The Paiute Cosmology
edited: Sunday, July 19, 2009
By Gary R Varner
Rated "G" by the Author.
Posted: Sunday, July 19, 2009
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An excerpt from a book in progress, The Owens Valley Paiute: A Cultral History by Gary R. Varner.
There is little information concerning the cosmological beliefs of the Eastern Mono, or the Northern Paiute in general. The universe was composed of the sky, which fit as a dome over a flat earth which was believed to be held in the hand of a mythic creature who occasionally would shake it.
Steward noted that the Paiute had “some belief” in oceans laying to the east, south and west. Aginsky noted that the Mono recognized the four cardinal directions and believed that the New Moon was a powerful occurrence. The Paiute greeted the New Moon with prayer, shouting, face rubbing and races. The New Moon was also directly linked to the monthly birth and death rates. Steward disagrees with the importance of the moon among the Owens Valley Paiute. Referring to the moon as the “noise maker and funny man; a buffoon in mythology,” he stated that the phases of the moon seemed meaningless although an eclipse signified the moon’s death.
The Mono recognized the seasons of the year and believed the winter solstice to be the beginning of the year. The Owens Valley Paiute observed five seasons rather than four. Their seasons consisted of the fall, winter, spring, summer and midsummer.
Little information exists as to the deities of these Paiute groups. As previously noted, some evidently directed wishes or prayers to the Sun but what the Sun symbolized remains only a vague concept to contemporary researchers. The sun was recognized as the source of light and warmth and that it could become a persons source of “power.” Spirit helpers, guardians and ghosts appear to have been widely perceived but did not necessarily occupy specific locations. Ghosts were often thought to appear in dreams or whirlwinds. While ghosts were feared they were not overly so.
Nature elementals or spiritual beings were believed to manifest themselves in the world through water, lightning, thunder and animals. These spirit helpers, or buha, were sought out to help one with his sexual prowess, gambling, success in war or the hunt or to control the weather.
Within the mythology of the Northern Paiute are elements universally found around the world. Like most every other culture the Paiute had a genesis myth:
“At first the world was all water, and remained so a long time. Then the water began to go down and at last Kura’ngwa (Mount Grant) emerged from the water, near the southwest end of Walker Lake…As the water subsided other mountains appeared, until at last the earth was lest as it is now.”
“Myths of central California,” wrote William J. Wallace, “reflected a greater interest in the genesis of the world and attributed its making to the will of a creator. Very usual were the ideas of a primeval ocean and an already existing divine being sending an animal or bird to dive for a few grains of sand or a little mud, from which he created the earth.”
The Great Flood is one legend associated with the creation of the world. The Owens Valley Paiute, living in the very arid desert regions of California and Nevada were no strangers to the flood myth. “Once there was a great flood,” the storey goes. “There was water everywhere. Mallard duck began to sprinkle dirt upon the water. The dirt became larger and larger and finally the earth was formed. Then Mallard took many tules and bound the earth together so that it would not fall apart.”
In Paiute mythology the flood predated the creation of the earth. “Once the whole world was flooded,” one creation myth starts. “Wolf, who was the strongest and greatest man in the world, was alone in a boat in which he paddled around for a long time. He was lonely and wanted somebody with him. He made Coyote and called him brother.
“Wolf said, ‘We can’t paddle around all the time. We must have some earth.’ He took a handful of earth and placed it on the water. It stayed there. At first it was very shaky, but later it became solid. Then he added more and more earth until he had a little round place. They got out on the earth.
“Coyote, who is always running around, ran back and forth and all over the earth. He said, ‘I want to step a little farther. This is too small. Can’t you add a little more earth? I am tired of this little strip. Can’t you make it bigger?’ His brother added more dirt and Coyote ran around again. He went right to the edge of it. He said to his brother, ‘This is too small. Can’t you make it a little bigger?’ His brother added more earth and the place grew. In this way it grew larger and larger until it became as it is today.”
A story similar to the Biblical account of Adam and Eve was also part of the Paiute mythic cycle:
“Then this woman was created in some unknown place and went over there [to the mountains]. She found the house of the Creator of Men…thus he had a wife for his own...
