CTLF Corpus de textes linguistiques fondamentaux • IMPRIMER • RETOUR ÉCRAN
CTLF - Menu général - Textes

Boas, Franz. Race, Language and Culture – T45


Dissemination of Tales among the
Natives of North America 11

The study of the folk-lore of the Old World has proved the fact that
dissemination of tales was almost unlimited. They were carried
from east to west, and from south to north, from books to the folk, and
from the folk to books. Since this fact has become understood, the explanation
of tales does not seem so simple and easy a matter as it formerly
appeared to be.

We will apply this experience to the folk-lore and mythologies of
the New World, and we shall find that certain well-defined features are
common to the folk-lore of many tribes. This will lead us to the conclusion
that diffusion of tales was just as frequent and just as widespread
in America as it has been in the Old World.

But in attempting a study of the diffusion of tales in America we are
deprived of the valuable literary means which are at our disposal in
carrying on similar researches on the folk-lore of the Old World. With
few exceptions, only the present folk-lore of each tribe is known to us.
We are not acquainted with its growth and development. Therefore
the only method open to us is that of comparison. This method, however,
is beset with many difficulties. There exist certain features of tales
and myths that are well-nigh universal. The ideas underlying them
seem to suggest themselves easily to the mind of primitive man, and it
is considered probable that they originated independently in regions
widely apart. To exemplify: The tale of the man swallowed by the fish,
or by some other animal, which has been treated by Dr. E. B. Tylor 22
is so simple that we may doubt whether it is due to dissemination. The
German child tells of Tom Thumb swallowed by the cow; the Ojibwa,
of Nanabozhoo swallowed by the fish; the Negro of the Bahamas,
according to Dr. Edwards, of the rabbit swallowed by the cow; the
Hindoo, of the prince swallowed by the whale; the Bible, of the prophet
437Jonah; the Micronesian, of two men inclosed in a bamboo and sent
adrift. Are these stories of independent origin, or have they been derived
from one source? This vexed question will embarrass us in all our
studies of the folk-lore of primitive people.

Then, we may ask, is there no criterion which we may use for deciding
the question whether a tale is of independent origin, or whether its
occurrence at a certain place is due to diffusion? I believe we may
safely assume that, wherever a story which consists of the same combination
of several elements is found in two regions, we must conclude that
its occurrence in both is due to diffusion. The more complex the story
which the countries under consideration have in common, the more
this conclusion will be justified. I will give an example which will make
this clearer. Petitot 13 tells a story of the Dog-Rib Indians of Great Slave
Lake: A woman was married to a dog and bore six pups. She was
deserted by her tribe, and went out daily procuring food for her family.
When she returned she found tracks of children around her lodge, but
did not see any one besides her pups. Finally she discovered from a
hiding-place that the dogs threw off their skins as soon as she left them.
She surprised them, took away the skins, and the dogs became children,
— a number of boys and one girl. These became the ancestors of the
Dog-Rib Indians. We may analyze this story as follows: 1. A woman
mated with a dog. 2. Bears pups. 3. Deserted by her tribe. 4. Sees
tracks of children. 5. Surprises them. 6. Takes their skins. 7. They
become a number of boys and one girl. 8. They become the ancestors
of a tribe of Indians. These eight elements have been combined into a
story in the same way on Vancouver Island, where a tribe of Indians
derives its origin from dogs. The single “elements” of this tale occur
in other combinations in other tales. The elements may have arisen
independently in various places, but the sameness of their combination
proves most conclusively that the whole combination, that is, the story,
has been carried from Arctic America to Vancouver Island, or vice versa.

It is, however, necessary to apply this method judiciously, and the
logical connection of what I have called “elements” must be taken into
account. A single element may consist of a number of incidents which
are very closely connected and still form one idea. There is, for instance,
an Ainu tale of a rascal who, on account of his numerous misdeeds, was
put into a mat to be thrown into a river. He induced the carriers to go
438to look for a treasure which he claimed to possess, and meanwhile induced
an old blind man to take his place by promising him that his eyes
would be opened. Then the old man was thrown into the river, and the
rascal took possession of his property. We find this identical tale in
Andersen's fairy tales, and are also reminded of Sir John Falstaff.
While it is quite probable that these tales have a common root, still they
are so consistent in themselves that the same idea might have arisen
independently on several occasions. In cases like this we have to look
for corroborating evidence.

