American Literature of the Sea and Great Lakes

AMERICAN INDIAN LITERATURE OF THE SEA AND THE GREAT LAKES. The coasts of the Northeast Atlantic and the Northwest* Pacific, as well as the shores of the Great Lakes,* sparked the imagination of the early American Indians who resided in these regions. An abundance of literature in the form of legends, myths, prayers, poems, and songs shows the significance that the sea and the Great Lakes played in their lives.

The myths and legends told by the Micmac, Passamaquoddy, and Penobscot tribes of the coastal northeast focus on the mythical demigod Glooskap, whose name, ironically, means “the Liar.” In one Passamaquoddy story, Glooskap’s antics result in the waters of the sea and the Lakes becoming stagnant. Other legends dealing with Glooskap’s escapades include turning giant sorcerers into fish (Penobscot); sailing across the sea to England and France (Passamaquoddy); and cheating a whale, as well as providing a pipe for the whales to smoke (Micmac). Not all Atlantic coastal tales feature Glooskap as the main character; the tale of the mermaid* Ne Hwas, the story of two girls who are changed into mermaids, and the myth of a flying canoe figure into the legends of the Passamaquoddy oral tradition, and there is the Penobscot myth of the First Mother, whose son is created from the water’s foam.

The literary expression of the coastal tribes of the Northwest relied heavily on allusions to the sea, particularly salmon fishing and whaling. The trickster tales of the Chinook emphasize Coyote’s blunders as he herds, catches, kills, and distributes the salmon among the people. In a prayer to a dead killer whale (Kwakiutl), a tribesman prays that he may inherit the whale’s qualities and protection. The story of a man who marries a killer-whale woman (Haida) chronicles the whale woman’s life as she leaves her husband, enters the waters of the West Coast, and turns into a reef. Another tale involving a whale pertains to the marriage of a woman to a merman (Coos). After becoming impregnated, the woman leaves her tribe and lives with her merman husband in the ocean. The woman does not forget her land-bound kinsmen, however; every summer and winter she leaves a whale on the shore as a gift to her brothers. Other stories associated with the sea include the chetco monster, whose roars from the ocean portend the weather (Chinook) and the marriage of South Wind to Ocean’s daughter (Nehalem Tillamook).

Early stories describing the Great Lakes and the treacherous canoeing experiences on the waters were related orally among the American Indians in the winter months when they believed the spirits of the Lakes were living underground. A common tale among these tribes pertains to manidog, the guardian of the Lakes. Accounts of watery disasters related to manidog pervade the tales of the Chippewa, Menomini, and Fox. Other myths include the Winnebago adventures of Wak-chung-kaka (the Foolish One), who was sent by the Earth-Maker to rid the world of evil. These stories tell of Wak-chung-kaka’s mistaking a burned tree stump for a chief pointing across the water and the village people’s mistaking Wak-chung-kaka for a water spirit after he rises out of the lake wearing an elk’s head. Other cyclical tales that significantly refer to the Great Lakes region include the Ojibwa accounts of the mythical character Winabojo and his exploits. Songs of the Chippewa likewise hold an important place in the American Indian literature of the Great Lakes; one song poignantly tells of a maiden who mistakes the sound of her departing lover’s splashing oar for the cry of a loon. Another song relates how the beating of a drum calms the waters.

The American Indian literature of the sea and the Great Lakes is both vast and rich in its description of the ever-present waters that played such a vital role in the lives of its coastal inhabitants.

FURTHER READING: Astrov, Margot. The Winged Serpent: An Anthology of American Indian Prose and Poetry. New York: John Day, 1946; Least Heat-Moon, William. River-Horse*: A Voyage across America. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1999; Leland, Charles G. The Algonquin Legends of New England. Detroit: Singing Tree, 1968; Ramsey, Jarold, ed. Coyote Was Going There: Indian Literature of the Oregon Country. Seattle: U of Washington P, 1977; Swann, Brian, ed. Coming to Light: Contemporary Translations of the Native Literatures of North America. New York: Vintage, 1996.

Melinda F. Williams

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