Indian totem poles
Native American Cockroach Mythology
The claim has recently popped up online that cockroaches were sacred to Native Americans. This
is definitely not true, and is probably the result of linguistic confusion-- there is a type of Native
American headdress, which indeed is sacred to many tribes, that is referred to as a
in English. However, roach headdresses do not have anything to do with cockroaches! "Roche" was
just an Old English word for a hairstyle that stuck up in the air, which Native American roached
hairstyles and headdresses somewhat resemble. ("Cockroach," on the other hand, is an English
corruption of the Spanish word "cucaracha," meaning "loathsome bug.")
In reality, the type of insect we think of when we say "cockroach" did not even exist in the
Americas-- common cockroaches (known as "German cockroaches") first came to America along
with the Spanish in the 1500's, and palmetto bugs (known as "American cockroaches" or "Florida
roaches") came from Africa on slave ships a century later. There are some other cockroaches that
are native to the Americas, such as the
Death's Head cockroach
of South America or the
Green banana cockroach of
the Caribbean. Although they may not look much like the cockroaches we are used to seeing,
they are "cousins" who belong to the same order of insect.
In any case, we do not know of any Native American legends that include cockroaches as characters.
In his book
Spirits of the Earth,
Native author Bobby Lake-Thom suggests that cockroaches are a bad sign and represent unwelcome
visitors or unpleasant people. Certainly other swarming insects are viewed negatively in many tribes
and sometimes associated with curses or other bad magic, and the association of cockroaches with
colonization probably has not helped their standing any. In our personal experience, though, none of us
has ever heard Native American people expressing any reaction to cockroaches except for the
standard American desire to keep them out of the kitchen.
Recommended Books of Related Legends
Spirits of the Earth: A Guide to Native American Nature Symbols, Stories, and Ceremonies:
Book by a Karuk elder about the meanings of Indian animal spirits, including a chapter on cockroaches and other bugs.
Martina the Beautiful Cockroach:
Picture book based on a quirky Cuban folktale about a cockroach looking for a husband. (This is not
an American Indian folktale as far as we know, but there are not many cockroach legends out there,
and this one is cute!)
Interesting book on the role of roaches and other insects in world myth, including Native North America and Mesoamerica.
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