Indian Mythology

: Legends Of The Kaw

The history of Kansas has been of peculiar interest to the world at

large, by reason of the struggles of ante-bellum days. The adventures of

John Brown of Osawatomie and the achievements of General Lane, Governor

Robinson, and other heroes of that period have formed the nucleus of

many a story and song. All honor to the men who labored so successfully

in the cause of freedom! There is another, equally brave, though less

fortunate, race that wandered over the rolling prairies of the Sunflower

State and camped along its rivers; a race stern, taciturn, and ever

ready to do battle for home and liberty. Like the buffalo, former

monarch of the plains, it has gradually diminished in numbers.

Extinction or amalgamation is now a question of only a few brief years.

This nation furnishes a romantic background, full of rich though somber

color, to the later record of the great West.

Who can say that the traditions of the red man lack pathos, or that his

character is devoid of the elements of nobleness, self-sacrifice and

even martyrdom? Rude, wild and imperfect though it be, his folklore

tells the story of a people, barbarous, it is true, but strong in their

attachments and devoted to their faith. Many Indian myths, adventures

and scraps of history are full of deep--often tragic--interest to one

who delves in legendary lore. Like the tales of ancient Greece, as

explained by Ruskin in Queen of the Air, each weird story admits of

more than one interpretation. Sometimes a great spiritual truth lies

hidden in its quaint phrases--sometimes a scientific fact.

There was an idea, current among the Indians who roamed over the central

portion of the United States, that at one time in the long past, the

rivers of the Mississippi basin filled the entire valley, and only great

elevations were visible. Geology substantiates this teaching. The

theory of a dual soul approached very close to the teachings of modern

psychologists. While one soul was supposed to remain in the body, its

companion was free to depart on excursions during sleep. After the death

of the material man, it went to the Indian elysium and might, if

desirous, return, in time, to earth, to be born again.

Like that of all uncivilized races, the ancient religion of the North

American Indian was incoherent. Association with Europeans produced

changes. Doctrines before unknown to the red man were engrafted upon his

faith. Some writers maintain that it is doubtful if the idea of a single

divinity had been developed previous to intercourse with missionaries.

Brinton asserts that the word used by the natives to indicate God, is

analogous to none in any European tongue, conveying no sense of personal

unity. It has been rendered Spirit, Demon, God, Devil, Mystery and

Magic. The Dakota word is Wakan (above), the Iroquois, Oki; the

Algonquin, Manito. God and heaven were probably linked together

before there was sufficient advancement to question whether heaven were

material and God spiritual; whether the Deity were one or many. Good

Spirit and Great Spirit are evidently of more recent origin and were,

perhaps, first suggested by missionaries, the terms being applied to the

white man's God, and adopted by the Indian and applied to his own. The

number of spirits was practically unlimited, communication being usually

in the hands of the medicine men, although the unseen world was often

heard from directly in dreams.

A description of heaven--by Wampasha, an Iowa Indian--was found in the

diary of Reverend S. M. Irvin, a devoted missionary among the Iowas and

Sacs. It reads:

"The Big Village (heaven) is situated near the great water, toward the

sunrise, and not far from the heads of the Mississippi River. None go

there until after they die. A smart person can make the journey in three

or four days; if, however, his heart be not right at death, the journey

will be prolonged and attended with difficulties and stormy weather

till he reaches the land of rest. Infants, dying, are carried by

messengers sent for them; the old or infirm are borne upon horses; they

have horses, plenty, and fine grass, and infirmities will all be healed

in that village. The blind will receive new eyes; they have plenty of

good eyes and ears there. Good people will never die again, but the bad

may die three or four times and then turn into some bird."

Father Allouez, one of the first missionaries among the Algonquins,

entered a village never before visited by a white man. He was invited to

a council, and the old men, gathering around him, said:

"It is well, Blackrobe, that thou dost visit us; thou are a Manito; we

give thee to smoke. The Iroquois are devouring us. Have mercy upon us.

