Indian Migration Legends

There are events in the history of a people, which are remembered with difficulty or displeasure and therefore soon drop from the memory of men. But there are other incidents which pass from father to son through many generations, and the remembrance of them, though altered in many particulars and variously recounted, seems to be undying. Events of this kind are migrations, long warfare or decisive battles, which resulted either in defeat or victory, alliances with cognate or friendly tribes, times of abundance, of famines and epidemics. To be of easy remembrance, there must be something connected with these events which forcibly strikes the imagination and in later times stands out as the principal fact, while minor features of its occurrence disappear or become subject to alterations in the progress of time.

This also shows the process, how historic legends and traditions are forming among uncultured nations, which are possessed of imperfect means only for the transmission of ideas to posterity. Whenever this traditionary lore is written down by a civilized people, then the gathering of these tales, half mythic and half historic, forms a commencement of historiography, and by later generations is regarded as valued material for clearing up the dawn of history.

The historic legends of the different nations vary exceedingly in their contents, at least as much as do the nations themselves. There are some that speak of the chiefs only and not of the people, or fill the tales with mythic heroes and impossible events, while the more sober and intelligent restrict the miraculous element to narrow limits, though never excluding it entirely. There are peoples and individuals who will not give credence to a legend which does not contain miracles. Many of the North American tribes, especially on the Pacific coast, have no knowledge of early events in their tribe, because a severe law prohibits them from calling their dead relatives by their names. This superstition alone suffices to destroy the historic sense in the population, but does not seem to have operated among the Aztecs, Mayas and Quichhuas to any noticeable degree.

All nations of the globe have migrated from earlier into more recent seats, but with many of them these migrations took place in epochs so far distant that they have lost all recollections of them. These latter we call autochthonic; the Kalapuya of Willámet Valley, Oregon, and the Washo around Carson, Nevada, who claim to have originated from bulrushes in the vicinity, belong to these. All tribes of the Maskoki stock possess migration legends, and so do the Dakota and Iroquois. Their migration legends are inter mingled with myths and mythic ideas; nevertheless, they prove that the migrations took place in comparatively recent times, and that these accounts are not pure astronomical or other fictions.

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A full knowledge of Maskoki mythology would certainly help us in the understanding of their migration tales, but this subject has not been investigated as yet. Their principal mythic power is the Master of Life ” or Holder of Breath, in Creek Isákita immíssi, a divine being, which is as thoroughly North American as Jahve, an ancient sun- and thunder-god, is of Semitic, and Dyaus, Zeus, Jupiter, the Sky-god, is of Aryan origin. The proper sense of the Creek name is “the one who carries, takes the life or breath for them;” it is the embodiment of the idea that a great, powerful spirit gives life, or what is synonymous with it, breath to them (to persons, animals), and takes it off from them at will (isákita life, breath; im- pron. poss. 3d person, ísäs I take, when the object stands in the singular) ísi, íssi taker, holder. The Master of Life, also called Suta-läíkati, “resident in the sky,” is not a pure abstraction, but has to be brought into connection with the sun-worship of all Americans, which again became associated with the cult of the fire-flame. The idea that the Creeks knew anything of the devil of the Christian religion is a pure invention of the missionaries; being Christianized, they call him now: ísti fútchigō “the man acting perversely,” tasoχlä’ya, or: isti niklé-idsha atsû’li “the old person-burner (áni niklé-idshäs I burn somebody, some thing}; the Yuchi call him “the swinging man,” just as they call a ghost “a hunting man.” The Shetimasha name for the devil is néka, which properly means conjurer, sorcerer and witchcraft.

In the eyes of the missionaries and Christian settlers, the paramount importance and abstract character of the Master of Breath made him appear as the centre of an almost mono theistic religion but on closer investigation it will be found that the Creeks believed in many genii and mythic animals besides, two of which were the isti-papa and the snake, which furnished the snake horn as a war-talisman. It would be singular indeed, if the Creeks were the only Indians of America who believed solely in the Great Spirit and not also in a number of lesser conceptions of imagination, as dwarfs, giants, ogres, fairies, hobgoblins and earth-spirits.