This may be found either in an increase of the number of analogous
tales, or in their geographical distribution. Whenever we find a tale
spread over a continuous area, we must assume that it spread over this
territory from a single center. If, besides this, we should know that it
does not occur outside the limits of this territory, our conclusion will be
considerably strengthened. This argument will be justified even should
our tale be a very simple one. Should it be complex, both our first and
second methods may be applied, and our conclusion will be the more
firmly established.

I will give an example of this kind. Around the Great Lakes we find
a deluge legend: A number of animals escaped in a canoe or on a raft,
and several of them dived to the bottom of the water in order to bring
up the land. The first attempts were in vain, but finally the muskrat
succeeded in bringing up a little mud, which was expanded by magic
and formed the earth. Petitot recorded several versions of this tale
from the Mackenzie Basin. It is known to the various branches of the
Ojibwa and to the Ottawa. Mr. Dorsey recorded it among tribes of
the Siouan stock, and kindly sent me an Iowa myth, related by the Rev.
W. Hamilton, which belongs to the same group. On the Atlantic coast
the legend has been recorded by Zeisberger, who obtained it from the
Delaware, and Mr. Mooney heard it told by the Cherokee in a slightly
varied form.

They say that in the beginning all animals were up above, and that
there was nothing below but a wide expanse of water. Finally, a small
water-beetle and the water-spider came down from above, and, diving
to the bottom of the water, brought up some mud, from which the earth
was made. The buzzard flew down while the land was still soft, and by
the flapping of its wings made the mountains. The Iroquois have a
closely related myth, according to which a woman fell down from
heaven into the boundless waters. A turtle arose from the flood, and
439she rested on its back until an animal brought up some mud, from
which the earth was formed. I have not found any version of this legend
from New England or the Atlantic Provinces of Canada, although the
incident of the turtle forming the earth occurs. We do not find any trace
of this legend in the South, but on turning to the Pacific coast we find it
recorded in three different places. The Yocut in California say that at a
time when the earth was covered with water there existed a hawk, a
crow, and a duck. The latter, after diving to the bottom and bringing
up a beakful of mud, died. Whereupon the crow and the hawk took
each one half of the mud, and set to work to make the mountains. This
tale resembles in some respects the Cherokee tale. Farther north I found
the tale of the muskrat bringing up the mud among the Molalla, the
Chinook, and the Bella Coola, while all around these places it is unknown.
As, besides, these are the places where intercourse with the interior
takes place, we must conclude that the tale has been carried to the
coast from the interior. Thus we obtain the result that the tale of the
bringing up of the earth from the bottom of the water is told all over an
enormous area, embracing the Mackenzie Basin, the watershed of the
Great Lakes, the Middle and South Atlantic coasts, and a few isolated
spots on the Pacific coast which it reached by overflowing through the
mountain passes.

We will now once more take up the legend of the woman and her
pups. I mentioned that two almost identical versions are known to exist,
one from Great Slave Lake, the other from Vancouver Island. The
legend is found in many other places. On the Pacific coast it extends
from southern Oregon to southern Alaska, but in the north and south
slight variations are found. Petitot recorded a somewhat similar tale
among the Hare Indians of Great Bear Lake, so that we find it to occupy
a continuous area from the Mackenzie to the Pacific coast, with the
exception of the interior of Alaska. Among the Eskimo of Greenland
and of Hudson Bay we find a legend which closely resembles the one
we are considering here. A woman married a dog and had ten pups.
She was deserted by her father, who killed the dog. Five of her children
she sent inland, where they became the ancestors of a fabulous tribe
half dog, half man. The other five she sent across the ocean, where they
became the ancestors of the Europeans. The Greenland version varies
slightly from the one given here, but is identical with it in all its main
features. Fragments of the same story have been recorded by Mr. James
Murdoch at Point Barrow. We may analyze this tale as follows: 1. A
440woman married a dog. 2. She had pups. 3. Was deserted by her father.
4. The pups became ancestors of a tribe. Here we have four of the
elements of our first story combined in the same way and forming a
new story. Besides this, the geographical distribution of the two tales
is such that they are told in a continuous area. From these two facts we
conclude that they must have been derived from the same source. The
legend of the half-human beings with dog legs forms an important element
in Eskimo lore, and according to Petitot is also found among the
Loucheux and Hare Indians. This increases the sweep of our story to
that part of North America lying northwest of a line drawn from southern
Oregon to Cape Farewell, the southernmost point of Greenland. It
is worth remarking that in Baffin Land the mother of the dogs is, at the
same time, the most important deity of the Eskimo. These arguments
hardly need being strengthened.

