For the past couple of days we’ve been reading Native American creation and origin myths, including traditional stories of the Apache, Hopi, and Iroquois. We started with the Apache and Hopi because these are two traditions with stories rooted in the natural landscape of the west, and when I read them, being a native, American westerner myself, I felt a strong connection with the natural environment the stories describe. The Hopi are also part of the Pueblo tradition, which is a fascinating culture. A couple of years ago I took a trip to Chaco Canyon and brought back some photos of the massive buildings that still stand there, dating back to the end of the Pueblo culture, about 800 years ago. Here are a couple pictures I took of those pueblos and kivas.
Near the town of Farmington, New Mexico, you can visit a kiva that was “restored” in the 50’s by a well-meaning, but slightly misguided archaeologist. Although some of his conclusions about how kivas were constructed and finished have since been discredited, there’s no denying that his version is a place of great beauty, and certainly helps us understand a little more about how the ancient occupants must have felt being in this space. I spent about three hours in the kiva and saw this:
As I recall, I went on this trip around the time I first saw the Andy Goldsworthy documentary we watched in class last week, and I think you can see the Goldsworthy influence in the way I looked at some of this stuff (and the influence these ancient builders exert on his work). There’s no denying the incredible innovation and artistry in these ancient buildings.
The theory I’m proposing this week in class is that these ancient peoples’ myths were the motivation for the artistry–the powerful ideas that fueled their intensely creative lives.
If you missed class these days, download the document at the bottom of this page, which has the text of three myths we read in class–the Apache, the Hopi, and the one we’ll finish up with tomorrow, the Iroquois. We’re saving the Iroquois for last since that tribe included some of the clans that were among the first people European colonials met and interacted with. The Iroquois myth is a pretty good representation of the way many native Americans understood their lives and their role in the world at that time, which will help us in turn understand why those ideas conflicted so violently with the ideas of the European colonials.
Why do we care about any of this? Well, many American history and lit survey courses have ignored this part of the story, implying that “America” was created out of whole cloth by European idealists. It may be true that our country’s founding “texts” were written entirely by idealistic European men, but not even they, in all their power and wisdom (such as it was) and ignorance (such as it was), could completely erase the lives and ideas of those they displaced. That is to say, native American myths survived and mingled with the new American myths, and are still an important part of what we call America today. That’s my theory, anyway. We’ll have to keep reading to find out if I’m right.
Download: Native American creation myths