Native American Folktales
Native Americans are located geographically across the entire continent of North America. Their culture varies as much as their locations as they each have their own traditions. This lesson focuses on seven Native American groups and their folktales as they relate to generosity of the spirit.
The learner will:
- use the geographic themes of location and place to describe settings and cultures represented in folktales.
- identify the type of folktales represented by the stories.
- recognize and describe character traits that are valued in Native American culture and explain how folktales help teach the culture.
- define the “Circle of Life” and give examples of it in folktales.
- describe characteristics needed by leaders.
- compare and contrast seven Native American groups and describe defining characteristics of each.
- Bokewa or The Humpback from the Odjibwa
- Circle of Life and the Clambake (The)
- Hopis and the Famine (The)
- Little Boy Who Talked With Birds (The)
- Magic Bear (The)
- Man Who Transgressed a Taboo (The)
- Mon-Daw-Min or the Origin of Indian Corn: An Ojibwa Tale
- Old Woman Who Was Kind to Insects (The)
- Sheem: The Forsaken Boy from the Odjibwa
- Thunder Deputizes the Eagle
- Two Jeebi-Ug or A Trial of Feeling from the Odjibwa (The)
Interactive Parent / Student Homework: With his/her family, the learner will share the folktale “Mon-Daw-Min or the Origin of Indian Corn: An Ojibwa Tale.” They will discuss the efficacy of the vision quest in this story and analyze how a young person in modern society can begin to determine his or her future.
- “Bokewa or The Humpback from the Odjibwa.” Originally published in 1956 by Michigan State University Press. Schoolcraft, H.R. Schoolcraft’s Indian Legends: Algic Researches. East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 1956. pp. 84-86.
- “The Circle of Life and the Clambake.” Bruchac, Joseph. Native Plant Stories. Golden, Colorado: Fulcrum Publishing, ©1995. pp. 21-24.
- First Nations Development Institute. This organization started the Strengthening Native American Philanthropy (SNAP) initiative to increase Native American and tribal participation in philanthropy, both as funders and grant recipients. This site gives significant information on Native American philanthropy.
- “The Hopis and the Famine.” Tedlock, Dennis. (translated by Dennis Tedlock by permission of University of Nebraska Press). Finding the Center: the Art of the Zuni Storyteller, 2nd edition. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, ©1999. pp. 29-54. Used with the permission of Professor Dennis Tedlock and University of Nebraska Press. www.nebraskapress.unl.edu
- The Hopi Foundation Home Page, https://www.hopifoundation.org/
- Learning to Give, www.learningtogive.org, Resource Room, Briefing Papers
- “The Little Boy Who Talked With Birds.’ Montejo, Victor. The Bird Who Cleans the World and Other Mayan Fables. Willimantic, CT: Curbstone Press, ©1992. Used with the permission of Curbstone Press. www.curbstone.org “The Little Boy Who Talked with Birds” by Victor Montego, from The Bird Who Cleans the World (Curbstone Press, 1992). Reprinted with permission of Curbstone Press. Distributed by Consortium.”
- “The Magic Bear.” Millman, Lawrence, gathered and retold by. A Kayak Full of Ghosts: Eskimo Tales. Santa Barbara: California: Capra Press, ©1987. pp. 180-181. Used with the permission of Lawrence Millman.
- “The Man Who Transgressed a Taboo.” Velie, Alan R. (edited by). American Indian Literature: An Anthology. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, ©1991. pp. 27-29. Used with the permission of University of Oklahoma Press. Three Menomini tales originally reprinted by the University of Oklahoma Press by permission of the American Museum of Natural History. www.oupress.com
- “Mon-Daw-Min or the Origin of Indian Corn: An Ojibwa Tale.” Originally published in 1956 by Michigan State University Press. Schoolcraft, H.R. Schoolcraft’s Indian Legends: Algic Researches. East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 1956. pp. 58-61.
- “The Old Woman Who Was Kind to Insects.” Millman, Lawrence, gathered and retold by. A Kayak Full of Ghosts: Eskimo Tales. Santa Barbara: California: Capra Press, ©1987. pp. 184. Used with the permission of Lawrence Millman.
- “Sheem: The Forsaken Boy from the Odjibwa.” Originally published in 1956 by Michigan State University Press. Schoolcraft, H.R. Schoolcraft’s Indian Legends: Algic Researches. East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 1956. pp. 92-96.
