneezed the young girl.” Guys, guys, would just one of you go. These swan feathers are getting up my nose and making me sneeze.”
“Sorry” said the swans.
“That’s alright,” said the young Sky girl.
Then Toskwaye the little Toad popped up out of the water. “I’ll go. I can dive very deep,” she said. The other animals started laughing and pointing at Toskwaye. “You! You’re too small and ugly to help.” Cried the others, laughing.
“Be quiet!” said Big Turtle in a loud, stern voice. “Everyone is equal and everyone will have a chance to try”. The sleek Otter smoothed his glossy fur, took a deep breath and slid into the water. He was gone for a long time before he came up gasping for air. “It was too deep,” he said. “I couldn’t dive that far.”
“Now it’s my turn,” said Beaver. He slapped the water with his tail as he disappeared. After a long time he came to the surface again. “It’s too far” he gasped. “No one can dive that deep.” Muskrat tried next and failed.
“Aaaachoo!” sneezed the young girl. “This is not looking good.”
“Now it’s my turn,” said little Toskwaye the Toad. She took a deep breath and jumped into the water. She was gone a very long time and everyone thought they wouldn’t see her again.
Suddenly Otter pointed at the water, shouting, and “Look, look bubbles!” Toskwaye’s small, ugly face appeared through the water. She spat a few grains of soil onto the Big Turtle’s back, then fell back into the water – dead.
The Turtle ordered the others to rub the soil grains and spread them around on his shell. The grains grew and grew, until a large island was formed – big enough for the girl to live on. It grew into our world, as we know it today. And the descendants of the Sky girl became the Earth’s people.
Today, some people say the whole world still rests on Big Turtles back. When he gets tired and changes his position, we have earthquakes.
Toad has not been forgotten either. American native Indians call her “Mashutaha”, which means ‘Our Grandmother’. No one is allowed to harm her.
Ghost of the White Deer
A lore of the Chickasaw People of Oklahoma
A brave, young warrior for the Chickasaw Nation fell in love with the daughter of a chief. The chief did not like the young man, who was called Blue Jay. So the chief invented a price for the bride that he was sure that Blue Jay could not pay.
“Bring me the hide of the White Deer,” said the chief. The Chickasaws believed that animals that were all white were magical.
“The price for my daughter is one white deer.” Then the chief laughed. The chief knew that an all white deer, an albino, was very rare and would be very hard to find. White deerskin was the best material to use in a wedding dress, and the best white deer skin came from the albino deer.
Blue Jay went to his beloved, whose name was Bright Moon. “I will return with your bride price in one moon, and we will be married. This I promise you.” Taking his best bow and his sharpest arrows Blue Jay began to hunt.
Three weeks went by, and Blue Jay was often hungry, lonely, and scratched by briars. Then, one night during a full moon, Blue Jay saw a white deer that seemed to drift through the moonlight.
When the deer was very close to where Blue Jay hid, he shot his sharpest arrow. The arrow sank deep into the deers heart. But instead of sinking to his knees to die, the deer began to run. And instead of running away, the deer began to run toward Blue Jay, his red eyes glowing, his horns sharp and menacing.
A month passed and Blue Jay did not return as he had promised Bright Moon. As the months dragged by, the tribe decided that he would never return.
But Bright Moon never took any other young man as a husband, for she had a secret. When the moon was shining as brightly as her name, Bright Moon would often see the white deer in the smoke of the campfire, running, with an arrow in his heart. She lived hoping the deer would finally fall, and Blue Jay would return.
To this day the white deer is sacred to the Chickasaw People, and the white deerskin is still the favorite material for the wedding dress.
A Coyote Story
This is a traditional story from the Ojibwa.
Coyote was walking along a lake and saw a flock of ducks, which put him in the mood for a good duck dinner. So he stuffed a bag full of grass and walked past the ducks, stepping lively and singing a catchy tune. “Where are you going?” asked one of the ducks.
“I am going to a circle,” replied Coyote. “What’s in the bag?” asked the duck.
“Songs that I am bringing to the circle,” replied Coyote.
“Oh, please sing your songs for us,” the ducks all said. “I’m very busy.”
“Please please, please, please…” “I’m running late,” “Please, please, please please…” “Oh, alright.
I’ll sing a song for you, but I need your help. All of you stand in three lines. The fattest ones in the front, those in the middle who are neither fat nor thin, and the thin ones in back.
All of you close your eyes and dance and sing as loud as you can. Don’t anyone open your eyes or stop singing, because my songs are very powerful and if you do that you may go blind! Is everyone ready?” “We are!” replied the ducks, and they fell into lines and began dancing and singing along with Coyote’s tune.
