LITR 4326 Early American Literature

lecture notes

Origin / Creation Stories from Europe, America, Africa (2nd meeting)

Origin stories for the USA / North America

Do we teach students the answers, or do we teach them how to think?


The Renaissance (1400s-1600+)

Origin Stories



Three presentations

review assignments for each

Readings: Genesis (Creation Story from Bible) & Columbus's Letters (re discovery of America)

American Indian Origin Stories

Reading Discussion Leader(s):  instructor


4. What resemblances b/w Columbus & Genesis? With Handsome Lake? If they resemble or reflect each other, what are possible reasons? (Intertextuality)

4a. More directly, how much does Columbus appear to have rediscovered or re-entered the Garden of Eden from Genesis?

5. What assumptions does Columbus make about American Indians, their land and resources relative to the Europeans, their empires, and desires? How do Columbus's attitudes still reflect those of America's dominant culture toward Native American Indians?


Start with Genesis and Columbus

Genesis 1 without form and void; cf. knowledge of America before Columbus

Gen 1.31 God saw everything that he had made, and, behold, it was very good.

+ Columbus 1.3 America as unspoiled, God's country

Gen. 2.15 And the Lord God took the man, and put him into the garden of Eden to dress it and to keep it.  16 And the Lord God commanded the man, saying, Of every tree of the garden thou mayest freely eat; 17 but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it; for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die.

2.12 human beings = caretakers but keep forgetting; web of life

2.18 naming

Gen 2.25 And they were both naked, the man and his wife, and were not ashamed.

Columbus 1.5 so unsuspicious and so generous with what they possess, that no one who had not seen it would believe it. They never refuse anything that is asked for. They even offer it themselves, and show so much love that they would give their very hearts. Whether it be anything of great or small value, with any trifle of whatever kind, they are satisfied.

Columbus 1.1 I found no towns nor villages on the sea-coast, except a few small settlements . . . sent two men to find out whether there was any king or large city. They explored for three days, and found countless small communities and people, without number, but with no kind of government, so they returned.

3.17 cursed is the ground for thy sake; in sorrow shalt thou eat of it all the days of thy life;

Gen 3.23 therefore the Lord God sent him forth from the garden of Eden, to till the ground from whence he was taken.  24 So he drove out the man

Columbus notes

1.5 to induce them to become Christians, and to love and serve their Highnesses and the whole Castilian [Spanish] nation, and help to get for us things they have in abundance, which are necessary to us. [absorption of Indians to two Western world-plans: conversion, + economic development / extraction]

1.11 cannibalism; cf. human sacrifice; also 2.7

2.3 Indians trick Columbus

2.7 civilization: crafts, forges, clothing

2.9 Columbus's ultimate motives

2.10 never think without weeping

2.13 may the earth weep for me

Poem: Simon J. Ortiz, "A New Story"; Poetry Reader:  



Native American Music

limited knowledge, but exposure counts

Mayan music + Mayan drums: percussion has pitch; percussion / rhythm and melody blend

Musica: visual performance

Sioux Song Peyote + Jesus

Sioux drum songs--cf. raves?






Presentation on Amerind Origin Stories

Objective 6. Can American history tell a single story? Trans-historical unity?


Question: Intertextuality: How do the different creation / origin stories coincide or differ with each other?

When they coincide, how do you rationalize or account for resemblance?




  • 1 God or 1 human nature, with common core principles but cultural variations; eternal truths variously if incompletely expressed

  • verbal or textual influence; the resemblances come from contact with each other; truth always in development


1.3 Skywoman leaves Skyworld as Eve & Adam leave Eden

1.7 twin sons

1.10 bad mind resembles Satan underground

2.2 the Tree of Life

Gen. 2.15 And the Lord God took the man, and put him into the garden of Eden to dress it and to keep it.  16 And the Lord God commanded the man, saying, Of every tree of the garden thou mayest freely eat; 17 but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it; for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die.

