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Folktales of North and European Variants in the United States

Updated on March 20, 2018
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Devika enjoys sharing her work with a friendly community. Writing is a big part of her life. Online work has improved her lifestyle.

Folktales should not be Forgotten

Folktales of Many Customs

Interesting folktales to refresh your memories!

  • Folktales of North America

When the early settlers, immigrants, and slaves came to North America, they brought their folktales with them from Europe, China, and West Africa.

As they repeated their folktales, some of the tales took on an unmistakable North American flavor.

Indigenous to the continent are folktales told by Native Americans and tall tales that developed from the pioneer spirit of the young American country.

In a discussion of folktales of North America, it is impossible to describe any one body of folklore such as the Grimm’s discovered in Germany.

However, the folklore of North America may be sorted into four large categories:

  • Native American, Eskimo, and Inuit tales that were originally here.

Tales that came from other countries, primarily from West Africa, and were changed in the process to form the basis of African American and African Caribbean folktales.

Tales that came primarily from Europe and were modified into new variants.

Tall tales, legends, and other Americana that developed here.

Virginia Havilan’s collection North American Legends presents tales from each of these categories and gives a broad overview of folklore in the United States.

Amy Cohn’s extensively researched collection of American folklore and folk songs offers children a stirring journey into an America that consists of many cultures, many stories, and many songs.

Other notable collections include, Laurence Yep’s The Rainbow People and Tongues of Jade, tales Chinese immigrants told not only to remind themselves of home, but to show how a wise person could survive in a strange new land.

Eighteen stories from Americans of European descent are collected in Neil Philip’s Stockings of Buttermilk.

Nancy Van Laan’s With a Whoop and a Holler includes stories from the deep South and readers will find familiar characters such as Jack and Brer Rabbit as well as superstitions and riddles.

African Americans are represented in such fine collections as Virgina Hamilton’s The People Could Fly and Her Stories.

Increasingly, readers will find that many other well-written collections and beautifully illustrated tales represent the many colorful threads that make up America’s rich tapestry of story.

  • Native American Folktales

To try to characterize all the folklore of the various Native American tribes as one cohesive whole is as unreasonable as it would be to lump all of the folklore of Europe together.

Variations in Native American dwellings, such as pueblos, longhouses, and teepees, or in the symbolic artwork of totem poles, beading, story skins and carvings are mirrored in the variations of Native American folktales.

Some Native American Folktales by Region is a useful grouping of tales for those wishing to study Native American folktales specifically of a particular geographical area.

However, there are some common characteristics among the various tribes and between the folklore of Native Americans and that of northern Europe.

Many Native American tales might be categorized as mythology, for they include creation myths and sacred legends.

Some myths attempt to explain religious beliefs while telling people about tribal customs and how to act. Some of these tales were told as separate stories, but as with Greek or Roman mythology, they were heard by insiders who understood these tales within the context of a large interlocking set of stories.

Native American tales, when originally told, were loosely plotted rather than highly structured like European fairly tales.

Thomas Leekley, who retold some of the stories of the Chippewa and Otttawa tribes in his The World of Manobozho as follows:

Indian folklore is a great collection of anecdote, jokes, and fables, and storytellers constantly combined and recombined these elements in different ways. We seldom find a plotted story of the kind we know.

Instead, the interest is usually in a single episode; if this is linked to another, the relationship is that of two beads on one string, seldom that of two bricks in one building.

The very act of storytelling was considered to be of ceremonial importance in various tribal groups. Storytelling took place at night and, in certain tribes such as the Iroquois, it was permitted only in the winter.

Men, Women, and children listened reverently to stories, some of which were ''owned'' by a teller and could not be told by any other person.

The sacred number four is found in all Indian tales, rather than the pattern of three common to other folktales. Four hairs might be pulled and offered to the four winds; or four quests must be made before a mission will be accomplished.

Many Native American tales are nature myths, pourquoi stories that explain how animals came to earth or why they have certain characteristics. Paul Goble tells of the origin of the first horses in the The Gift of the Sacred Dog, in which the gift is the Great Spirit's attempt to help the Plains tribes hunt the buffalo more efficiently.

In How Turtle's Back Was Cracked, Gayle Ross recounts how Turtle, who used to have a smooth shell, became so full of himself that he annoyed a group of wolves who heard his bragging.

They determine to kill him, but Turtle tricks them into throwing him in the river, where they think he will drown. Instead of landing in the water, however, he falls on a large boulder and his shell cracks in a dozen places.

Being a good healer, Turtle fixes his shell, but today if you look closely you can still notice where his back was cracked.

