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Native American Snake Mythology

Snakes are one group of animals that are thought poorly of in many different Native American tribes. Snakes are associated with violence and revenge in many North American cultures, and rarely with any positive qualities. An exception is the Pueblo tribes of the Southwest, where snakes are revered, as they are in many parts of Mexico. Kingsnakes are also considered sacred in some California Indian cultures.

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Among the Anishinabe tribes, snakes are seen as dangerous but also powerful, and they have been considered one of the major spirit animals of the Midewiwin medicine society. Some medicine bags were made of snake skin for this reason. In the folktales of other tribes, Native American snakes enforce a rough type of justice, and breaking laws or violating taboos may cause a person (or his family) to be bitten by snakes. As with most wild animals, there are also some Indian stories in which characters who treat snakes disrespectfully live to regret it.

Snakes are also one kind of animal that some Native American people still have superstitious feelings about today. In our organization, three people from different tribes all agreed that it was bad luck to have a snake in the house and that they would never allow their families to have a pet snake, although a pet lizard or tarantula would be all right!

In the ancient religions of Mexico and Central America, Indian snakes were associated with divinity, rebirth, and spiritual power, and were often looked upon with both fear and awe. Many Aztec and Mayan gods and goddesses such as Quetzalcoatl, Coatlicue, Tlaloc, and Q'uq'umatz, were associated with snakes or appeared in the form of a snake, and the shed skins of snakes were used as power items by traditional priests in some parts of Mexico.

Snakes are also used as clan animals in some Native American cultures. Tribes with Snake Clans include the the Hopi (whose Snake Clan is called Tsu'ngyam), the Pueblo tribes of New Mexico, the Creek (whose Snake Clan is named Cettvlke,) and the Chippewa (whose Snake Clan and its totem are called Ginebig.) The Hopi also have a Snake Society (one of only a few Hopi religious orders to include women as well as men), and the Hopi Snake Dance is one of the tribe's most important ceremonial dances.

Native American Snake Gods and Spirits

Awanyu (Pueblo)
Coatlicue (Aztec)
Horned serpents (Eastern tribes)
Pitaskog (Abenaki)
Quetzalcoatl (Aztec)
Situlili (Hopi/Zuni)
Snake-Woman (Caddo)
Tie-Snake (Southeast tribes)
*Unktehi (Lakota Indian serpent)

Native American Legends About Snakes

*The Mother of Serpents:
    Passamaquoddy stories about an overly-proud woman giving birth to the first snakes.
Pima Snake Story:
    O'odham legend about how Rattlesnake brought death into the world.
*Coyote Challenges the Snake * Coyote and Never-Grows-Larger:
    Southern Plains legends about Snake proving himself more powerful than Coyote.
*The Woman who Loved a Serpent * The Rolling Head * Case of the Severed Head:
    Legends from many different tribes about wicked women having affairs with snakes.
*The Sun Dance Wheel:
    Arapaho myth about the garter snake and the origins of the Sun Dance.
*The Big-Footed Snake Legend:
    Blackfoot Indian legend about a snake's wish to become human.
*Glooskap and the Snakes Story:
    Passamaquoddy story about rude men being turned into snakes.
*The Snake Husband:
    Peoria legend of a careless woman who was led astray by a rattlesnake.
*The Girl Who Joined The Thunders * Thunder Son:
    Lenape and Shawnee stories about a woman who unwittingly married a snake-man.
*The Moon and the Great Snake Myth:
    Blackfoot story about the origin of snakes.
*A Tale of Coatlicue * Coatlicue, She of the Serpent Skirt * Snake Goddess: * Coatlicue the Snake Mother:
    Aztec myths about the mother goddess Coatlicue, the Lady of the Serpent.
*The Man Who Turned Into A Snake:
    Caddo legend about a man who became a snake after eating snake meat.
*Snake-Woman Distributes Seeds:
    Caddo legend about how Snake-Woman brought agriculture to the people.

Recommended Books of Snake Stories from Native American Myth and Legend
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Soft Child:
    Children's book illustrating a Southwest Indian legend about how the rattlesnake got its fangs.
Baby Rattlesnake:
    Charming picture book about a young snake learning a lesson, told by a Chickasaw storyteller.
The Serpent's Tale: Snakes in Folklore and Literature: * Snakes in Myth, Magic, and History:
    Two good books about the meaning of snakes in world mythology and literature, including Native North America.
Spirits of the Earth: A Guide to Native American Nature Symbols, Stories, and Ceremonies:
    Book by a Karuk elder about the true meanings of Indian animal spirits, including a chapter on snakes.
Native American Animal Stories:
    Great collection of American Indian tales about snakes and other animals, told by Abenaki storyteller Joseph Bruchac.

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