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 ballpark.
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.