Many of the earliest oral traditions that have been practiced for thousands of years are still practiced in some form today. These traditions have strong ties to nature, with many of them calling people to reverence our place in the natural world.
We plan to break this page into several parts for each type of indigenous wisdom, including wisdom tales for kids, which we’re currently in the process of collecting.
In the meantime, here are some notable indigenous tales, followed by a list of books of indigenous wisdom aimed at grownups.
How the Bluebird Got its Color
The character of the trickster shows up in many indigenous tales, frequently in the form of a coyote. Here is one example of such a tale from the Pima nation in Arizona.
Long ago, the bluebird wasn’t blue. But that all changed when Bluebird bathed in a lake four times every morning for four mornings. “There’s a blue water,” Bluebird sang while bathing. “It lies there. I went in. I am all blue.”
Bluebird lost all their feathers on the fourth day, but on the fifth they were covered in blue feathers.
Coyote had been watching Bluebird the whole time, hoping to eat the bird. But when Coyote, who at the time was green, saw Bluebird’s bright blue feathers, he asked how it happened and said that he wanted to be blue, too. So Bluebird told Coyote what he’d done, and Coyote did the same thing.
When Coyote’s fur turned blue, he felt so proud that all he could think about was how wanted all the other animals to notice him. He looked back and forth and back and forth as he ran through the forest, trying to see what the other animals thought of him — but he was so distracted that ran straight into a stump and clumps of dust fell from the tree onto his fur, turning him into the color of dirt.
How the Spider Symbol Came to Be
One day the leader of the Osage people was searching the forest alone. He was on a quest to find a meaningful symbol for his people, and he imagined coming across a strong and powerful animal that could be a teacher.
When he came across deer tracks he was filled with anticipation, thinking that the large and powerful deer might reveal itself as the symbol for the Osage people. The chief followed the deer tracks deeper into the forest, moving swiftly and eyes focused on the ground.
Suddenly, he ran right into a spider’s web and he fell to the ground, caught in the invisible and strong fabric. When he came to his feet he was angry and tried to hit the spider, but it quickly got out of the way.
The spider asked the chief, “Why are you running through the forest so quickly, seeing nothing but the ground?”
The chief explained that he was tracking a mighty deer to be a symbol of greatness and power for his people.”
The spider responded saying, “I can be such a symbol.” The chief was confused and shocked, “You? But you are a tiny and fragile creature. I didn’t even notice you as I searched through the forest.”
The spider replied, “But you see, I am patient. I pay close attention, I watch carefully, and then things come to me. This lesson will certainly help your people become powerful.” The chief was wise and saw this to be true, and the spider became an important symbol for the Osage people.
The People and the Maple Trees
Anishinabe (Great Lakes Area)
One day, Manabozho — a great trickster spirit— wanted to see how the people were getting on and traveled to the village to visit them. To his surprise he didn’t see a single person. He looked near the water to see if they were fishing, he looked in the fields to see if they were tending the crops, and he looked in the forests to see if they were hunting, but there was not a person in sight.
Eventually he found the people gathered near the maple grove lying on their backs to let the thick, sweet maple syrup fall directly into their open mouths.
Manabozho was troubled, “The people can’t live this way! Their minds and bodies will become slow and careless if they spend their days lying in the maple grove drinking.”
He had an idea. Manabozho gathered water and poured it into the tops of the maple trees so the syrup became very thin and not too sweet, and the watery sap would only come out of the trees at a certain time of the year.
From that day on, the people went to the maple grove a certain time of the year to gather the thin sap from the trees, take it back to the village, and boil it for a long time to make just a bit of delicious maple syrup. “Now the people will keep busy fishing, hunting, and growing for the rest of the year. And they will always remember how precious maple syrup is.”
Recommended Books on Indigenous Wisdom For Grownups
- Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teaching of Plants by Robin Wall Kimmerer speaks to the need we have as humans to belong to a wider ecology. She writes, “In the Western tradition there is a recognized hierarchy of beings, with, of course, the human being on top—the pinnacle of evolution, the darling of Creation—and the plants at the bottom. But in Native ways of knowing, human people are often referred to as ‘the younger brothers of Creation.’ We say that humans have the least experience with how to live and thus the most to learn—we must look to our teachers among the other species for guidance. Their wisdom is apparent in the way that they live. They teach us by example. They’ve been on the earth far longer than we have been, and have had time to figure things out.”
- Women Who Run With Wolves: Myths and Stories of the Wild Women Archetype by Clarissa Pinkola Estés contains many stories from indigenous oral traditions, among other traditions. She writes, “I hope you will go out and let stories happen to you, and that you will work them, water them with your blood and tears and your laughter till they bloom, till you yourself burst into bloom.”
- Sacred Instructions: Indigenous Wisdom For Living Spirit-Based Change by Sherri Mitchell articulates what indigenous wisdom offers the world. She writes, “As Indigenous people, we are taught to live our lives in a balanced rhythm with the harmonic frequencies that surround us. This is why our teachings rise out of an oral tradition. Our history has been passed orally, not because we lacked the ability to translate our words into written form, but because we have always realized that our words have an alchemy that is capable of creating form. Our language is the vibrational expression that gives form to the animate universe. Every vocal expression that is released creates its own unique resonance. As we speak, we are weaving layers of sound that merge into harmony with the entire creation. This harmonic symphony brings into form the reality that we see before us.”
- The Wisdom of the Native Americans: Including The Soul of an Indian and Other Writings of Ohiyesa and the Great Speeches of Red Jacket, Chief Joseph, and Chief Seattle by New World Library contains a variety of quotes. It reads, “What is man without the beasts? If all the beasts were gone, men would die from great loneliness of spirit, for what happens to the beasts also happens to man. All things are connected. Whatever befalls the earth befalls the children of the earth.”