Cottie Burland. North American Indian Mythology. Paul Hamlyn, 1965, 1970.
I checked this book out from the library. Lately, I have been
reading about different religions, such as Hinduism, Buddhism, and
Confucianism. Their overlaps with Christianity have stood out to me,
and I have been tempted to see this as confirmation that everyone has a
sense of God, a la Romans 1:19-20. I wondered if I would draw a similar
conclusion after reading about Native American religion. After all,
have not Native Americans referred to the “Great Spirit”?
Did I draw a similar conclusion after reading Cottie Burland’s North American Indian Mythology? What I learned was more complex than I expected. Allow me to comment on a few select passages:
Pages 18-19: “The Eskimo had no hierarchy of gods. They relied on
the generalised power of spirits to guide them. It was only natural
that they felt that the spirits of the grandparents would look after the
children left upon the earth. The nearest thing to a true deity was
the Old Woman who lived under the sea. In various parts of the Eskimo
lands she was known under different names. Sedna was the one in use in
the central areas.”
Burland then proceeds to tell the story of Sedna. Sedna was the
daughter of two giants, who threw her into the sea when she was a child
and just left her there. They abandoned her because she had a voracious
appetite and was eating them. They cut off her fingers, which then
became the whales, fish, and seals of the sea. The giants grew old and
died. Sedna also grew old and became a sort of goddess for the
Eskimos. She would guide them through a Shaman, force them to move when
that was her desire, and provide for them.
This story exemplifies a lot of the creation tales that were in this
book. Occasionally, the book referred to a Native American belief that a
god or gods created human beings to serve the divine. In most of the
creation stories in this book, however, there was already a world and
creatures (often animal-like creatures) in it before the world was
created, and these creatures brought the present world into being. One
of the creators is a trickster. Some are creatures looking for
someplace else to go.
Perhaps the themes of spiritual ancestors guiding people and a
goddess in the sea reflect a human thirst for the divine, which God
placed in all people. But the story of Sedna, and other creation
stories in the book, are so different from Jewish and Christian
conceptions of the divine, that I wondered if they were even in the same
I would also like to add that, at least in this book, I did not see
in the stories much of a concept of ethical monotheism, or even ethical
polytheism, in which a god rewards morality and punishes immorality. In
the chapter on “Fishermen of the North West Coast,” the statement is
made that “The powers of nature were personified and as such they took
revenge when creatures of the natural world were deliberately injured”
(page 29), but that was the closest I found to an idea that a moral
system was enforced by higher powers. That is my impression, and maybe I
would draw a different conclusion were I to reread this book. As I
take another look at some of the stories, after all, I see that themes
such as honor and helping others occur in them; yet, I also see stories
that seem to have nothing to do with morality. I have read Amazon
reviews of other books on Native American spirituality, and the
reviewers state that such books spiritually enriched them. My
understanding of Native American religion may be incomplete, but my
point is that I got a different feel from these Native American myths
from what I get in reading the Bible.
Page 29: “The Lord of the Sky is referred to in some of the tales as
an old chief. Once the sky was much nearer to the earth than it is now,
and this old chief was sometimes annoyed by the constant shouting of
children, the beating of drums, and the hullabaloo of war parties.
Unable to rest, he would cause the mountains to move or induce
earthquakes, with the intention of destroying the offending tribe or
giving it a fright.
“These characteristics are not unreasonable if one is postulating a
sky god. However, it is possible that these legends are derived
ultimately from the talk of European visitors. There is something
unnatural in this idea of the elderly chief living in his house above
the skies. Much more natural myths are those of Raven and the Old Woman
who had the sun in her house, or of the wondrous land under the sea
where the killer whales and sea birds had their ceremonial homes. These
are more authentic Indian beliefs.”
Burland actually speculates that Native Americans got the idea of a
supreme god from Europeans a couple of times: here, and when discussing
the Northwest Coast Native Americans. For Burland, the supreme being
appears unnatural in certain Native American traditions, whereas the
stories about talking animals are more authentic. Does that dispel any
notion that Native Americans had an innate sense of God, since they got
the idea of a supreme being from the Europeans? Well, I question how
unnatural the belief is to Native American mythology. The concept of a
god who punishes human beings for keeping him awake sounds more like
Mesopotamian traditions than Christian European beliefs about God. (Why
there is a Native American tradition that resembles Mesopotamian
stories, I have no idea. Is it a coincidence?) These particular Native
Americans could have borrowed the belief from Europeans and taken it in
their own directions, but the direction they took it differs so much
from European Christianity, that I wonder if it truly was imported from
there. I am not the expert, though!
It is interesting that Burland never says that the Plains Native
Americans got their idea of the Great Spirit from the Europeans. What
is more, there are more parallels between Plains traditions and the
Bible: giants afflicting people (as in Genesis 6), a Flood, etc. When
Burland discusses where they got the idea of giants, however, Burland
never mentions the Bible or Europeans. Burland mentions dinosaur bones
in North America!
The stories in this book were rather strange, from my perspective.
When I read about Buddhism or Confucianism, I feel there is more common
ground between me and these traditions than I found in reading this
book. Perhaps it is because Buddhism and Confucianism are more
existential or philosophical, which Western Christianity has also been.
I may revisit Native American traditions in the future, though.