Perhaps one of the best known stories of explanation which combines religious beliefs, how-and-why explanations, and references to Indian custom, is ''Star Boy,'' which has many versions.

In this story, Star Boy, expelled from the sky world with his mother and marked with a mysterious scar because of her disobedience, becomes known as Scar face. In order to marry, he must make a journey to the Sun, who removes the scar.

To commemorate and honor the Sun's gesture, the Blackfeet have sacred Sun Dance each summer. In Goble's version, Star Boy becomes another star and joins his father, Morning Star, and his mother Evening Star.

The heavens hold special significance for native people's as can be seen in such tales as Joseph Bruchac's The Story of the Milky Way, a Cherokee tale; Paul Goble's Her Seven Brothers, a Cheyenne myth about the origin of the Big Dipper; and Goble's The Lost Children, a Blackfoot story about the origin of the Pleiades.

Beatrice Harrell's How Thunder and Lightning Came to Be is set closer to earth and is a humorous story from the Choctaw about two birds who agree to help the Great Sun Father warn the people when a bad storm is coming.

Their silly attempts only amuse the people, however, until one day when Helotha's eggs roll off the clouds, creating a great thumping and bumping. When her husband. Melatha, races to catch them, sparks fly from his heels. The Sun Father was pleased with the effect this made.

Now every time Helotha lays her eggs and Melatha chases them, Sun Father sends wind and rain to the earth.

Almost all Native American folklore traditions contain a trickster figure who mediates between the sky world and earth. The woodland tribes tell tales of Manabozho, a kind of half god, half superpower among the eastern tribes.

The Great Plains trickster Coyote snatches fire from the burning mountain and to this day, say the legend, coyote's fur is singed and yellow his sides where the flames blew backwards he ran down the mountain carrying the burning brand.

A version of this story can be found in Gerald Hausman's Coyote Walks on Two Legs, a collection of Navajo myths and legends about this well-known trickster that includes a version of the Great Flood.

The stories of many tribes often revolved around a cultural hero like the woodland character Gluskap, Glooscap, or Gluskabe. This hero accomplished great deeds and often served as helper to the Great Spirit.

In Joseph Bruchac's Gluskabe and the Four Wishes, Gluskabe has retired across the big water to take a rest after making the world a better place for his children. Four Abenaki men decide to undertake a difficult journey to ask Gluskabe for their hearts' desires. Impressed by their difficulties they have faced to get to him, Gluskabe gives them each a pouch but warns them not to look inside until they get home.

The first three men cannot resist a peek and are justly punished. The fourth man, who only asked to be a good hunter to provide food for his people, resists temptation, but when he returns home he finds the pouch is empty. As he is about to despair, however, he hears the voices of the animals, who speak to him of the proper ways to prepare for the hunt and how to show respect for the animals.

''From that day on he was the best hunter among the people. He never took more game than was needed, yet he always provided enough to feed his people.''

Perhaps this is one of the ''Glooskabe'' stories Attean told to Matt as the two boys survived the long winter in Speare's Sign of the Beaver.

San Souci's Soot face is an Ojibwa story that is very similar to many other Native American versions of this tale. In this variant, Soot face, the youngest sister, is only dirty with the soot from the fire rather than physically scarred. When she goes to meet the invisible warrior, she dresses in a gown of birch bark and wears a crown of wildflowers on her head.

Rafe Martin's poignant ‘’The Boy who Lived with Seals,’’ is based on a Chinook legend and tells of a boy who is torn between the world of the People and the undersea world of the seals. Although he does not transform physically into a seal as do the Selkies of North Atlantic legend, he eventually chooses to live in their kingdom, returning only once a year to leave a beautiful carved canoe for the humans he has left behind.

Barbara Diamond Golding has retold the Girl Who Lived with the Bears, the story of a young girl of the Raven clan in the Pacific Northwest. When she insults the bears who interfere with her berry picking, she is kidnapped by the Bear People to be a servant. With the help of Mouse Woman, she makes the Bear Chief believe she has great power, and he marries her to his nephew. Eventually she grows to love the handsome man and gives him twin sons.

Her life with the Bear People is happy until her husband dreams that her brother is searching for her and will kill him. He tells her the way in which her people must honor the Bear People when they kill them for food. Grief stricken when her husband's dream proves true, she and her two sons return home with her brother. She passes on the songs and ceremonies of the Bear People, and she teaches her own people to honor and respect all living creatures.