We may find, however, additional reasons for our opinion in the fact
that there are other stories common to Greenland and Oregon. One of
the most remarkable among these is the story of the man who recovered
his eyesight. The tale runs about as follows: A boy lost his eyesight, and
ever since that time his mother let him starve. His sister, who loved him
dearly, fed him whenever she was able to do so. One day a bear
attacked their hut, and the mother gave the boy his bow and arrow,
levelled it, and the boy shot the bear. His flesh served the mother and
sister for food all through the winter, while she had told the boy that
he had missed the bear and that it had made its escape. In spring a wild
goose flew over the hut and asked the boy to follow it. The bird took
the boy to a pond, dived with him several times, and thus restored his
eyesight. The boy then took revenge on his mother. I recorded this
story once on the shores of Baffin Bay, once in Rivers Inlet in British
Columbia. Rink tells the same story from Greenland. Here we have an
excellent example of a very complex story in two widely separated
regions. We cannot doubt for a moment that it is actually the same story
which is told by the Eskimo and by the Indian. Besides this story there
are quite a number of others which are common to the Eskimo and to
tribes of the North Pacific coast.

From these facts we conclude that diffusion of tales between the
Eskimo and the Indian tribes of the western half of our continent has
been quite extensive. On the other hand, notwithstanding many assertions
to the contrary, there are hardly any close relations between the
tales of the Algonquin and the Eskimo. In Leland's collection of New
441England tales, 14 for instance, I found only one or possibly two elements
that belong to Eskimo lore, — the capture of a bathing girl by taking
away her clothing, and the killing of birds which were enticed to come
into a lodge. Both of these appear, however, in combinations which
differ entirely from those in which they occur in the Eskimo tales.

There are, however, very close relations between the tales of the
Algonquin and those of the Pacific coast. I will select one of the most
striking examples. Leland, in his collection of Algonquin legends, 25 tells
of two sisters who slept in a forest, and, on seeing stars, wished them to
become their husbands. On the following morning they found themselves
in heaven, one the wife of a man with beautiful eyes, the other
the wife of a man with red twinkling eyes, — both the stars whom they
had desired for their husbands. Then they peeped down through a hole
in the ground and perceived the earth, to which they eventually returned.
This abstract may stand for another story which I collected at
Victoria, B. C. There are quite a number of other Algonquin tales
which are found also on the Pacific coast. I select some more examples
from Leland's book because the distance between the tribes he studied
and those of the Pacific coast is the greatest. He tells of the rabbit which
tried to rival in a variety of ways a number of animals. The same tales
are told of Hiawatha and Nanabozhoo; in Alaska they are told of the
raven. In a Passamaquoddy legend it is stated 36 that a witch asked a
man to free her from vermin which consisted of toads and porcupines.
When she asked the man to crush the poisonous vermin he deceived her
by crushing cranberries which he had brought along instead. I collected
the same tale in a number of places on the North Pacific coast.

This series of complex stories from the extreme east and the extreme
west of our continent leaves no doubt that each originated at one point.

The end of the story of the women who were married to stars differs
somewhat in New England and on the Pacific coast. In the east the
stars permit the women to return, while in the West they find the possibility
of return by digging roots contrary to the commands of their husbands.
In doing so they make a hole through the sky and see the earth.
They then make a rope, which they fasten to their spades and let themselves

We find the same incident in a story which Mr. A. S. Gatschet collected
among the Kiowa. In the creation legend of this tribe, it is told
that a woman was taken up to the sky. The analysis of the two legends
reveals the following series of identical incidents: 1. A woman taken
up to the sky. 2. Is forbidden to dig certain roots. 3. She disobeys her
husband, and discovers a hole through which she can see the world. 4.
She secretly makes a rope and lets herself down. In this case we may
apply our first principle, and conclude that the tale in this form must
have sprung from one center. This conclusion is strengthened by the
fact that the rest of the Kiowa legend coincides with another tale from
the Northwest coast, which is also a creation legend. The Kiowa tale
continues telling how the son of the sun fed upon his mother's body.
Then an old woman captured him by making arrows and a ball (which
is used as a target) for him and inducing him to steal them. I have
recorded this tale among the Tsimshian at the northern boundary of
British Columbia.

