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Native American Stories About Orphans

Orphans were rarely found in Native American tribes compared to many other cultures, because of the elaborate clan and kinship systems of most Native American societies. A boy whose parents died would have been inherited as a son by his maternal uncle in some tribes; in others, he would have been adopted by a couple within his clan, sent to live with his father's family, or raised by his grandmother. And indeed, there are many Native American myths and legends in which children are raised by other relatives after the deaths of their parents. These children were not really considered "orphans" by Native Americans listening to the story, because they still have families (just as a child whose mother dies is not really considered an "orphan" if her father is still alive.)

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But in all cultures, legends and folktales tend to focus on unusual circumstances, so although true orphans may have been rare in most Native American tribes, they are not so rare in folklore. Sometimes a young hero's entire family is killed by monsters or enemies. Other times the hero's father is an unknown spirit being, so he first has to find his father before he can be accepted into his extended family. In some legends unfortunate orphans are rejected or abandoned by their parents' relatives. But in many Native American stories, the relatives of a child's dead parents simply are never mentioned. Real Native American families were usually large and everyone had siblings, but Native American legends do not often dwell on details and the background history of characters. It could be assumed that an orphan hero came from an unusually small family, that his grandparents are dead, that his parents had moved far away from their relatives, or perhaps that the hero had been a captive or slave and was now living among a tribe where he had no relatives. Or perhaps their living relatives were simply not normal people-- many mythic characters have uncles and grandfathers who are giants and other monsters, or at least unreliable babysitters like thunderbirds or the winds. In this mythical context, a story hero would not necessarily be expected to have the same family structure that the people listening to the story would.

In other cases, however, the designation of the hero as an "orphan" was simply added onto the story by the Europeans who wrote it down, and cannot be found in the original at all.

Native American Orphan Heroes

*Burnt-Belly (Pawnee orphan hero)
*Wets The Bed (Wichita orphan hero)

Legends About Orphans

A Little Boy Who Brought Good Luck:
    Passamaquoddy story about a old couple rewarded for their kindness to an orphan and his dog.
The Poor Orphan:
    Potawatomi story about an orphan who becomes a leader of his tribe through his respect for the dead.
*The Boy Who Had Dog Power:
    Lenape legend about an orphan who took care of an abandoned dog and received great hunting power.
*The Foundling Who Was Befriended By Wolves:
    Cree legend about an orphan boy who used his clever hunting techniques to win the hand of a chief's daughter.
*The Orphan Boy and the Elk Dogs:
    19th-century legend about how horses came to the Blackfeet.
*The Orphan Boy Who Became A Wrestler:
    Caddo legend about an orphan boy who was given a gift of great strength.
*Evening-Star and Orphan-Star:
    Caddo legend about an abandoned orphan becoming a star.

Recommended Books of Related Native American Legends
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The Orphan and the Polar Bear:
    Beautiful children's book by an Inuit author about a polar bear who comes to the aid of a mistreated orphan.
Eagle Boy:
    Northwest Coast legend about an orphan boy who taught humans and eagles to cooperate.

Back to our folktale index

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