2.12 human beings = caretakers but keep forgetting; web of life

3.2 Great Spirit [cf. "How" 2: Great Ruler]

"How the White Man . . . " definitely post-contact, intertextual

A.7 cf. Iroquois Confederacy & tower of Babel

A.12 syncretism



1.8 three sisters: squash, beans, corn [feminization of nature]

2.11 Grandmother Moon + cycles for birth = not as fallen or exiled from nature


2.3 spoken improvisation: account for hole in Skyworld + 2.6 improv on Tree of Life

[2.10] The twin boys grew up and went about the task of creating everything that is found in the natural world. [opportunities for other origin stories]



Compare-contrast Indian Origin Stories to Genesis


divisions or borders b/w world: night / day, sky / chaos or earth, higher / lower

chaos or void (Gen. 1); "chaos" in Indian stories

twins? good and bad spirits?

oral-spoken origins of stories: 7 days of Genesis reflects mnemonic of holy number 7

+ two different human-creation stories in Genesis: 1.26 & 2.4

Genesis 3 Serpent = bad twin?

sky-woman's fall = Adam's fall?




Genesis 1.28 have dominion

but 2.15 dress it and keep it > stewardship


Genesis 3.24 humanity exiled

4.12 a fugitive and a vagabond . . .


What significance to these similarities and differences?






Iroquois Origin Stories (all earth-diver)

1.1 Skyworld, Celestial Tree (+ earthly correspondent)

1.2 Skywoman, baby, dream, tree uprooted

1.3 fall, seeds

1.4 birds and animals help

1.5 [earth-diver], tiny muskrat = she

1.6 life on earth had begun

1.7 birth to a daughter > twin sons: Bad Mind (Flint) and Good Mind; cf. Genesis 3.12, where Adam blames Eve?

1.8 daughter's head > Grandmother Moon; body > three sisters (corn, beans, squash)

1.9 Good Mind makes beauty, Bad Mind envious

1.10 Bad Mind banished to caves beneath earth


2.1 Skyworld, beings +- human beings, power to make things happen by thinking

2.2 Tree of Life

2.3 not to disturb tree; woman pregnant asks for drink from roots; Mature Flower; tree falls, woman falls

2.4 water birds catch her

2.5 Turtle Island

2.6 needed dirt [earth-diver]; seeds, land and plant-life

2.7 daughter walks west, male-being West Wind, 2 crossed arrows > twin boys

2.9 right-handed and left-handed twin; body of mother > corn, beans, squash

2.11 Sky Woman's head > Grandmother Moon, regulates monthly cycles of all female life

2.12 human beings = caretakers but keep forgetting; web of life


3.1 recorded by John Norton 1816; Scottish & Cherokee parents, adopted by Mohawk

3.2 country above the sky, Superior Beings; Great Spirit, daughter, pregnant; Great Spirit orders earth-diver

3.3 spirits in human form, two arrows

3.4 twins argue, one kills mother

3.5 Holder of Heaven & Flinty Rock

3.6 Father as Protector; gives corn; IDs as Great Turtle

3.8 wicked brother imprisons animals in cave

3.9 liberates animals

Good twin as clever, cunning, learns stronger twin's secrets or weaknesses

13.16 kills brother > many languages


Jicarilla Genesis

[1] In the beginning the earth was covered with water, and all living things were below in the underworld. Then people could talk, the animals could talk, the trees could talk, and the rocks could talk.

2 dark in the underworld; game for light or darkness

3 the people won. The morning star came out and the Black-bear ran and hid in the darkness.

5 horns make ladder > curved horns

10 earth now all dry [cf. Noah]

10 each tribe stopped where it would.

11 Taos = middle of Earth

12 left a girl behind, two sons

14 rock that runs

15 boys + twelve men > under water in house of turquoise


The Beginning of Newness Zuni (New Mexico)

resemblance to evolution (or cultural evolution)

1 nothing else except black darkness

2 all-Father > sun >

3 Four-fold-containing Earth-mother and the All-covering Sky-father, power of changing forms

4 as man and woman spoke these two together

4 terraced bowl, home of my tiny children

5-6 water cycle?

