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Native American vs. Biblical Creation Stories
Controversy with Creation Stories
By definition a creation story is a supernatural story or explanation that describes the beginnings of humanity, earth, life, and the universe; but according to a theological definition it's God's act of bringing the universe into existence. Creation stories are important to a culture; they "tell people who they are by telling them where they come from" (Cusick 17). Creation stories give their readers a sense of faith and how the world came to be, not to mention something to rely on and a basis of their religious opinions. No creation story is less important than the next, yet almost every religion and culture battle over who is right and who is wrong. A good example of this was between the white settlers and the Native Americans. The European settlers were fleeing to America in order to escape religious persecution; however, they bestowed that same hatred and religious constraints on the Natives they came into contact with. It's my opinion that the white settlers couldn't fathom the idea that others believed something so different , so instead of allowing them religious freedom they persecuted the Natives for their wicked ways and labeled their religious beliefs as pagan beliefs. Even though the Native Americans' stories of creation weren't based on literal facts, they still express ideas that their people believed to be true in a symbolic way. So by demeaning their stories to myths suggests that they were absurd accounts of fictional stories based on false tales. The definition of a myth is a legendary narrative explaining a belief of phenomenon, but to the tribes who believed in these stories or myths, they were real not fictional. The Iroquois creation story brings up conflicting ideas and clashes with the settlers' story of creation in Genesis.
The Iroquois creation story first started out as an oral tradition, being told in a native tongue and was mainly told to teach others about morality. Since it was an oral tradition there are many different interpretations of the story only because it was never really written down. In the Iroquois nation, the legend of sky woman is just as important as other stories of creation; but because their story is said to be a legend or myth, the white settlers called it a fable. According to Arijan Groenevela, "legends and myths are neither purely imaginary nor are they scripture. They are people's collective memory of ancient truth" (15). Groenevela is basically pointing out that the Iroquois legend is based on some truth just as every story of creation.
The main difference between the Biblical story and the Iroquois story is in the creator that started the whole creation process. In the Iroquois story the creator is described as a woman and in Genesis the creator is described as a man. Among the Iroquois people women are the center "source of life and sustenance, and mother to the men who shaped the physical world" (Snow 5). The Iroquois give credit to a woman for creating the world because women are the givers of life, they sustain man's existence. Almost every Native American tribe views the earth as a woman because a woman produces life, so it's not out of the ordinary to see them viewing the creator as a woman as well. This poses a problem among the European settlers because according to the Bible life was created by God, a man not a woman; which is absurd since women are the ones who give life and birth. It's safe to say we know God is a man because in the Bible God is always referred to as 'he' or 'him', plus if God was a woman I think it would be safe to say that Adam would have been created from Eve and not the other way around. Since the idea of the creator being a woman clashes with the Bible's creator the settlers would of refused to believe this fable as truth, because during this time a woman wasn't seen as being strong enough to create the creators.
In the beginning of both stories there were two worlds, the sky world and the lower world; which was covered in water and darkness. Now in the Iroquois legend the sky world was already created and the sky people, along with the Great Spirit, all lived there. Then in the lower world there lived monsters. The idea that monsters lived on what is called earth probably wouldn't have set well with the settlers because their concept of evil was Satan and to have him on earth wouldn't of been an idea they would of accepted easily. While they had a clear idea of good and evil (heaven and hell), I find it hard to believe the settlers would of accepted the idea that evil inhabits the earth as well. The settlers would of probably viewed the Native Americans religious practices as evils or some sort of witchcraft because it was new and something that challenged their beliefs. According to Dean Snow, "the coexistence of good and evil pervades the Iroquois cosmos, and the notion curiously fits the modern world better than modern mainstream American notions of evil" (4). Even in the society of a modern world Americans have issues with religion and depicting evil; so the early European settlers would of been shell shocked at what they witnessed from the Natives. Snow also points out that many Euro-Americans today still struggle "with the paradox of belief in an all-powerful God and daily evidence for the existence of evil" (4). Snow is basically saying that the Euro-Americans have issues when identifying and defining evil, so it's not far fetched to say that the early European settlers would have had the same issues.
As the legend of sky woman continues more controversial ideas were brought to the table. The creation of earth began on the back of a turtle once sky woman fell. Now to the Iroquois the "earth of their cosmology lies on the back of a great turtle, and the turtle itself holds the secret to the annual passage of the new moons" (Snow 5). The Iroquois based the passing of the moons and dividing times on the turtle's back, in contrast the European settlers used scientific methods. Another controversial idea resided around the woman who conceives in the legend. According to Cusick "the woman who conceives is the second generation of sky women to become pregnant without sexual activity" (18). "Sky woman gave birth to the men who would create most of the plants, animals, and inanimate things that, for better or worse, constitute the world. From her body came some of the most important of these" (Snow 5). This idea would have been shocking to the European settlers since the mother of Jesus was said to be a virgin as well. So both the Bible and the Creation story have their own version of 'Mary', which would make any strong willed believer of their faith question the similarities. The European settlers would have issues coping with the idea of sky woman being a virgin, because that would mean they aren't 'savage' and have their own ideas of faith and creation that aren't far off from the settlers ideas.