- ThreeHoops.Com Home Page, August 26 2005, < http://www.threehoops.com/>. This is a good site for the topics like "Tribal Nation Websites," "Native American Nonprofits," "Tribal Nation Philanthropy," and "Tribal Charitable Funds." [no longer available]
- "Thunder Deputizes the Eagle.” Kilpatrick, Jack F. and Anna G. Kilpatrick. Friends of Thunder: Folktales of the Oklahoma Cherokee. Dallas: Southern Methodist University, ©1964. pp. 136-37. Used with the permission of University of Oklahoma Press. www.oupress.com
- “Tiggak.” Millman, Lawrence, gathered and retold by. A Kayak Full of Ghosts: Eskimo Tales. Santa Barbara: California: Capra Press, ©1987. pp. 173. Used with the permission of Lawrence Millman.
- “Sheem: The Forsaken Boy from the Odjibwa.” Originally published in 1956 by Michigan State University Press. Schoolcraft, H.R. Schoolcraft’s Indian Legends: Algic Researches. East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 1956. pp. 148-50.
Anticipatory Set: Ask the learners to do a brainstorm on descriptors of Native American peoples. Record the responses on the board. If it hasn’t already been included in the brainstorm responses, ask the learners to develop a list of Native American groups or nations.
Explain that it is important to understand people and their environment when studying folktales. The stories for this lesson are Native American folktales. Looking at the list of descriptors on the board, explain that Native Americans differ from each other just as other American ethnic groups do. Just as stereotyping does not give an accurate depiction of other groups, it does not give an accurate depiction of Native Americans either. “Bokewa or The Humpback from the Odjibwa,” “Mon-Daw-Min or the Origin of Indian Corn: An Ojibwa Tale,” “Sheem: The Forsaken Boy from the Odjibwa,” and “The Two Jeebi-Ug or A Trial of Feeling from the Odjibwa” are Ojibwa folktales; “The Circle of Life and the Clambake” is a Wampanoag folktale; “The Hopis and the Famine” is a Hopi folktale; “The Little Boy Who Talked With Birds” is a Mayan folktale; “The Magic Bear,” “The Old Woman Who Was Kind to Insects” and “Tiggak” are Inuit folktales; “The Man Who Transgressed a Taboo” is a Menomini folktale; and “Thunder Deputizes the Eagle” is a Cherokee folktale. Check the list on the board to see how many of these groups were identified by the learners.
Split the learners into seven groups, assigning one Native American group to each. Using the Internet or other print resources, have the teams research their group, organizing the information in a web/chart with the following categories:
- Name of the group and its meaning
- Language group
- Whether matrilineal or patrilineal
- Subsistence (traditional means of making a living)
- Dwellings (summer and winter)
- Religious beliefs and practices
- Traditional ceremonies
- Governmental structure
- Interesting miscellaneous features
Using a map of North America, let each team locate the geographic area for their Native American group and label it on the map. Identify the locations’ absolute locations (longitude and latitude) and relative locations (general descriptors of where the places are located).
Have the learners describe those locations as places by listing recognizable physical characteristics (landforms, water bodies, climate, soil, natural vegetation, animal life) and human characteristics (inhabitants, settlement patterns, languages, religions, government, how inhabitants make a living). Compare and contrast the areas.
Keeping the same groups, assign each group one of the folktales. As teams, have them read their own stories and discuss the following questions:
- What type of folktale is it (fairy tale, myth, legend/epic, tall tale, fable, religious story/parable)?
- What is the lesson of this folktale?
- What does the folktale reveal about the culture of the group? (Refer to previously researched information.)
- What is revealed about the generosity of spirit of the characters? Do they serve as models for others to follow?
- Using as many of the following qualities (caring, courage, civic virtue and citizenship, giving, honesty, justice and fairness, perseverance, respect, responsibility, trustworthiness) as fit the story, what character traits seem to be valued in the story and culture?
Each group should also discuss their specific question below:
- In the Ojibwa story “Bokewa or The Humpback from the Odjibwa,” the physically-gifted brother is ultimately surpassed in almost all ways by his supernaturally-gifted brother Bokewa, who, throughout the story, does his best to look after his vain brother. Bokewa’s gifts of love, care and wisdom are not appreciated and even ignored by his brother. Why wasn’t Bokewa’s benevolence appreciated? Is it a waste of time to be generous when it is not appreciated?
- In the creation story “The Circle of Life and the Clambake,” Maushop and Kehtean give great gifts to the Wampanoag people. Why is Kehtean’s gift more significant? What is meant by the “Circle of Life”? If a person believes in the idea of the circle, how would he or she act?
- In the Hopi story “The Hopis and the Famine,” the normally benevolent rain priest brings harm (prolonged drought) to his people rather than life-giving rain. Does this evil deed nullify the later good that he does? Is he a generous person?