8 father shining yellow corn-grains cf. sparks of fire

10 first children still in cave, unfinished; many sought to escape, becoming wiser

11 two sons, elder and younger, right and left, twin brothers of light; magic knives open caves of light, lived with them, guide them out

12 grasses and vines > ladder

14 second cave, again went upward, 6 kinds of men

15 third great cave like valley in starlight

15 men began to perceive and to learn variously, according to their natures

16  the Two led them forth again into the great upper world, which is the World of Knowing Seeing.




related by So-Son-Dowa

1 where swarmed many people

1 preacher of queen's religion

2 volumes hidden in chest

2 no right to read the book

2 a great man who had been a prophet and the son of the Great Ruler. He had been born on the earth and the white men to whom he preached killed him. Now moreover the prophet had promised to return and become the King. In three days he was to come and then in forty to start his kingdom. This did not happen as his followers had expected

3 chief preacher: seek him out

4 [dream?] morning, river, island, castle of gold

5 handsome smiling young man; across ocean another country, virtuous people

5 Those people are virtuous, they have no unnatural evil habits and they are honest. A great reward is yours if you will help me. Here are five things that men and women enjoy; take them to these people and make them as white men are. Then shall you be rich and powerful and you may become the chief of all great preachers here."

6 bundle containing the five things and made the bargain

6 castle and island vanish

7 a flask of rum, a pack of playing cards, a handful of coins, a violin and a decayed leg bone.

8 a man named Columbus and to him he confided the story. Then did Columbus secure some big canoes and raise up wings [sails]

9 the evil one

10 he said, "I think I have made an enormous mistake for I did not dream that these people would suffer so." Then did even the devil himself lament that his evil had been so great.






Great Binding Law

1 plant the Tree of Great Peace

2 predominance of natural figures, absence of abstraction

3 all the affairs of the Five Nations shall be transacted at this place

4 roots

5 "Lords" = problems of translation?

5 take shelter

6 Eagle

7 Onondaga as keepers of Council Fire

10 smoke signals?

12 shell (wampum) strings to female families; proprietary right

13 shell strings (or wampum belts) of any size or length as pledges or records of matters of national or international importance.

14 messenger must hear and repeat

15 binding upon exchange of shell strings

17 white = women, black = men

18 Hiawatha belt

20 white = purity?







Pleasures / Aesthetics

Situation of reading extremely different from performance

3 versions of same story b/c told aloud under different circumstances to different groups

+ no or little thought of writing it down; many Amerind origin stories are fairly recent b/c never written down before

But like Genesis, existed in an oral form before written form

Cf. Genesis, 7 days, 2 stories


Pleasure of origins stories increases with acquaintance

First encounter: strange, make no sense

Later encounters: become familiar, less contrary—one’s mind adapts or adjusts to difference

Maybe Genesis is strange, but used to it; cf. Handsome Lake’s defamiliarization of Christ-story






Columbus cf. Genesis

Man newborn in New World

New World perfect as God made it: abundant nature, innocent people

Adam (and Eve?) give names to creatures, Columbus names


For most Americans, American history begins with Columbus

Even if you know it doesn’t, still difficult to think of American Indian life in same terms or patterns as Western history


Narrative: paradise / Eden > Fall

Cf. human life: childhood as innocence, protection, nearness to parent(s) > [invasion by unholy other] >  fall of adolescence, exposure, distance from parent(s)

Cf. attitudes toward America: it was perfect when “we” got here > then “they” got here > two attitudes: 1. we’ll never be the same, our best days are behind us; 2. America’s always been like this (and never was perfect anyway)




Equiano ref to Africans as Jews 1.10-14 > who are God’s chosen people?

Cf. Africa to Eden in Genesis



Dark-light as daily cycle + water cycle

cf. Genesis chaos and [1] nothing but darkness

The World of Knowing Seeing


Handsome Lake

God does not live on Earth (cf. Sky-Father?)

No unnatural vices > five things people enjoy (i.e., what’s natural becomes unnatural?) Capitalism magnifies and multiplies wants and needs, discontent

Same narrative seen from different perspectives: Eden of pre-Columbian America > fallen to European vices

Columbus brings God on Mission for God (gold for crusade to reclaim Jerusalem) 




Not necessarily evidence that Genesis is right or the one and only master text that determines all others

But as close as one gets in Western culture




Cross-cultural exchange


Similarities but also differences


American Indians have “a fall”

Good Mind, Bad Mind

But also a woman creator (Skywoman) a step up the divinity scale from Eve


Pleasures/challenges of Amerind literature: Anglo-Americans want Indians to be perfect Americans: solitary, in nature, self-reliant, no one tells them what to do


But Indians in their own terms aren’t what we want them to be but what they want to be


Emergence tales compatible with evolution

Personification of natural forces

Cf. Hume

“the people” = “our people” of traditional society

Jicarilla Apache story: twins are both heroes






What to learn about American Indians: 1. You never stop learning

Indians not monolithic group

300 different cultures / groups

mostly grouped by languages > dialects


What to call? What name?

