Totem is an Ojibwe (Chippewa) word meaning “kinship group.” Totem poles were created from trees to recount family legends, clan lineages or important events. It is estimated that over 4000 different tribes once lived in North America.
Today there are 513 Native American tribes recognized by the US Government. The Navajo, Cherokee, Sioux, Blackfeet, Algonquian, Iroquois, Seminoles, Pueblo, Apache and Pomo are some of the largest tribes; most have been displaced from their ancestral land as European settlers began moving to the Americas in the 1600’s.
The Iroquois creation story – The World on the Turtle’s Back.
“A Great Tree of Life grew in a world high in the sky. It lit the sky so all could see and cast its light down on a lower world made up of water. The Creator lived by the Tree of Life where he tended the plants and cared for the animals. The hawks and eagles flew down to the lower water world, giant turtles and muskrats swam on the water’s surface. The creator grew lonely and created first woman. He also created first man in his likeness and taught his two children all that he knew. The Creator told them to stay away from the Tree of Life and not to play around its trunk. But First Woman was curious and found a hole in the bottom of the trunk, she crawled through the hole and began falling toward the lower world of water. The Creator summoned the birds of the sky, to catch his daughter “Sky Woman” that she might not drown. As they flew above the deep waters, the grandfather of all turtles surfaced. The birds placed Sky-Woman on the surface of her new home. Muskrat swam to the bottom of the waters and brought up mud, which he placed on the turtle’s back. When she touched the mud that Muskrat had brought, it grew in all directions, becoming the Earth that we know today as the great Turtle Island.”
In the Ojibway tradition of storytelling there is a story of Grandmother Cedar, or Nookomis Giizhig.
“Once upon a time there was a great and strong cedar tree who lived in the forest. But even though the cedar tree was great and strong, she was lonely. In fact, she was so lonely that sometimes she felt as though she would drown in her own tears. And the Creator looked down and said: This is not right. So he caused a cedar seed to blow upon the south wind, and it settled and took root at the feet of the great and strong cedar. And she looked at the cedar seed as it grew and she said: You will be my grandson, and I shall be your grandmother cedar. And Grandmother Cedar was happy. And the Creator looked down and said: This is right. And when the deer would come around to nibble on the tender cedar shoots, Grandmother Cedar would wave her great and strong branches and frighten the deer away. And the cedar shoot grew into a sapling. And when the wind would blow so hard that the sapling bent so that it thought it would break, Grandmother Cedar would wrap her strong limbs around the sapling to shelter it from the wind. And the sapling grew into a young tree. And when the sun would beat down upon the little cedar tree, and it was so hot that the little tree was afraid that its skin would blister, and crack and burn, Grandmother Cedar would move her branches to shade the little cedar tree, and keep the sun from burning its skin. And the little tree grew strong. And when her grandson was lonely, Grandmother Cedar would call out with her strong mind, and cause the birds to nest in her grandson’s branches, and sing to him, and keep him company. And the Creator looked down and said: This is right. But then time went on, and Grandmother Cedar began to get old, and her limbs began to break, and she was not as strong as she used to be, and she could no longer move like she once did. And she began to feel old, and useless, and sad, and she didn’t want to live any more. And the Creator looked down and said: This is not right. So then her grandson said to her: Grandmother, when I was just a shoot, and the deer would come to nibble on me, did you not wave your branches and frighten the deer away? And Grandmother Cedar said, Yes, I did. And her grandson said: Now I am great and strong, and I will protect you from harm. And her grandson said to her: Grandmother, when I was just a sapling, and the wind would blow, and I would bend until I was afraid I would break, did you not wrap your strong arms around me to protect me from the storm? And Grandmother Cedar said: Yes, I did. And her grandson said: Now I am great and strong, and I shall wrap my arms around you, and protect you from the storm. And her grandson said to her: Grandmother, when I was just a young tree, and the sun would beat down upon me until I was afraid my skin would blister,and crack and burn, did you not move your great limbs to shade me from the sun? And Grandmother Cedar said: Yes, I did. And her grandson said: Now I am great and strong, and I shall move my limbs, and I shall shade you from the sun. And her grandson said to her: Grandmother, when I was lonely, did you not use your strong mind to call out to the birds of the forest, and have them come nest in my branches, and sing to me, and keep me company? And Grandmother Cedar said: Yes, I did. And her grandson said: Now my mind is strong, and I shall call out to the birds of the forest, and they will come and nest in your branches, and sing to you, and keep you company. You took care of me when I was young, and now that you are old, I shall take care of you. And the Creator looked down and said: This is right.”
In the Pacific Northwest there is a myth that: “The night sky was a pattern on a great-blanket overhead which was held up by a spinning world pole resting on the chest of a woman named Stone Ribs.”
Black Elk (1863 -1950), was an Oglala Lakota (Sioux) wičháša wakȟáŋ medicine man and holy man who wrote the following words.
“I was seeing in a sacred manner the shape of all things in the Spirit, and the Shape of all Shapes as they must live together like one being and I saw that the sacred hoop of my people was one of many hoops that made one circle, wide as daylight and as starlight, and in the center grew one mighty flowering tree to shelter all the children of one mother and one father. And I saw that it was holy.” – Black Elk