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AMERICAN INDIAN LITERATURE OF THE SEA AND THE GREAT LAKES

AMERICAN INDIAN LITERATURE OF THE SEA AND THE
GREAT LAKES. The coasts of the Northeast Atlantic and the Northwest*
Pacific, as well as the shores of the Great Lakes,* sparked the imagination
of the early American Indians who resided in these regions. An abundance
of literature in the form of legends, myths, prayers, poems, and songs shows
the significance that the sea and the Great Lakes played in their lives.
The myths and legends told by the Micmac, Passamaquoddy, and Penobscot tribes of the coastal northeast focus on the mythical demigod
Glooskap, whose name, ironically, means “the Liar.” In one Passamaquoddy
story, Glooskap’s antics result in the waters of the sea and the Lakes becoming stagnant. Other legends dealing with Glooskap’s escapades include turning giant sorcerers into fish (Penobscot); sailing across the sea to England
and France (Passamaquoddy); and cheating a whale, as well as providing a
pipe for the whales to smoke (Micmac). Not all Atlantic coastal tales feature
Glooskap as the main character; the tale of the mermaid* Ne Hwas, the
story of two girls who are changed into mermaids, and the myth of a flying
canoe figure into the legends of the Passamaquoddy oral tradition, and there
is the Penobscot myth of the First Mother, whose son is created from the
water’s foam.
The literary expression of the coastal tribes of the Northwest relied heavily
on allusions to the sea, particularly salmon fishing and whaling. The trickster
tales of the Chinook emphasize Coyote’s blunders as he herds, catches, kills,
and distributes the salmon among the people. In a prayer to a dead killer
whale (Kwakiutl), a tribesman prays that he may inherit the whale’s qualities
and protection. The story of a man who marries a killer-whale woman
(Haida) chronicles the whale woman’s life as she leaves her husband, enters
the waters of the West Coast, and turns into a reef. Another tale involving
a whale pertains to the marriage of a woman to a merman (Coos). After
becoming impregnated, the woman leaves her tribe and lives with her merman husband in the ocean. The woman does not forget her land-bound
kinsmen, however; every summer and winter she leaves a whale on the shore
as a gift to her brothers. Other stories associated with the sea include the
chetco monster, whose roars from the ocean portend the weather (Chinook)
and the marriage of South Wind to Ocean’s daughter (Nehalem Tillamook).
Early stories describing the Great Lakes and the treacherous canoeing
experiences on the waters were related orally among the American Indians
in the winter months when they believed the spirits of the Lakes were living
underground. A common tale among these tribes pertains to manidog, the
guardian of the Lakes. Accounts of watery disasters related to manidog pervade the tales of the Chippewa, Menomini, and Fox. Other myths include
the Winnebago adventures of Wak-chung-kaka (the Foolish One), who was
sent by the Earth-Maker to rid the world of evil. These stories tell of Wakchung-kaka’s mistaking a burned tree stump for a chief pointing across the
water and the village people’s mistaking Wak-chung-kaka for a water spirit
after he rises out of the lake wearing an elk’s head. Other cyclical tales that
significantly refer to the Great Lakes region include the Ojibwa accounts of
the mythical character Winabojo and his exploits. Songs of the Chippewa
likewise hold an important place in the American Indian literature of the
Great Lakes; one song poignantly tells of a maiden who mistakes the sound
of her departing lover’s splashing oar for the cry of a loon. Another song
relates how the beating of a drum calms the waters.14 AMES, NATHANIEL
The American Indian literature of the sea and the Great Lakes is both
vast and rich in its description of the ever-present waters that played such a
vital role in the lives of its coastal inhabitants.
FURTHER READING: Astrov, Margot. The Winged Serpent: An Anthology of
American Indian Prose and Poetry. New York: John Day, 1946; Least Heat-Moon,
William. River-Horse*: A Voyage across America. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1999;
Leland, Charles G. The Algonquin Legends of New England. Detroit: Singing Tree,
1968; Ramsey, Jarold, ed. Coyote Was Going There: Indian Literature of the Oregon
Country. Seattle: U of Washington P, 1977; Swann, Brian, ed. Coming to Light:
Contemporary Translations of the Native Literatures of North America. New York:
Vintage, 1996.