Blane Klemek column: Creation stories weave in animal characteristics
Native American creation stories are spiritual and lively, and they involve the natural world. Animals are often central players in these accounts of how humankind came to be.
The stories depict wildlife, often possessing such aptitudes as speech and other human-like behaviors, as messengers, creators, counselors, and guardians to Indian people.
Serving as symbols of reverence, wild creatures are extremely important in Native American culture. Species of wildlife commonly honored are coyotes, otters, bears, eagles, ravens and spiders.
The Red Lake Nation's logo of the Red Lake Band of Chippewa Indians, created by artist Johnson Loud Jr., is encircled by wildlife and symbols of the natural world. The official website of the Red Lake Nation explains in detail the meaning of the elegant logo:
"The design represents many things, the shape of the upper and lower Red Lake has been our trademark due to its unique shape and what it means to us; fresh water and food (walleye). The circle represents the powerful "circle of life" for ours and countless other tribes; unity without end.
"The trees mark our dependence on them for shelter, transportation, warmth and many feelings of belonging to the land. The feathers of the eagle are also a powerful symbol to our tribe. The eagle's heartbeat is echoed in the drum beat of practically all tribes.
The clan symbols from the left are the bear, turtle, bullhead (fish), mink, eagle, pine marten (sable) and the kingfisher; seven clans representing the main clans of the people of the Red Lake Reservation.
"The colors of the flag are white for snow and clouds; green for trees and life; blue for sky and water and red for spirit and strength. The stars represent the four villages of the Red Lake Reservation which are (from the left) Little Rock, Red Lake, Redby and Ponemah."
Creation stories are as fascinating to tell as they are to listen to and read. Terri J. Andrews, publisher of a Native American newsletter, The Good Red Road, tells of an Eskimo creation story involving a bird very common to northern Minnesota, the common raven. On her website she recounts an Eskimo tale:
"In the beginning, Raven was born out of the darkness. Weak, unknowing of himself or his purpose, he set out to learn more about the area where he was walking. He felt trees, plants, and grass. He thought about such things and soon realized that he was the Raven Father, Creator of All Life. He gathered strength and flew out of the darkness and found new land, called the earth. Raven wanted living things to be on the earth, so he made plants.
"One day, Raven was flying overhead and saw a giant peapod, and out came a man who was the first Eskimo. Father Raven fed the man, creating caribou and musk oxen for him to eat. Father Raven did this for many days, all the while teaching the man to respect his fellow creatures.
"A woman was soon created for the man, and Raven taught the pair to make clothing, build homes, and make a canoe. The two became parents. Other men came from the peapods, and Raven fed and taught them too. When they were ready, Raven made women for these men and they, too, became parents. Soon the earth had many children."
It's not difficult to understand why Native American culture weaves wild creatures into their stories of creation.
After all, the circle of life involves all living creatures, great and small, human and otherwise.
Throughout human history survival depended, and still does, upon wild or domesticated plants and animals.
Some stories tell of how individual animals acquired their own unique features, characteristics, and behaviors.
For example, stories exist of how Bear and Rabbit lost their tails, and how Rabbit fooled Wolf.
Other stories depict the origins of earth, fire, tobacco, moccasins, buffalo and wind. And there are also stories that explain the reasons for natural phenomena such as why the North Star stands still, why mountains erupted and why the opossum's tail is hairless.
In the case of the Bear and his short tail, it turns out that Fox was the culprit. To keep Bear from fishing Fox's favorite fishing hole, Fox convinced Bear that Bear could catch fish by sticking his long and beautiful tail into a hole through the ice, but it didn't work.
Bear's tail froze in the water and when Fox came to taunt Bear, Bear pulled too hard to release his tail from the icy grip and lost his tail.
And, as the story goes, to this day Bear's tail is short and Bear moans in remembrance of the trick Fox played on him.
Indeed, Native American stories involving animals abound throughout North America and Minnesota. Many books are available on the subject, children's included, which recount these rich and traditional tales.
As we get out and enjoy the great outdoors, keep in mind that the forests and fields are filled with stories that have been told and retold for a long, long time.
Blane Klemek is the Bemidji area assistant wildlife manager, DNR Division of Fish & Wildlife. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.