Creatures in Native American Mythology

Instructor: Daniel McCollum

Dan has a Master's Degree in History and has taught undergraduate History

Massive ice giants, thunderous birds and sneaky dwarfs are just a few of the many creatures found in Native American mythology. This lesson takes a close look at three mythical creatures: the Wendigo, the Thunderbird and the Little People.

Native American Mythology

Native American mythology refers to the stories associated with the traditional beliefs of the Native American peoples from North America. The Native Americans are made up of a variety of cultural and language groups, all of whom have their own mythologies; however, it is not uncommon for tribes to share common traits in their stories. Many of the monsters and creatures in Native American legends represent or connect to different forces of nature. These creatures are sometimes benevolent, such as the Thunderbird, whereas others are usually deemed malicious, such as the Wendigo. All of these mythical creatures, however, were powerful and thus respected by Native Americans.

The Wendigo

The Wendigo was a feared creature in the mythology of the Algonquin peoples who generally lived in the forests of northern North America and around the Great Lakes. The Wendigo reflects the landscape, as well as people's anxiety about the long, harsh winters of the region they inhabited. The Wendigo is typically associated with a winter storm or blizzard; it was said to be able to walk on winds and constantly cried its own name, so that it sounded like a windstorm shrieking through the trees. One of the greatest fears the Algonquin peoples had during wintertime was starvation due to famine. The Wendigo, therefore, essentially represented these concerns.

In many stories, the Wendigo was said to be a giant who craved flesh. However, no matter how many people it ate, its hunger could never be quenched and it continued to grow. As the Wendigo was always starving, people who were greedy in life or always seeking to consume were thought to eventually become possessed by the Wendigo. People could also become this creature if they broke a cultural taboo and ate the flesh of another human being.

Cases of alleged Wendigo continued to appear in the 19th century, and psychologists attempted to classify the accused as suffering from a psychological disorder called Wendigo psychosis. Over the years, the creature has made its way into American popular culture, appearing in numerous famous stories, such as Algernon Blackwood's novella The Wendigo.

The Thunderbird

Unlike the Wendigo, the Thunderbird was a less malevolent creature; however it was also deeply powerful and could be angered if not shown the proper level of respect. The Thunderbird appears in the mythologies of many different Native American peoples who inhabited the Midwest, the Great Plains and the Pacific Northwest. The creature was said to have been a great bird that controlled the rain and storms. According to certain legends, the Thunderbird is a servant to the Great Spirit, or creator. Other groups, such as the Menominee, depict the Thunderbird as living on top of a great mountain.

The number of Thunderbirds varies depending on the tribe and storyteller. The Sioux and Menominee, for instance, believe there is an entire race of Thunderbirds, whereas other myths describe only a single creature. All tribes tend to agree, however, that the Thunderbird is a very powerful being, often associated with great feats. In Sioux mythology, Thunderbirds fight against reptilian monsters threatening the world. Because of the creature's supreme powers, becoming associated with the Thunderbird was believed to mark an individual as someone of prominence and importance; dreaming of the bird often designated someone as a prominent member of a tribe.

The Little People

1917 depiction of the Little People from an Iroquois story
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