The myths referring to the origin of nations often stand in close connection with myths accounting for the ages of the world or successive creations, with migration legends, and with culture-myths, explaining the origin of certain institutions, manufactures and arts.

Many of these myths are etymological, as that of the Greeks, stating that they originated from stones thrown by Deucalion behind himself (λάας stone, and labs people); that of Adam, being created from earth; adam, in Hebrew, signifies person and mankind, adorn, adum, fern, adáumáh red, ruddy, bay-colored, adamáh earth, ground, land, from its red dish color, admoni red-haired.

Although the origin from the earth is certainly the most natural that could suggest itself to primitive man, there are a number of nations claiming provenience from the sky (the Tukabatchi were let down from the sky in a gourd or calabash): from the sun (Yuchi), from the moon, from the sea, from the ashes of fire (Shawano), from eggs (Quichhua) or certain plants.

The Aht, on the western coast of Vancouver Island, allege that animals were first produced at Cape Flattery, Washington Territory, and from the union of some of these with a star, which fell from heaven, came the first men, and from them sprang all the race of Nitin-aht, Klayok-aht and Makah or Klass-aht Indians. 1

Wherever a mythic origin from an animal, especially from a wild beast, is claimed for man, it is usually done to explain the totem of the gens to which the originators of the tale belong.

Among the nations tracing their mythic origin to the earth, or what amounts to the same thing, to caves, deep holes, hills or mountains, are the Porno of Northern California, who believe that their ancestors, the coyote-men, were created directly from a knoll of red earth, 2 still visible in their country; the Nahua, whose seven tribes issued from Chicomoztoc or the “Seven Caves.”

A tribe of the Yókat group, the Tinluí in Southern California, claims that their forefathers issued from badger-burrows and they derive their tribal name from these holes, which are extremely frequent through their country. 3

Six families representing the Six Nations of the Iroquois are called out to the upper world from a cave on the Oswego River by the “Holder of the Heavens,” Tarenyawagon. 4

Traditions on early migrations, which have originated in the people to which they refer and bear the imprint of genuineness, not that of a late fabrication by conjurers or mixed-bloods, usually contain indications of importance which are confirmed by archaeologic and linguistic researches. The tradition of the Hebrews, which tells of their immigration into Palestine from the countries of the north across the Euphrates, is substantiated by their tribal name ibri “one who has crossed.” The Hellenic, especially Doric tradition of an immigration from Thrace and Macedonia through Epirus and Thessalia into Greece is confirmed by linguistic and historic facts, but the Roman legend concerning the descent of the founders of the “Eternal City ” from Troy was acknowledged to be a pious fraud by the ancients them selves.

The Indians of the upper and middle part of the peninsula of California claim descent from the Yuma population north of them; the Tinné-Apache of New Mexico and the Gila River, Arizona, also point to an ancient home in the far north, and both traditions are confirmed by the affinities of their dialects. In many instances, though by no means in all, the migrations are seen to follow the direction of the longitudinal axis of the continent. In North America another line of migration is observed besides, that from west to east; nevertheless, the Yuchi and some Dakota and Iroquois tribes have moved in a direction exactly opposite.

It is erroneous to believe that a people had but one migration legend, because only one has come to our knowledge. 5 This would be a thorough misapprehension of the various agencies which are at work in producing folk-lore. Every tribe of a people or nation has its own migration myth or legend, which in some points coincides, in others conflicts with those of the neighboring septs. Conflicting traditions will be noticed below, not only among -the Maskoki nations at large, but also within the narrower limits of the Creek towns or tribes.

To the reproduction and critical examination of the different Creek migration legends transmitted to us we premise a short chapter on the mythic and legendary tales referring to the migrations of the other Maskoki nations.

The account of the Cha’hta migration, as given in the Missionary Herald, of Boston, Vol. XXIV (1828), p. 215, was referred to in a short extract on this site, under Cha’hta.

