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Tok Thompson - Review of David Leeming, Tales of the Earth: Native North American Creation Mythology

Tok Thompson - Review of David Leeming, Tales of the Earth: Native North American Creation Mythology

painting of Native Americans performing a ritual

The dust cover states that this volume sets out to be a “comprehensive yet concise overview of Native American mythologies.” There are a total of five chapters: an introduction and conclusion which have little to do with mythology (and are rather on Native North Americans, generally), and four chapters entitled (in order) “The Great Spirit,” “The Trickster,” “The Goddess,” and “The Hero.” As the chapter titles indicate, these borrow heavily from Campbellian hypothetical “archetypes and often attempt to tie in Native North American myths and legends with “archetypes” from around the world.

The recitations of sacred Native North American mythology are reproduced with a rather free editorial hand, and without citations, so it’s impossible to know which literary version mentioned in the brief bibliography section the author is drawing from. That, in itself, makes it unusable for scholarly work. I thought at first that perhaps the book could be a useful introduction for grade school level readers, but after a more thorough read, I was disabused from this notion as well. The presentation of materials is repeatedly shoe-horned into the archetypal chapter titles, even when they are clearly a rather poor fit.

The chapter entitled “The Great Spirit” has perhaps the most insight to offer the reader, in that the author at times makes clear that this “spirit” is often perceived not as a singular entity, but rather in line with the much more variegated ideas regarding spirituality flowing through the material world – animism, in a word. Unfortunately, despite this important acknowledgment, the author repeatedly refers to the “Great Spirit” as a singular deity, even using the pronoun “He.” The author’s description of the “Great Spirit” is confusing, and even contradictory: the author states that this “Spirit” is “a culture hero,” a “creator deity,” and sometimes a “trickster” (all on page 25!) while two pages later the spirit is described as “omnipresent but not often anthropomorphic.”

The next chapter, “The Trickster,” is more problematic. Again described as a singular deity, the author states that trickster stories “more than anything else, were meant as entertainment, a kind of humorous pornography that might appeal to the imaginations of men” (50). Describing trickster myths as largely pornographic stories for men is a grave disservice to these profound Native American stories. The author freely lets his imagination roam, stating that the Raven as trickster is a product of Central Asia (on page 58, without citations or justification). Similarly, on page 62, the author states that “the sacred clown in Native American ceremonial dances” (in which he collapses the Sioux, the Zuni, the Cherokee, and the Iroquois traditions) is a more “civilized” form of the trickster.

But even worse is chapter 3, “The Goddess,” in which all female deities of the widely varying groups in North America, and even female deities from all around the world, are thrown together as a singular entity: “She is the many ‘Venuses’ of the ancient Paleolithic world, she is Gaia in Greece, Devi in India, Pachamama in South America” ( 65). This collapsing of individual traditions reaches to ludicrous claims, such as on page 67, where the author states that “an incarnation of the sacrificed Earth Mother in the far north is Sedna.” Considering that Sedna is most definitely connected not with the earth at all, but with the ocean and the underwater realm, the insistence on using archetypes offers far more confusion than clarity. In this chapter, the author also gives a rather long version of the Acoma Pueblo myth, which gives this reviewer pause: after all, it is widely known that Acoma Pueblo people consider their creation story as private property, and made news a few years ago by demanding that a leading scholar of Native American studies pulp his book on this topic (see, e.g., Villela 2006). According to the Acoma Pueblo people, reciting their myth without permission (which is never given) is akin to theft. The author seems blithely unaware of the issues at hand with publishing accounts of the Acoma Pueblo myth without permission.

Chapter 4, “The Hero,” is perhaps the worst, from a mythologist’s point of view, as it collapses legends, myths, heroes, and deities in an archetypal mishmash. Into this chapter are thrown White Buffalo Woman (who also shows up in the Goddess chapter), the Great Hare, Glooscap, alongside worldwide exemplars such as Odysseus, Aeneas, Cúchulainn, Buddha, George Washington, and Joan of Arc. The Ghost Dance is mentioned in this chapter (for some reason), but it is misleadingly presented, in spite of many excellent works (e.g., Kehoe 2006) precisely on this topic. The author claims the Ghost Dance “was developed by Plains tribes in the nineteenth century,” which is simply wrong: the Ghost Dance was developed by the Ute prophet Wovoka, and later spread to many groups, Plains groups included. Presumably the reason for mentioning the Ghost Dance is to include Chief Sitting Bull in the author’s pantheon of heroes, alongside deities such as the Hero Twins, Jesus of Nazareth, and Quetzalcoatl (98).

In the concluding chapter, the author claims that the “essence of what is, in effect, a collective Native American worldview is evident in the four mythic personalities present in the creation myths” (121). While the author does attempt to get across the overall animistic worldview pervading Native American mythology, his idea of “four mythic personalities” seems a poor fit for the data, resulting instead in an over-simplified, trivialized, and ultimately misleading presentation of the complexity and diversity of Native North American sacred stories.

Thankfully, this book was not printed by an academic press, but there is still a grave danger in the publication of such bowdlerized misrepresentations of Native American mythology. I cannot recommend this book to any reader, except those interested in bad scholarship.

Works Cited

Villela, Khristaan. 2016. “Controversy Erupts over Peter Nabokov's Publication of ‘The Origin Myth of Acoma Pueblo’.” Santa Fe New Mexican: Pasatiempo Section, January 15-21, pages 28-31.

Kehoe, Alice. 2006. The Ghost Dance: Ethnohistory and Revitalization. Long Grove, Illinois: Waveland Press.


[Review length: 982 words • Review posted on January 29, 2024]