Hear us, O Manito! we give thee to smoke. Let the earth yield us corn;

the rivers give us fish; sickness not slay us; nor hunger so torment us.

Hear us, O Manito! we give thee to smoke."

Birds and beasts were selected as guardians. Everyone considered his

totem a protector, and refrained from killing it. Whole clans were

believed to be descended from a common totem and information was

conveyed by means of omens.

The character of a nation is engraven upon its literature, which, like a

mirror, reflects the thoughts, emotions and progress of a people. The

folklore of the North American Indians was their literature. The myth,

grounded upon the unchanging laws of the universe, was conscious,

however vaguely, of great principles that are forever true. Physical

existence formed the basis of each important fable. The earth, air,

water and other elements were personified. Every image had its moral


Mythology has been said to be simply the idea of God, expressed in

symbol, figure and narrative. That of primitive America was founded upon

the conviction that there was, in pre-historic times, another world

inhabited by a people strong and peaceable. So long as harmony reigned,

comfort and happiness were theirs, but when discord entered this Eden,

conflict succeeded conflict, until, to punish his disobedient children,

the Master of Life transformed them, one by one, into trees, plants,

rocks and all the living creatures. It was said that each person became

the outward embodiment of what he had previously been within himself.

For instance, from the head of one sprang an owl, from another a

buzzard, a third became an eagle, and in this manner was the present

world with its three kingdoms, vegetable, animal and mineral, evolved.

Another tradition says that in the days of turmoil, a powerful man, or

demi-god, ran to the place where the earth and sky meet, and with a

lighted torch, set fire to the tall grass, igniting the earth itself.

Those worthy of preservation were caught up to a place of safety.

Sparks, rising from the flames, and finding lodgment high above, became

the twinkling "sky-eyes," which, in the language of the white man, are

called stars.

After the conflagration had subsided, one whose duty in the upper sphere

had been to provide water, carried it in a basket; and as she walked,

drop after drop fell through upon the parched region below, causing it

to revive. Awakened Nature blossomed into new beauty, and all who had

escaped the terrible fire fiend, returned to take possession of the

country. The Water-Maiden still carries the basket; and its contents,

which never grow less, still fall in gentle showers, to refresh the


Among the beautiful creation myths, is that of the Earth-Maiden, who,

through being looked upon by the sun, became a mother, giving birth to a

wonderful being, a great benefactor. By reason of his benign influence,

mankind lives and prospers. This benefactor is really the warm, wavering

light, to be seen between the virgin earth, his mother, and the sun.

There are numerous narratives in which heat, cold, light and darkness

appear as leading actors. A powerful god of the Algonquins was the

maker of the earth, Michabou (light), toward whom the Spirit of Waters

was ever unfriendly.

In Mexico, the worship of the sun and other heavenly bodies was

practiced, sacrifices of men and women with white faces and hair being

particularly acceptable.

Almost all aboriginal people believed that dogs occupied a peculiar

position with regard to the moon, possibly because of the canine habit

of baying at that planet.

The bird and the serpent were especially honored. The former, no doubt,

because of its power of floating through the air and the latter for its

subtlety. The Hurons told the early Jesuits of a serpent with a horn

capable of penetrating rocks, trees and hills--everything it

encountered. The person fortunate enough to obtain a portion for his

medicine bag was sure of good luck. The Hurons informed the missionaries

that none of their own people had ever seen the monster; but the

Algonquins occasionally sold them small portions of its horn for a very

high consideration. The Shawnees, who had unquestionably practiced on

the credulity of their neighbors, led roving lives and had become

familiar with the myths of many nations. It is not unlikely that the

serpent fable originated with the Creeks and Cherokees, who thought the

immense snake dwelt in the waters. Tradition says that old people stood

on the shores and sang sacred songs. The creature came to the surface,

showing its horns. The magicians cut one off and continued to chant. The

serpent again appeared, and the other horn was secured and borne away in


These tribes asserted that in the fastnesses of their mountains was the

carefully guarded palace of the Prince of Rattlesnakes. On the royal

head shone a marvelous jewel. Warriors and priests endeavored in vain to

get possession of the glittering trophy. Finally, one more thoughtful

than the rest encased himself in leather, passed through the writhing,

hissing court, unharmed by poisoned fangs; tore the coveted charm from

the head of the prince, and carried it home. The gem was ever preserved

with great care and brought forth only on state occasions.