Coyote moved up and down the line, thumping the ducks on the head and stuffing them into his bag. The ducks were singing and dancing so hard that no one could hear the thumps or know what was happening.
This would have gone on till none were left, if not for one scraggly duck in the back who opened his eyes and saw what was going on. “Hey, he’s going to get us all!” cried the scraggly one.
At this, the other surviving ducks opened their eyes and made their getaway. Coyote wasn’t too upset; he already had a lot of ducks in his bag. He went home and ate good for a good while.
The ducks went home and mourned their dead, and gave thanks to The Great Duck that one of them had been wise enough to open his eyes, and that the rest of them had been wise enough to listen to the one who gave warning.
How the Butterflies Came to Be
A Papago Legend
Now, one day after Earth-Maker shaped the world, Iioi, our Elder Brother was sitting and watching the children play. He saw the joy and the youthfulness they displayed. He saw the beauty of their surroundings, and the fresh fragrance of the trees and the flowers.
He heard the happy songs of the birds, and saw the blue of the sky. He saw the women as they ground cornmeal. He saw their beauty, and the sunlight as it shone from their hair. These were wonderful things.
But then Elder Brother realized that all of these things would change. He knew that these children would all grow old and weaken and die. The beautiful women would someday grow fat and ugly, and their beautiful black hair would turn gray. The leaves would turn brown and fall from the trees, and the beautiful flowers that smelled so fresh would fade. The days would grow short and the nights would be cold. Elder Brother’s heart grew sad and troubled.
As Elder Brother watched the women grind cornmeal, the wind made some fallen yellow leaves dance in the sunlight. He decided to do something which would capture some of these wonderful things which He saw. He decided that He must make something that everyone could enjoy, that would lift their hearts and spirits. So, He took out His bag of Creation and began to gather some things together.
He took some blue from the sky, and some whiteness from the cornmeal. He gathered some spots of sunlight, and the blackness of a beautiful woman’s hair. He took the yellow of the falling leaves, and the green of the pine needles. He gathered the red, the purple, and the orange from the flowers. As He gathered these things, He put them into His bag. And, last, He put the songs of the song birds in the bag.
When He had finished gathering these things together, He called the children together. He told them to open the bag and there would be a surprise for them. So they opened the bag, and out flew hundreds of beautiful Butterflies! They were red and gold and black and yellow, blue and green and white. They looked liked flowers, dancing in the wind. They flew all around the gleeful children, and lit on their heads. The hearts of the children and the adults soared. Never before had they seen such wonderful, happy things. They began to sing their songs as they flew.
But then song bird lit on Iitoi’s shoulder and asked Him. He said, “It is not right to give our songs to these pretty things! You told us when you made us that each bird would have his own song. These pretty things have all of the colors of the rainbow already. Must they take our songs, too?”
Elder Brother said, “You are right. I made one song for each bird, and I must not give them away to any other.” So butterflies were made silent, and they are still silent to this day. But their beauty brightens the day of all People, and brings out songs from their hearts.
And that is how Elder Brother meant it to be.
The Supernatural Person in the Lake
An Apache Legend
By Pliny Earle Goddard in 1911
Long ago, an old woman gave her boy a present that he might become a medicine man. They were camping through the plains with nothing to eat, but roots and wild seeds. They were all hungry. The woman came to her son and said, “My boy, I am hungry. Have not you anything?” Go home, and to-morrow you will have plenty to eat,” her boy replied.
The next day her son began to make a corral close to the river. He gathered the men together and told them to drive in the antelope. They drove them in and killed them. After butchering, they carried the meat home with them. The next day he gathered the people again. They drove antelope into the corral and killed great numbers of them. They brought home the meat with them. The next day he gathered the men again. They drove in antelope and killed very many. They carried the meat home. The antelope ran in by themselves. If they whistled, they came running in as far as one could see. They killed a great many and carried home much meat which lay in a great pile. That evening, the old woman came to her boy and said, “That is enough, my wrists ache.” Then the boy quit. They cut the meat into slices to dry and tanned the hides.
The old woman came to her son and asked that he return her gift. “I have already given it to the supernatural one,” he told her. Then she cursed him. He left her and came to his own country. He came to a place called “sticks swim around”. There are tent poles sticking out of the water there. He lives on the bottom of the lake. The people all came after him but when they came back to their own country they could not find him. Then they commenced following his tracks. They saw where the tipi poles had been dragged into the water. They looked all around but could not find him.
