InWord Journeys

Stories of Native America

Antelope Canyon
Antelope Canyon

            In teepees, caves, longhouses, hogans, and kivas (chambers dug out of the earth), Native American elders have passed on their culture and beliefs to younger generations through storytelling. The stories were told to illustrate tribal ceremonies, customs, and politics. They were told to honor life and its interconnection.  All of them lived on many levels of meaning.
            As you read the stories below, cultivate your own connection with the earth and its creatures. Imagine the aroma of sacred sage and juniper smoke burning in Southwest village hearths. Hear the steady rhythm of a drumbeat and the haunting melody of a flute sent to invite all to join in the retelling. Picture the people in the audience as they wait patiently for the storyteller to begin. And most importantly, read as an Indian child is taught to listen, with your mind, your ears, and your heart.


            Sleeping Ute Mountain is a prominent area landmark visible from Point Lookout in Mesa Verde. Best seen from east of Cortez, it seems to outline a reclining figure with feet reaching to the south, peaks forming the knees, arms folding across the chest, and hair flowing to the north. The Tewa Pueblo people call the peak “Papin,” which means “Yucca Mountain.” The Ute call it "wíisi-vu káa-vi," meaning “Mountain full of yucca,” and they tell a story about how the mountain was formed.

Sleeping Ute Mountain

Sleeping Ute Mountain

            Long ago a fierce battle raged between evil beings and good people who were aided by a great warrior god. As the ferocious conflict wore on, mountains and valleys were churned up, and the warrior god was wounded. He laid down to rest and fell fast asleep. The blood from his battle wounds flowed into water that quenched the thirst of all living creatures. Now it is said when clouds gather on the highest peak of Sleeping Ute Mountain, the great warrior god has let rain clouds slip from his pocket to show he is pleased with his people. When he changes his blankets from white, to dark green, to red and gold, the seasons also change. Someday the great warrior god will return to help the Ute fight their enemies.

(Tohono O’odham)

            In the O’odham tradition, I’itoi, or Elder Brother, is the creator god who gave people the gift of Himdag, commandments about how to live in balance with the world, the community, and the self. I’itoi is also depicted as the Man in the Maze. The Maze symbolizes our journey through life, and the choices we make and experiences we have on that journey. This labyrinth-like design often appears on native baskets and rock art.
            The following tells how Elder Brother created the butterfly. As is often seen in other native stories about when the world was young, animals are depicted here as having the ability to reason, speak, and change the course of events.

            A long time ago, Elder Brother was walking through the world enjoying the bright colors of the blossoming flowers and green trees. He came to a village, where he stopped to watch the children happily at play. As he stood there, Elder Brother thought about how everything would change, and he became sad. The flowers would fade, the leaves would turn brown and fall from the trees, and the children would grow old and die. Then a wind came by and danced some fallen leaves in the sunlight. I’itoi had an idea. He would create something to gladden the children’s hearts and make them dance.
            I’itoi took out a bag and began to put many things inside of it. He put in the green of pine needles and the white of cornmeal. He put in the blue of the sky and the black of a beautiful woman’s hair. He put in yellow pollen and golden sunlight, and the red and purple from the flowers. Then he heard the singing of nearby birds, and put some of the songs into his bag, too.  
            When he was finished, Elder Brother called to the children and handed them the bag, saying, “I have something to show you.”  The children opened the bag, and out flew hundreds of beautiful butterflies in all the colors of the rainbow. As they fluttered around the gleeful children, the butterflies began to sing.
            When the songbirds heard the butterflies singing, they complained, “You gave those songs to us. The butterflies have all the brightest colors, and that is fine. But it is not right that they should take our songs, too.”
            Elder Brother agreed and gave the songs back to the songbirds. Since then, the beauty of the butterflies has brightened the days of the people. But as the colorful creatures dance like flowers on the wind, they remain silent.


            Native American myths and legends often exist in several different variations. Following is an abbreviated version of a story about the Sun god and Hero Twins, all three important figures to the Navajo. 

                     Antelope Canyon
Antelope Canyon     Every morning Tsohanoai, the Sun Bearer, walks across the sky while carrying the sun on his stooped back. When he reaches his house in the west, he takes the sun off his back and hangs it on a peg so it can cool off during the night. Then he rests from his long journey. Each morning, he resumes his trek from east to west.
     While Tsohanoai (pronounced So-ha-noe-ayee) spent his days carrying the sun across the heavens, his two children, Nayenezgani( a.k.a. Monster Slayer) and Tobadzistsini) (a.k.a. Born of Water), lived in the far West with their mothers, Changing Woman and her sister White Shell Woman. One day these Hero Twins decided to travel to their father and ask him for help in their fight against the evil monsters who were devouring the people. After the “twins” found their father the Sun, he presented them with magic arrows they could use to defeat the evil spirits.

    Antelope Canyon photos by Tish Minear with permission of Navajo Film Office


Copyright © Tish Minear and Janet Limon