The story of Hiawatha (Hi-a-wat-ha), which Schoolcraft gives as an

Iroquois legend, is found among the traditions of many tribes, the

leading character being called by different names. In the East he was

known as Glooskap, about the lakes as Manabozho, in other localities as

Chiabo; but, as in certain Aryan myths--of which this may be one--the

principal features of the story are the same in all nations. Their hero

came to them as did Buddha to the East Indian, and Christ to those

prepared to receive the gospel, bearing messages of peace, good will to

men; teaching justice, patience, conformity to truth, and to the laws of

the red man; instructing them in various manual arts, and destroying

hideous monsters that lurked in the woods and hills, or lay concealed

amid the tall prairie grass. He lived as a warrior, hunted, fished and

battled for right, changing when necessary, to any animal or plant.

While seated in his white stone canoe on one of the Great Lakes, he was

swallowed by the King of Fishes. Undaunted, he beat its heart with a

stone club until it was dead, and when birds of prey had eaten the

flesh, and light shone through, climbed out with the magic boat.

The struggle with fire-serpents, in order to reach the wicked Pearl

Feather, whom he fought the livelong day, has been recounted again and

again. How a woodpecker flew overhead, screaming "Shoot at his

scalp-lock!" How, obeying this admonition, Hiawatha saw the enemy fall

in the throes of death, and dipping his finger in the blood, touched the

bird, and to this day a red mark is found on the head of the woodpecker.

He slew the Prince of Serpents, traveled from village to village

performing good works, and having wedded a beautiful Dakota woman,

presented a perfect example of faithfulness and devotion. A league of

thirteen nations was formed through the influence of this remarkable

man; and as he stood among the assembled chiefs, addressing them with

supernatural eloquence, encouraging them in a voice of sweetness and

power to lives of rectitude, the summons came. Promising to return at

some future time, Hiawatha stepped into his white stone canoe and was

lifted heavenward, the air trembling with soft music as he floated from

sight. To this final pledge are attributable many ghost dances and

outbreaks against the whites, notably that at Pine Ridge Agency, when

the coming of the Messiah was expected with full confidence.

The well-known legend of the Red Swan was a satisfactory explanation of

the crimson glow that spread over the water at sunset. Three brothers

set out in different directions, upon a hunting expedition, to see who

would procure the first game. They decided to kill no animal except the

kind that each was in the habit of shooting. Odjibwa, the youngest,

caught sight of a bear, which was exempt according to agreement.

Nevertheless, in his eagerness, the hunter pursued and shot it with an

arrow, taking the skin. In a moment, the air became tinged with red and

a wild piercing cry was audible, like and yet unlike a human voice.

Odjibwa followed the sound and came to the shore of a beautiful lake,

upon which rested a graceful red swan. Its plumage glittered in the last

bright rays of the sinking sun. Possessed with a desire to try his skill

again, the young man used every available arrow in the vain endeavor to

hit the wonderful object; then remembering that in the medicine sack of

his deceased father were three magic arrows, he ran home, opened the

sacred pouch and secured them. The third one struck the mark; and the

injured bird, rising slowly from the lake, floated away toward the

western horizon. From that time forth, just at sunset, the blood of the

wounded swan cast a blush, like the rich color of a maiden's cheek, over

the surface of the waters.