Another aspect of the Iroquois story that would have caused conflict with the settlers was how the 'Good Mind' and 'Evil Mind' created objects on the earth. First, the settlers never would have accepted that there were two creators; nor that one of them was evil. The 'Good Mind' created light for the sun by using his dead parents' head and another body part for the moon. This artistic description of creating light might have caused conflict because it can be seen as morbid. Using body parts as orbs to create light is grotesque and primitive to some. The European settlers wouldn't have accepted this kind of interpretation because it's a more 'savage' point of view.
In the Genesis version God creates everything, and with little descriptive flare. So it may have been difficult for European settlers to accept this creation story because it was more like a fairy-tale that a story of creation. The descriptions were outrageous and gave life to objects that the settlers wouldn't have read about in Genesis. For example, when the 'Good Mind' gives thunder a task it actually helps to create life: "he appointed thunder to water the earth by frequent rains, agreeable of the nature of the system; after this the Island became fruitful and vegetation afforded the animals subsistence" (Cusick 20). In the Genesis description of the growing of plants and watering of the land God creates all. He takes credit for what nature has done and that's not how the Native Americans thought this creation took place. They never took credit for natural acts of nature, and once again the settlers didn't agree with this idea. In many of the stories of American Literature the early European settlers thanked God for every aspect of their world. In the story of Mary Rowlandson she claimed that because she had good fortune it was God's doing, or that because the savages won battles that was God as well. Every thought or action from anyone was because it was God's will. The European settlers didn't take it upon themselves to take credit for their own actions, only the Native Americans gave credit where credit was due.
Another aspect if the Iroquois story that isn't in Genesis is the challenge the brothers partake in. The two brothers competed in a challenge of who would have control over the earth and of course good prevailed over evil. The 'Evil Mind' was defeated and crushed into the earth down into the "eternal doom" (Cusick 21). Upon his demise the 'Evil Mind' stated that he would have "equal control over the souls of mankind after death" and he became the "Evil Spirit" (21). Cusick points out that "this may reflect an awareness of the Christian belief in the devil as the evil spirit, ruler over the lower depths" (21). This shows that the Iroquois had a concept of the devil and his duty. This also explains the creation of the devil, which conflicts with the Bible's version, in that the devil, Lucifer, was an angel that had fallen from grace. According to the Bible Lucifer was an angel of God who was cast out of heaven shortly before Adam and Eve were created. Lucifer was the reason original sin came into play since he was the one who tempted Eve and she tricked Adam.
In conclusion truths and myths are complicated literature's. It's true that every story has some truth to it, but in order to make it exciting and grabbing story tellers add false ideas to lighten their stories up, which can in turn be considered myths. The battle over the right religion will rage on until many of us are long gone, and people will continue to judge and persecute others for believing in something that doesn't go along with their religion. There are many religious beliefs out there that don't have written accounts of their stories, but that doesn't make them any less important. The world will never truly know how the Iroquois Creation Story was originally told since the "nonliterate societies of the eastern woodlands prior to the 16th century have left us with no written records and with oral traditions that evolved to serve purposes other than recording factual history" (Snow 5). The story was told with the purpose to guide the listeners and teach them of ancient times. It wasn't expressed to relay accounts of creation based on truth and tale. Legends and myths in creation stories may be embellished and expressed in a storyteller form, "buy they are nevertheless founded on truth" (Groeneveld 15). The ideas within the Iroquois story and the one in Genesis are based on similar truths that have proven to be controversial. Both assert that there is a sky world (heaven), which is pleasant and occupied by spiritual beings that are special, but not divine. They also both express that the world was covered in darkness and water and that "the creator created through the son" (15). Both stories are simply conveying ideas of creation with the same basis. Neither are accurate accounts, but both are true according to the people who believe. The Iroquois Creation Story and the Story of Creation in Genesis clash, but share similar ideas of faith.
Earlier I discussed how the early European settlers wouldn't have accepted that there was an 'Evil Mind' who created things, but in the Iroquois story there was. The 'Evil Mind' created dangers like steep mountains and giant waterfalls. He even created reptiles that were dangerous to humans. From the Iroquois perspective this would explain why the serpent convinced Eve to eat from the Garden of Eden. He was created out of evil and intended to harm the humans and taint them with his evil ways. The European settlers would have ignored this argument as well, because it illustrates that the Iroquois story isn't that far off from stories in the Bible.
The other object the 'Evil Mind' tried to create were humans. He made them from clay in the form of man; but while constructing them they became apes. The 'Good Mind' helped his brother by giving the apes life, "it is said these had the most knowledge of good and evil" (Cusick 20). The reason apes had such knowledge of good and evil was because they weren't purely made by one or the other but by both. According to some European settlers beliefs everyone was born evil, or with original sin, until they were baptized. This idea goes back to Eve in how it was said that she tricked Adam into eating the apple, thus original sin. So it is safe to say that the settlers may also believe that all women are 'evil' in a sense thus rejecting the Iroquois idea of a woman creator. Now the Native Americans believed that people were created out of goodness and evil invaded the earth only to sway humans down a darker path. The Native Americans idea of human nature was free will, whereas the settlers believed that sin is sin and if you sin you are going to hell. When we read stories such as the Scarlet Letter it's safe to say that these settlers shamed those who had sinned and punished them in ways that made their sin public knowledge.
Cusick, David. "The Iroquois Creation Story". The North Anthology of American Literature. New York: Norton & Company. 2007: 17-21.
Groenevela, Arijan. "The Sky Woman". Indian Life. 19.5 March 1, 1999: 15.
Snow, Dean. The Iroquois. Cambridge: Blackwell. 1994.