Compare to African Americans, blacks, negroes, colored people, etc.

Naming as essential and evolving indicator of status


"American Indians" and "Native Americans" both have problems

"Indians" based on Columbus's mistaken assumption he had reached India.

"Native Americans" can also be used in reference to any American who is born in the United States.

I use the terms interchangeably, and Indians grant some acceptance of these names as terms of convenience.

Occasional pan-Indian names: "American Aborigines" > "First Peoples"


simple but difficult answer: call by Tribe names:

but so many!

Cheyenne, Cherokee, Powhatan, Lumbee, Wampanoag, Nipmuc, Hopi, Navajo, Zuni, Apache, Comanche, Pequot, Delaware / Lenape, Chinook . . . .

Are these even the right names? Often names from enemies or mistranslations.



5 Civilized Tribes





need to overcome two contending and equally dehumanizing images from past:

early North America: Indians = terrorists

Romantic era (late 1700s, early 1800s) = noble savage (Last of the Mohicans, Dances with Wolves)

2nd is kinder, but maybe as dehumanizing as first

Both images have negative implications for dominant culture


American Indian identity elusive b/c essentially so different

"American Indian" doesn't mean one ethnic culture but many; however, some "pan-Indian" qualities . . .


spoken culture X written culture of dominant culture (compared to African American minority literature, American Indian literature is slower to emerge in print; native languages persist longer than African languages)


traditional, past-modeled culture X modern or revolutionary, future-modeled culture


identification with place, land X time, history, immigration


world or nature in perpetual creation X Biblical Creation as finished, completed, final (though evolution differs)

implications of last:
Anglos idolize or fantasize Indians who might have been long ago, but ignore Indians of today. (Houston has 4th largest urban population of census-identified American Indians, but who knew?)

Indians respect the past but don't expect to stay there.











stories only loosely comparable to western scripture

stories change with performance, retelling (cf. "telephone" game)








 (category of comparison)



time scales  6 days + day of rest (but how long are days?); 10,000 years 15-20 billion years
consequences--how at home? human time scale unimaginable
parents of humanity Adam & Eve apes
model social unit nuclear family as cooperative unit in competitive world capitalism--survival of fittest, rat race, dog eat dog world
human state / future potential creation: perfection > fall >chance of redemption > decline and apocalypse progress
appeal emotional, nurturing, reinforcement (with dose of justice for misbehaving0 logical
religion Judeo-Christianity humanism
ways of perception faith science



2. Compare, contrast Biblical Creation in Genesis (in handout) with Amerind origin-creation stories


(category of comparison)


Amerind Origin Stories

written or spoken? written spoken
consequences? form becomes fixed, though selected from, interpreted, re-done, re-interpreted form remains variable through multiple spoken performances that select, revise, re-interpret
number of creation stories 1--any sharing of authority diminishes prestige; creation taken care of once and for all (in contrast to evolution and multiple origin stories) versions multiply with spoken performance; each phenomenon may have its own story
relation of humanity with nature humans in charge, "dominion" nature as mother, other animals as brothers and sisters, or relatives at least; nature will win
theological issues? 1 God separate from nature, above nature; monotheism polytheism; many gods or spirits closely related to nature





Handsome Lake Boy Scout Badge

engraving from late 1700s

some history of Cornplanter and Handsome Lake

Handsome Lake, "How America was Discovered"

Handsome Lake was a prophet of the Seneca people; Cornplanter a chief

Seneca part of Iroquois confederation of tribes: Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Seneca, Cayuga ("The Five Nations") + Tuscarora ("The Six Nations")

Seneca were keepers of wampum belts

"the Creator"

strawberry festival


again, oral transmission until 1923


obj. 1c—using dominant culture's words against them

creation story uses Genesis elements + Columbus

means of survival, adaptation

question for American Indian Stories: where turn Genesis story around?