The comparisons which we have made show that each group of
legends has its peculiar province, and covers a certain portion of our
continent. We found a number of tales common to the North Pacific
and the Arctic coasts. Another series we found common to the territory
between the North Atlantic and Middle Pacific coasts. The Kiowa tale
and the Northwestern tale indicate a third group which seems to extend
along the Rocky Mountains. I will not lay too much stress upon the last
fact, as the province of these tales needs to be better defined. It appears
however, clearly, that tales, and connected with it, we may add, other
cultural elements, have spread from one center over the Arctic and
North Pacific coasts, while there is hardly anything in common to the
Eskimo and Algonquin. These facts strengthen our view that the
Eskimo, before descending to the Arctic coast, inhabited the Mackenzie
Basin, and were driven northward by the Athapascan. We must also
assume that a certain cultural center corresponds to our second province
of legends.

We will finally compare some American myths with such of the Old
World, but we shall confine ourselves to those to which our first principle
may be applied. I have found a series of complicated tales which
are common to both. One of the most remarkable is the story of the
cannibal witch who pursued children. Castrèn 17 has recorded the following
Samoyede fairy tale: Two sisters escaped a cannibal witch who
443pursued them. One of the girls threw a whetstone over her shoulder. It
was transformed into a canon and stopped the pursuit of the witch.
Eventually the latter crossed it, and when she almost reached the sisters,
the elder threw a flint over her shoulder, which was transformed into a
mountain and stopped her. Finally the girl threw a comb behind her,
which was transformed into a thicket. On the North Pacific coast we
find the identical story, the child throwing three objects over its shoulders, —
a whetstone which became a mountain, a bottle of oil which
became a lake, and a comb which became a thicket.

Among a series of Ainu tales published by Basil Hall Chamberlain I
find four or five 18 which have very close analoga on the North Pacific

Another very curious coincidence is found between a myth from the
Pelew Islands and several from the North Pacific coast. J. Kubary 29
tells the following: A young man had lost his fish-hook, the line having
been broken by a fish. He dived after it, and, on reaching the bottom
of the sea, reached a pond, at which he sat down. A girl came out of a
house to fetch some water for a sick woman. He was called in and cured
her, while all her friends did not know what ailed her. In British Columbia
we find the same story, an arrow being substituted for the hook, a
land animal for the fish. There are a number of other remarkable coincidences
in this tale with American tales from the Pacific coast. It is
said, for instance, that a man owned a wonderful lamp, consisting of
two mother-of-pearl shells, which he kept hidden, and which was
finally taken away by a boy, exactly as the sun was stolen by the raven
in Alaska.

It is true that comparisons ought to be restricted to two well-defined
groups of people; coincidences among the tales of one people and a
great variety of others have little value. Still, diffusion has taken place
all along eastern and northern Asia. Setting aside the similarity of
the Northwest American tales to those from Micronesia, I believe
the facts justify the conclusion that transmission of tales between Asia
and America has actually taken place, and, what is more remarkable,
that the main points of coincidence are not found around Bering Strait,
but farther south; so that it would appear that diffusion of tales, if it
took place along the coast line, was previous to the arrival of the Eskimo
in Alaska. I admit, however, that these conclusions are largely conjectural,
444and need corroboration from collections from eastern Asia and
from Alaska, which, however, unfortunately do not exist.

I hope these brief notes will show that our method promises good
results in the study of the history of folk-lore.

It is particularly important to emphasize the fact that our comparison
proves many creation myths to be of complex growth, in so far as their
elements occur variously combined in various regions. This makes it
probable that many elements have been embodied ready-made in the
myths, and that they have never had any meaning, at least not among
the tribes in whose possession we find them. Therefore they cannot be
explained as symbolizing or anthropomorphizing natural phenomena;
neither can we assume that the etymologies of the names of the heroes
or deities give a clue to their actual meaning, because there never was
such a meaning. We understand that for an explanation of myths we
need, first of ail, a careful study of their component parts, and of their
mode of dissemination, which must be followed by a study of the psychology
of dissemination and amalgamation. Only after these have
been done shall we be able to attack the problem of an explanation of
myths with hope of success.445

11 Journal of American Folk-Lore, vol. 4 (1891), pp. 13-20.

22 Early History of Mankind (London, 1878), p. 345; Primitive Culture (London,
1891), vol. 1, pp. 328 et seq.

31 Traditions indiennes du Canada nord-ouest, p. 311.

41 Charles G. Leland, The Algonquin Legends of New England (Boston, 1885),
pp. 142, 186.

52 Ibid., p. 145.

63 Ibid., p. 38.

71 Ethnologische Vorlesungen (St. Petersburg, 1857), p. 165.

81 “Folk-Lore Journal,” 1888, p. 1ff., nos. 6, 21, 27, 33, 36.

92 A. Bastian, Allerlei aus Volks- und Menschenkunde (Berlin, 1888), vol. 1, p. 63.