“The Creator of Men married her then, and they lay together and caused a baby to be made. They found it lying between them in the early morning…”
The woman and the Creator of Men soon had four children, but the children, two boys and two girls, “didn’t think well of their father” and shot him with arrows behind his knees. The children were banished but the Creator of Men and his wife were so overwrought that they wept and wept, submerging the world once again.
Another tale of the children of the Creator of Men is called “The Apple of Wisdom.” The children find a rattlesnake coiled in an apple tree:
“When they found the snake,” the myth relates, “they were deathly afraid. The whitemen came along next, but they were not afraid of the snake. They knocked down the tree and ate the apple. That is why the whitemen are as they are today. They makes houses and stoves and all manner of things out of stone and iron. If our people had not been afraid, they would have been like the whitemen…”
“The whitemen and the rattlesnake have the same kind of eye…Having eaten the apple, the whitemen do all things. That is why the whitemen have white skin and our people have black skin. Not having eaten the apple, the black people now eat worthless things and have no clothing.”
This myth obviously was told to explain why the Paiute had to do with less than their white neighbors. A mixture of Biblical lore and observation, this post contact tale originated after the Paiutes were forced to work as farm workers on white owned farms rather than continue their traditional lifestyles.
William J. Wallace wrote, “no migration narratives of any sort occurred in central…California, where the various tribes assumed that they had sprung into existence…in the very localities in which they lived.”
As in many mythic cycles around the world, magic was a predominate theme in Paiute tradition. Steward reported that “scarcely a myth, irrespective of type, is without it. Magic is used in the creation of things, appears in Coyote’s inglorious failures, and is exhibited in the clashes of great men who have supernatural powers.”
Other themes include hunting, gambling, and lust. Myths concerning war are rare as the Owens Valley Paiute were generally a peaceful people. Animal myths, such as “Cottontail’s Encounter with the Sun,” and “Badger and Chipmunk” were meant purely to entertain. These are very short and have no great moral to relate.
Many other myths were used to explain why the world is as it is, how things were created or why things are used the way they are. The mythic figure coyote, universally used as a trickster figure as well as one through accident of creation, was used in Native American myth to explain why life is so unfair and inconsistent, and it was Coyote who was the most important in Paiute oral literature. The myth “Why People Die” is one such tale. In this tale, Coyote and Wolf are arguing as to whether or not old people should be allowed to continue to climb Bald Mountain and bathe in the spring at the summit. By bathing in this spring the old regain their youth and health. Coyote believed that the old should die. Wolf thought that they should be able to bathe in the waters of the mountain. Coyote got so mad “that he kicked Bald Mountain and it toppled over into the valley below.” This destroyed the source of the healing waters and the old were forever doomed to die. Wallace noted that animal stories such as this were the most common form of mythology in central California.
According to Riddell and Laird, myths were only told during the winter months. To break this tradition was to invite storms or ill-luck upon the individual or the entire village. Few myths appear to have been created to instruct about the celestial bodies. Mooney noted, “in the mythology of the Paiute, as of many other tribes, the Milky Way is the road of the dead to the spirit world.” Other than this meaning, the origin or bigger meaning of the celestial bodies was little regarded in Paiute mythology.
Myths, according to John Bierhorst, “are what others have; we ourselves have ‘scripture’ or ‘history’.” All myths have a foundation in fact, in the history and oral traditions of a people. As such, if we look closely at specific myths, we may find ancient accounts of astounding events—accounts of a people, the environment and geography of a people.
While there is tantalizing evidence that many myths are ancient memories of events carried along by a people over untold years, any proof is unlikely to be uncovered due to the cross-cultural sharing of stories and histories. Jarold Ramsey summarized the issue in the 1999 book, In Reading the Fire: The Traditional Indian Literatures of America:
“That certain myth ‘sets’ in the West are very old, possibly thousands of years old, is not to be doubted, given their wide distribution; and in the case of a special category or narrative, one wonders if they did not originate as oral records of prehistoric natural events. It is known, for example, that Indians were living in the Oregon High Desert at the time of the cataclysmic eruption of Mount Mazama seven thousand years ago, leading to the formation of Crater Lake—and there is a theme in Northern Paiute mythology of eruptions, world conflagrations, and the like that might derive from the blowup of Mount Mazama, or form other eruptions in the area before or after it….And the presence in several Paiute stories of odd details about impassible ‘walls of ice’ even raises the possibility, admittedly pretty remote, that such details refer back to the last period of heavy glaciation…some seven to ten thousand years ago!”