The narrative of the interpreter, who seems to have been somewhat imbued with the spirit of rationalism, continues as follows:

“When they emigrated from a distant country in the west, the Creeks were in front, the Cha’hta in the rear. They travelled to a “good country” in the east; this was the inducement to go. On the way, they stopped to plant corn. Their great leader and prophet 6 directed all their movements, carried the hobuna or sacred bag (containing medicines ) and a long white pole as the badge of his authority. When he planted the white pole, it was a signal for their encampment. He was always careful to set this pole perpendicularly and to suspend upon it the sacred bag. None were allowed to come near it and no one but himself might touch it. When the pole inclined towards the east, this was the signal for them to proceed on their journey; it steadily inclined east until they reached Nánni Wáya. There they settled.”

This story does not mention any crossing by the Cha’hta of the turbid waters of the mighty Mississippi, but accounts quite satisfactorily for the mysterious inclination of the pole, for the prophet must have been careful to suspend the satchel with the war-physic always on the eastern side, so as to have the pole brought down in that direction by the weight of the pouch. The tale contains a similar motive as that of the foundation of the citadel at Thebes by Kadmus, who was ordered by an oracle to follow a wandering heifer until it would settle in the grass, and then to found a city on the spot.

Follows the account of the Chicasa migration, as told by their old men to the United States agent stationed among them, and printed in Schoolcraft, Indians, I, 309 sq:

“By tradition they say they came from the West; a part of their tribe remained in the West. When about to start east ward they were provided with a large dog as a guard and a pole as guide j the dog would give them notice whenever an enemy was near at hand, and thus enable them to make their arrangements to receive them. The pole they would plant in the ground every night, and the next morning they would look at it, and go in the direction it leaned. They continued their journey in this way until they crossed the great Mississippi River, and on the waters of the Alabama River arrived in the country about where Huntsville, Alabama, now is. There the pole was unsettled for several days, but finally it settled and pointed in a southwest direction. They then started on that course, planting the pole every night, until they arrived at what is called the Chickasaw Old Fields, 7 where the pole stood perfectly erect. All then came to the conclusion that that was the Promised Land, and there they accordingly remained until they emigrated west of the State of Arkansas, in the years 1837 and 1838.”

“While the pole was in an unsettled condition, a part of their tribe moved on east, and got with the Creek Indians, but so soon as the majority of the tribe settled at the Old Fields, they sent for the party that had gone east, who answered that they were very tired, and would rest where they were awhile. This clan was called Cush-eh-tah. They have never joined the parent tribe, but they always remained as friends until they had intercourse with the whites; then they became a separate nation.”

“The great dog was lost in the Mississippi, and they always believed that the dog had got into a large sink-hole and there remained; the Chickasaws said they could hear the dog howl just before the evening came. Whenever any of their warriors get scalps, they give them to the boys to go and throw them into the sink where the dog was. After throwing the scalps, the boys would run off in great fright, and if one should fall in running, the Chickasaws were certain he would be killed or taken prisoner by their enemies. Some of the half-breeds, and nearly all of the full-bloods now believe it.”

“In traveling from the West to the Promised Land in the East, they have no recollection of crossing any large water course except the Mississippi river; they had to fight their way through enemies on all sides, but cannot now remember the names of them. When they left the West, they were informed that they might look for whites and that they would come from the East; that they should be on their guard to avoid them, lest they should bring all manner of vice among them.”

The end of this relation looks rather suspicious for its antiquity, or may be a later addition. The throwing of the scalps into the sink has to be considered as a sort of sacrifice, although it is difficult to say which power of nature the dog represented. The howling of the dog before evening and the direction of the pole seem to indicate the state of the weather and the moisture of the ground, which could give origin to fevers. That the passage: “the dog was lost in the Mississippi,” should read: “the dog was lost in the State of Mississippi, is plainly shown by the sentences following the statement.

The migration legends now current among the Alibamu and the Hitchiti are but short in form and have been referred to under the respective headings.


History, Migration,

Gatschet, Albert S. A Migration Legend of the Creek Indians. Pub. D.G. Brinton, Philadelphia, 1884.

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