The character of Mouse figures prominently in Dale De Armond's The Seal Oil Lamp, another story about a child caught between two worlds. Allegua was blind and Eskimo tribal law stated that no child may live if it cannot grow up to support itself, his family sadly left him behind when they moved to the summer fish camp. The seven year old had fed a starving mouse that winter, so the Mouse Woman and her family take care of Allegua and he comes to know and love their world.

They told him about stories about the mouse world and about the owls and foxes and eagle who try to catch them, and how the mouse people outwit their enemies. They told him about Raven and the magic that lives under the earth and in the sky country. The mouse people sang their songs for him and did their dances on the back of his hand so he could feel how beautiful their dances were.

Although survival themes are constant in Indian tales, they are particularly strong in Eskimo stories.

  • European Variants in the United States

Richard Chase collected and published The Jack Tales and Grandfather Tales, which are American variations of stories brought to this country by English, Irish, and Scottish settlers in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. They are as much a part of Americana as the Brer Rabbit stories. In some respects Jack is an equivalent to Brer Rabbit. He is a trickster who over comes his opponent through quick wit and cunning, rather than through the strength that triumphs in the tall tales that originated in the United States of America.

All of these variants come from the mountain folk of the southern Appalachians. Cut off from the mainstream of immigration and changing customs, these people preserved their stories and songs in the same way that they continue to weave the Tudor rose into their fabrics.

The Jack Tales is a cycle of stories in which Jack is always the central figure. You would expect to find him playing this role in ''Jack in the Giant's new ground,'' and ''Jack and the Bean Tree.'' However, he shows up again in ''Jack and the Robbers,'' which is a variant of ''The Bremen Town Musicians.''

The delightful aspect of these tales is Jack's nonchalance about his exploits and the incongruous mixing of the mountaineer dialect with unicorns, kings, and swords.

In Moss Gown, William H. Hooks retells an old story from North Carolina that melds elements of ''Cinderella'' with motifs from King Lear. Rejected by her father and banished from home by her two sisters,

Candace meets a gris-gris woman who gives her a shimmering gown that will change back into Spanish moss when the morning star sets. Candace finds work in the kitchen of a plantation where the Young Master is about to give a series of balls. Calling on the gris-gris woman for help, Candace goes to each of the three balls and falls in love with the Young Master.

When Candace finally reveals herself, the Young Master has come to know her through conversations and, it is implied, to love her for more than her beauty. Although the moss grown has magic to help her, Candace is more similar to spirit to Princess Fur ball and The Rouge-Face Girl than to the Disney and Perrault Cinderellas, for it is her own intelligence and spirit that wins her a husband, a home, and her father's love once again.

Relationships with native Americans fulfill their timeout with folktales.

Read all about folktales on this link:

Folktales of Native American

Folktales improves the imagination of individuals

Do you find Folktales an interesting part of a child's life or of an adult life?

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© 2013 Devika Primić


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    • DDE profile image

      Devika Primić 4 years ago from Dubrovnik, Croatia

      Mel Carriere thank you very much for commenting on my hub so glad you came by.

    • Mel Carriere profile image

      Mel Carriere 4 years ago from San Diego California

      As you have demonstrated, folk tales are essential in all cultures and they share universal themes, as Joseph Campbell describes so eloquently in his books. Great hub!

    • DDE profile image

      Devika Primić 4 years ago from Dubrovnik, Croatia

      FlourishAnyway most interesting about folktales my idea wa to publish on kindle thanks for the kind comment

    • FlourishAnyway profile image

      FlourishAnyway 4 years ago from USA

      Very interesting hub. I haven't heard of most of these and appreciate your presenting them here. I particularly like Native American folktales' integration of nature.

    • DDE profile image

      Devika Primić 4 years ago from Dubrovnik, Croatia

      Jackie Lynnley thanks very much for commenting I enjoy reading comments and knowing what my readers like as well.

    • Jackie Lynnley profile image

      Jackie Lynnley 4 years ago from The Beautiful South

      I really enjoyed this, folktales of any kind are so interesting. Thank you for sharing.

    • DDE profile image

      Devika Primić 4 years ago from Dubrovnik, Croatia

      CraftytotheCore thanks very much for sharing your opinion have nice weekend

    • DDE profile image

      Devika Primić 4 years ago from Dubrovnik, Croatia

      Thanks for commenting

    • CraftytotheCore profile image

      CraftytotheCore 4 years ago

      Another delightful reading Hub. These are very interesting to me and so engaging! Thank you for sharing your knowledge.

    • Vinaya Ghimire profile image

      Vinaya Ghimire 4 years ago from Nepal

      You have developed a good series on folktales. Thank you very much for this delightful reading.