Native American Folktales
Native Americans, or Indigenous People, are located geographically across the entire continent of North America. There are many stereotypes of native culture, but their culture varies as much as their locations, as each group of native peoples 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:
- 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 of leaders.
- identify the folktale's connection to philanthropy.
Youth access to these folktales (Learning to Give has permission to make these folktales available online to readers)
- Bokewa or The Humpback from the Odjibwa
- Circle of Life and the Clambake
- Hopis and the Famine
- Little Boy Who Talked With Birds
- Magic Bear
- Man Who Transgressed a Taboo
- Mon-Daw-Min or the Origin of Indian Corn: An Ojibwa Tale
- Old Woman Who Was Kind to Insects
- Sheem: The Forsaken Boy from the Odjibwa
- Thunder Deputizes the Eagle
- Two Jeebi-Ug or A Trial of Feeling from the Odjibwa
Learners share with their family 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/
- “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, < https://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.
Native culture values the teachings of nature to guide their own behavior. Nature teaches us to be generous and share the bounty of our gifts. We don't store up wealth, but give it back or share it with gratitude to assure the flourishing of all.
The stories for this lesson are Native American folktales. Native groups differ from each other just as other American ethnic groups do. The featured fairy tales come from the traditions of the following indigenous groups: Odjibwa, Wampanoag, Hopi, Maya, Inuit, Menomini, and Cherokee.
Using a map of North America, locate the geographic area for the featured Native American groups. Identify the absolute locations (longitude and latitude) and relative locations (general descriptors of where the places are located). They may do further research to identify the physical characteristics and human characteristics of the areas.
Move the youth into small groups and assign each group one of the folktales. As teams, have them read their own stories and discuss the following questions:
- What is the lesson of this folktale?
- What does the folktale reveal about the culture of the group?
- What is revealed about the generosity of spirit of the characters? Do they serve as models for others to follow?
- Which of the following character traits seem to be valued in the story and culture? (caring, courage, civic virtue and citizenship, giving, honesty, justice and fairness, perseverance, respect, responsibility, trustworthiness)
Each group should may also discuss specific elements to their folktale described 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 peoples and stories. Discuss whether there are elements specific to Native American culture.
Working individually, 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?
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.