Many Paiute locations of mythic events are still in existence and represent the traditional beliefs and legends of this people. Bengston identified 380 locations in Nevada that are mythological places in the Paiute tradition. These locations include Dayton Hill where the first pine nut trees were said to grow in the land of the Northern Paiute; the location of the footprints of Numa na ah, the Father of the Paiute; Grimes Point where it is said that Coyote drew symbols on the exposed boulders; and “wolf house” where Wolf was brought back to life after being killed by another tribe, as well as Mount Grant which figures prominently in Northern Paiute creation myth.
Among the many important Paiute religious and folk locations are caves and traditionally significant rocks. Caves were sought out by men seeking power, power to act as a shaman, to have power to cure the ill, gamble or hunt successfully or to be impervious to arrow or bullet. “In any case” related Paiute informant Dick Mahwee, “a man coming to the cave must state what he wishes and then bravely face the ordeal of staying all night in spite of the terrifying noises. To do so assures the success of the quest, while to leave before morning means that the seeker receives no power.”
Caves of course are entryways between the world of man and the underworld where, supernatural powers may be tapped by those brave enough to seek them out. Caves have long been thought to be portals between these two worlds. The Kawaiisu myth (A Visit to the Underworld) contains an interesting illustration of these portals between worlds. The story tells of a man who entered an opening in a rock, to find himself in another world where the spirits of deer killed in the hunt go after death. The story, as reported by Zigmond, says, “the man saw water that was like a window. He could see the mountains through it. But it wasn’t water. He passed through it and did not get wet. When he was outside, he looked back and saw the ‘water’ again.” This man found himself several miles further up a canyon, just by stepping through the portal. This is a tale of a shaman’s travels, a physical representation of the mental or spiritual transformations that can lead us to a different sense of reality.
Archaeologist David Whitley, an expert on Southwestern rock art, states that “caves often served as vision quest locales because shamans believed the supernatural world lay inside or beyond them; the shaman entered the supernatural when the rocks opened up for him. Caves served as portals to the sacred realm.” Whitley goes on to say that because the Indians believed that spirit helpers lived within rocks, caves and mountains, “it seems natural that within this region shamans received their power from rocks and mountains.”
A cave near Yerington, called Mhannu, was used to test an individual’s special powers. If a man was sent to the cave and was strong enough to stay in it he was considered strong enough to become use his powers. Another cave near Fort Churchill was used by seekers of power as well. Men or women would spend the night being subjected to visions of snakes, lions and monsters in the hopes of receiving a special dream that would grant their request for power. This cave’s ceiling has been covered with rock art and offerings by those seekers in the past.
Other powerful objects include “doctor rocks.” These rocks and rock outcroppings were used as powerful healing stones as well as to grant wishes and to bestow shamantic powers. One near Eastgate, Nevada was used to treat headaches, dizziness and “serious illnesses.” The individual simply placed his or her forehead against the stone and prayed for a cure. Healing stones such as this one are found in other ancient sites around the world—usually associated with megaliths and standing stones. Another, called “Mecicine Rock,” is located near Fallon, Nevada along old Highway 50. According to some researchers “It is one of the most talked about religious and healing sites among many tribal people (both on and off the Walker River Reservation).” Some of these stones acquire offerings that are similar to those made at sacred wells around the world, such as pennies, safety pens, buttons, beads and even human hair. Offerings such as these are used to transfer illnesses from the individual to the stone, as well as to offer some small payment for healing received, this is a very ancient practice.
Hot springs were also sought out for their healing properties. Kyle Hot Springs and Lee Hotsprings are two healing springs. Paiute elders frequent Lee Hotsprings for its medicinal properties and use prayer and ceremony as part of the healing ritual there. In addition, many of the hot springs located in Paiute territory were also known for places of power, such as “clay rock” located on the western shore of Walker Lake south of Schurz. Here hunters could sleep and acquire luck to hunt deer. The hunter’s dreams would show him where to hunt and the circumstances which would permit a successful kill.
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