- In the Mayan story “The Little Boy Who Talked with Birds,” the father-son relationship is not a strong one due to the father’s fear and jealousy. What will the son’s gift of forgiveness mean to his father? Although the story gives every indication that it was easy for the young man to forgive his father, sometimes this is not possible. In that case, what would an inability to forgive mean to both a child and a father?
- In the Inuit story “The Magic Bear,” the formerly childless couple disrespect the gift they have been given. How is it possible that people who have known great need and then received a great gift will forget how much they have been given? Is this a rare or commonplace thing that happens to people?
- In the Menomini folktale “The Man Who Transgressed a Taboo,” a curse turns into a blessing as a transformed man provides for his father and others. Other than his generosity in providing food to his father, how else does the man show “generosity of the spirit”?
- The Odjibwa tale “Mon-Daw-Min or the Origin of Indian Corn: An Ojibwa Tale” tells of a young man who receives the gift of Mon-Daw-Min (corn). Wunzh experiences a spirit fast (vision quest) which will guide him through life. The results benefit not only him and his family, but the entire community as well. What personal qualities are revealed about the main character which makes it believable that such a great gift should be given to Wunzh?
- In the Inuit story “The Old Woman Who Was Kind to Insects,” the old woman uses the expression, “I’d rather die first.” Many people have used this expression but didn’t really mean what they said. Did the old woman mean it and realize the danger her “gift” could bring to her future existence?
- In the sad Ojibwa story “Sheem: The Forsaken Boy from the Odjibwa,” readers are reminded of the importance of family and societal obligations. Consider the older brother and sister’s individual rights to live their lives as they wished versus the obligation to their younger brother placed on them by their parents. Was this a fair burden for them to carry? Since the older brother sincerely wants his young brother to come to him at the end of the story, why did the story’s author give it a sad ending as opposed to a happy ending? What modern-day lessons are there in this story?
- In the Cherokee story “Thunder Deputizes the Eagle,” great responsibility was given to Eagle. Did Thunder chose wisely in selecting his best friend to have such power? As a leader, what was Eagle’s “gift” to the wild creatures? What lesson does this story impart to those who strive for power?
- The Inuit story “Tiggak” emphasizes the idea of the Circle of Life. How is that shown? Tiggak gives a precious gift to the animals. Why is his giving so special? In what way is Tiggak’s story repeated over and over in modern society?
- In the Odjibwa story “The Two Jeebi-Ug or A Trial of Feeling from the Odjibwa,” a hunter and his family are put to a severe test regarding hospitality. Do they pass the test or fail it? According to the tale, what are the limits of hospitality for one with a generous spirit?
Allow time for each team to report to the whole group. They should begin by sharing the research on their group and then providing a summary of their story. They should next go over their discussion questions.
When all groups have reported, make comparisons and contrasts between the groups and their stories. Discuss whether the stories have common elements with other places and people or are they specific to Native American culture.
Working individually, have the learners reflect on their lives and apply the lesson of one of the stories to real life. Using a real-life scenario, have the learners write descriptions of how the story fits a situation they have encountered or may encounter in the future. What insight does the story provide in helping its readers develop the strong character trait revealed in the story?
The research organizer, discussion, reporting, and real-life scenario and reflection may be used as measures of assessment. Optional assessment: Working individually, have the learners select one of the folktales discussed in the lesson. Concentrating on the story, the character traits of the main character, and the lesson of the story, have each learner design a book jacket. It should reflect the story and its lesson.
After researching Native American roles in modern philanthropy, learners have the option of investigating a specific “giving program” related to Native Americans today and contribute resources to the program of their choice.
Strand PHIL.I Definitions of Philanthropy
Standard DP 01. Define Philanthropy
Benchmark HS.2 Identify and discuss examples of philanthropy and charity in modern culture.
Standard DP 06. Role of Family in Philanthropy
Benchmark HS.3 Identify how subgroups and families in society demonstrate giving, volunteering, and civic involvement.
Strand PHIL.II Philanthropy and Civil Society
Standard PCS 01. Self, citizenship, and society
Benchmark HS.2 Discuss and give examples of why some humans will sacrifice for the benefit of unknown others.
Standard PCS 02. Diverse Cultures
Benchmark HS.1 Analyze philanthropic traditions of diverse cultural groups and their contributions to civil society.
Standard PCS 04. Philanthropy and Geography
Benchmark HS.3 Identify and describe civil society sector organizations whose purpose is associated with issues relating to "human characteristics of place" nationally and internationally.
Standard PCS 05. Philanthropy and Government
Benchmark HS.3 Identify the relationship between individual rights and community responsibilities.