Two years after, a large band of them went out on the plains to war. They traveled all night and all the next day. When it was evening they built a fire and smoked the pipe. They heard someone talking to them. “You must be my own people,” the voice said.Dead Buffalo
“Yes, we are your own people,” they replied. Then he dropped nearby them a big buffalo with its head just turned back and tied. “I started to carry this, but my breath gave out. For that reason, my people make smoke for me. I will smoke with you,” he said. Then they filled the pipe for him and smoked with him. “Where are you going?” he asked. “Here, after the enemy that we may bring back horses,” they replied. “Their camp is very close, but they are not aware of your approach,” he said, “you can go to them in the daytime. About noon, you will surround the horses. I want you to bring me the horse that is all black without a white spot.”
Then he gave them a forequarter of the buffalo he was carrying and they commenced to eat it. “If at any time you are in need, make a smoke for me. My home is at TcîcnaLeLîe, by Sheep Horn Mountain. If you want anything at any time, blow smoke towards that place.” The next day, in broad daylight, they came to the enemy, and about noon, they found the horses and surrounded them. When they started to drive them away they saw the black one with no white spots for which the supernatural one had asked. When they drove the horses this one kept along with the others. When they came to his home they stopped the horses and the black one ran immediately to the lake. They came back to their own country with the remainder of the band.
The Corn Maidens
A Zuni Legend
By Katharine Berry Judson
After long ages of wandering, the precious Seed-things rested over the Middle at Zuni, and men turned their hearts to the cherishing of their corn and the Corn Maidens instead of warring with strange men.
But there was a complaint by the people of the customs followed. Some said the music was not that of the olden time. Far better was that which of nights they often heard as they wandered up and down the river trail. Wonderful music, liquid voices in caverns, or the echo of women’s laughter in water vases. And the music was timed with a deep-toned drum from the Mountain of Thunder. Others thought the music was that of the ghosts of ancient men, but it was far more beautiful than the music when danced the Corn Maidens.
Others said light clouds rolled upward from the grotto in Thunder Mountain like to the mists that leave behind them the dew, but lo! even as they faded the bright garments of the Rainbow women might be seen fluttering, and the embroidery and paintings of these dancers of the mist were more beautiful than the costumes of the Corn Maidens.
Then the priests of the people said, “It may well be Paiyatuma, the liquid voice his flute and the flutes of his players.”
Now when the time of ripening corn was near, the fathers ordered preparation for the dance of the Corn Maidens. They sent the two Master-Priests of the Bow to the grotto at Thunder Mountains, saying., “If you behold Paiyatuma, and his maidens, perhaps they will give us the help of their customs.”
Then up the river trail, the priests heard the sound of a drum and strains of a song. It was Paiyatuma and his seven maidens, the Maidens of the House of Stars, sisters of the Corn Maidens.
The God of Dawn and Music lifted his flute and took his place in the line of dancers. The drum sounded until the cavern shook as with thunder. The flutes sang and sighed as the wind in a wooded canon while still, the storm is distant. White mists floated up from the wands of the Maidens, above which fluttered the butterflies of Summerland about the dress of the Rainbows in the strange blue light of the night.
Then Paiyatuma, smiling, said, “Go the way before, telling the fathers of our custom, and straightway we will follow.”
Soon the sound of music was heard, coming from up the river, and soon the Flute People and singers and maidens of the Flute dance. Up rose the fathers and all the watching people, greeting the God of Dawn with outstretched hand and offering of prayer meal. Then the singers took their places and sounded their drum, flutes, and song of clear waters, while the Maidens of the Dew danced their Flute dance. Greatly marveled the people, when from the wands they bore forth came white clouds, and fine cool mists descended.
When the dance was ended, and the Dew Maidens had retired, out came the beautiful Mothers of Corn. And when the players of the flutes saw them, they were enamored of their beauty and gazed upon them so intently that the Maidens let fall their hair and cast down their eyes. And jealous and bolder grew the mortal youths, and in the morning dawn, in rivalry, the dancers sought all too freely the presence of the Corn Maidens, no longer holding them so precious as in the olden time. And the matrons, intent on the new dance, heeded naught else. But behold! The mists increased greatly, surrounding dancers and watchers alike, until within them, the Maidens of Corn, all in white garments, became invisible. Then sadly and noiselessly, they stole in amongst the people and laid their corn wands down amongst the trays and laid their white embroidered garments thereupon, as mothers lay soft kilting over their babes. Then even as the mists became, they, and with the mists drifting, fled away, to the far south Summerland.
Suggested website: Native American Indian Legends and Folklore
This page is our collection of Native American folktales and traditional stories that can be read online. We have indexed these stories tribe by tribe to make them easier to locate; however, variants on the same native legend are often told by American Indians from different tribes, especially if those tribes are kinfolk or neighbors to each other.
Suggested reading: American Indian Myths And Legends
This magnificent collection gathers 160 tales from 80 tribal gathers to offer a rich and lively panorama of the Native American mythic heritage. If you are interested in American Indian Myths and Legends please purchase from your favored bookstore.