The song of "The Peace Pipe," by Longfellow, was founded upon the belief

of the Northern Indians that when the earth was still in her childhood,

the Master of Life assembled the nations upon the crags of the famous

Red Pipestone Quarry, and breaking a fragment from the rock, moulded a

huge calumet--the emblem of peace. He smoked over the people to the

east, the west, the north and the south; and the great white cloud

ascended until it touched heaven. Then, having told the warriors that

the stone was red, like their flesh, and should be used for their pipes

of peace, the spirit became enveloped in smoke and was seen no more. The

rock was glazed with heat and two large ovens or caverns opened

underneath. In a blaze of fire, two women entered, as guardians of the

place, where, to this day, they answer the prayers of the medicine men

who make pilgrimages to that locality.

The phenomena of thunder and lightning were variously explained by

different tribes. Some believed every storm to be a struggle between the

God of Waters and the Thunderbird. Others affirmed that thunder was the

voice of the Great Spirit reminding them of the approach of

corn-planting season; that lightning kindled sacred fires, and,

striking, penetrated the earth, forming such stones as flint, from

which fire can be drawn.

Mrs. Eastman tells of the belief of the Sioux in a storm giant, to whom

heat was cold and cold heat; who laughed when sad and groaned when

merry; who wore horns to represent lightning and hurled meteors with his

hands; he used one of the four winds as a drumstick to produce thunder.

In seasons of drought, the rainmaker of the Lenape sought a retired

spot, and drawing upon the ground the figure of a cross, pointing to the

cardinal points, made offerings of tobacco and other articles, to the

Spirit of Rains.

The Blackfeet massed stones upon the prairies, in the form of a cross,

in honor of the "Old Man who sends the wind."

The Creeks also called upon the four winds, whose duty it was to

distribute showers.

The Wild Parsnip was a bad man, going around doing harmful deeds, until,

by transformation, compelled to stay in one place, he could no longer

cause damage except by killing people when they ate him.

The Spirit of Fire was supposed to ride, bow in hand and face blackened

with rage, in a cloud of smoke. When he drew the bow, quickly the flames

spread over the prairie.

The Navajos thought that fire was first brought to earth through the

efforts of the coyote, the bat, and the squirrel. The coyote attached

some splinters to his tail, ran quickly through the fire and fled with

his prize. Being pursued, he was compelled to run rapidly and became

exhausted, whereupon, the bat relieved him. The squirrel assisted him at

the last, to carry it to the hearths of the Navajos.

In some tribes fire was considered a type of life. The Shawnee prophet

said to his followers:

"Know that the life in your body and the fire on your hearth proceed

from one source."

The greatest feast of the Delawares was to their "grandfather, fire."

Referring to the immortality of their gods, the Algonquins said: "Their

fire burns forever."

The imagery of the red man compares favorably with that of other races.

The Indian lived near to the very heart of Nature and understood her

fundamental truths. To him, all things were divided into the animate and

inanimate. Everything endowed with life or capable of action was thought

to possess intelligence and reason. There were lessons in the movements

of the winds and waves; in flying clouds and in the azure skies; the

countless stars had a language of their own; and even the comet,

sweeping across the heavens, told a story with a strong moral.

The earliest record of the Indians of the Middle West, that of Father

Marquette, has been preserved at St. Mary's College, Montreal, Canada.

The document refers to the Kaws, Osages and Pawnees, as the dominant

tribes. The Padoucas, of whom little is known, then dwelt near the head

waters of the Kansas River. They were strong and numerous, and ranged

the country southwest, in Colorado and New Mexico. The nation and

language were unknown in other parts of the continent; and no

relationship could be traced to the four principal Indian families. The

habits of the people were different from those of any other tribe. They

lived in houses in villages with streets regularly laid out; but raised

no grain, depending for subsistence chiefly upon the products of the

chase. Certain students of ethnology have asserted that the Kiowas are

their somewhat degenerate descendants.

As years went by, all was changed. The Padoucas became extinct and the

Pawnees reduced in numbers; the Osages ceded nearly all of their

territory in Missouri to the United States and were allowed a

reservation in Kansas. A few years later, a large percentage of their

lands and that of the Kaws was purchased by the Government, to be used

as a home for the Eastern Indians. The Delawares, Wyandots,

Pottawatomies and Shawnees were the emigrant nations of the Kansas River