Creation Myths of Primitive America, by Jeremiah Curtin, , at sacred-texts.com
THE Wintus are a nation or stock of Indians who before the coming of white men owned and occupied all that part of California situated on the right bank of the Sacramento, from its source near the foot of Mount Shasta to its mouth at the northern shore of San Francisco Bay.
These Indians extended into Trinity County on the west, and still farther to the mountain slope which lies toward the Pacific. Only a small number of them, however, were on the western declivity. The great body of the nation lived on the eastern slope of the Coast Range and in the Sacramento Valley. Some of their finest mental productions are connected with the upper course of the Sacramento and with the MacCloud River, or Wini Mem.
It is difficult to determine what the Wintu population was half a century ago, but, judging from the number of houses in villages, the names and positions of which have been given me by old men, I should say that it could not have been less than 10,000, and might easily have been double that number. At present there are not more than 500 Wintus in existence.
The Wintus have suffered grievously; great numbers have been killed by white men, others have perished by diseases brought in by strangers; but those who remain ore strong and are more likely to increase than diminish. Times of violence have passed, and the present Wintus are willing and able to adapt themselves to modern conditions.
It may be of interest to readers of these myth tales to know something of the present condition of the Wintus.
In 1889, when I was in California, commissioned by Major Powell for the second time to make linguistic investigations among various tribes of the Pacific coast, a few Wintus came to me in Redding, California, and complained of their wretched condition. There was not a spot of land, they said, where they could build a hut without danger of being ordered away from it. "This country was ours once," added they, "but the white man has taken all of it." I told them to bring their people together, and invite also the Yanas, who had suffered more than all other people of that region, and then explain to me what was needed.
The two peoples met on a little stony field in a brushy waste outside the inhabited part of Redding. There they made speeches and discussed matters for three hours the first day and as many the second. They gave me all the points of what they wanted, which was simply that the United States should give each man of them a
piece of land, with help to begin life on it. I jotted down in brief form what they had told me, read it to them, and they were satisfied. Next day the paper was copied in the form of a petition from the two nations to President Harrison. They signed the petition before a Redding notary, and gave it to me with a request to lay it before the President.
Early in i 890 I was in Washington. Anxious to win the case of my poor Indian friends,--or "Diggers," as some men are pleased to call them contemptuously,--I looked around for a Congressman of influence to go with me to support the petition before the President. I found no suitable person till I met my classmate and friend, Governor Greenhalge of Massachusetts, at that time a member of Congress. When he heard the tale of the Yana massacre and realized the sad plight of the Wintus, he offered at once to cooperate with me. He went to the President and explained the affair to him. Two or three days later he accompanied me to the White House. I gave the petition to President Harrison, who promised to favor it with his executive initiative. He did this so earnestly and with such emphasis that an agent was appointed very soon to find land for those Indians. The agent found land for them in various places, but within the radius of their former possessions. The condition of the Wintus at present is this: They have lands which are described, but in most cases the boundaries are not indicated by any material mark, or at least very few of them are; white men are trespassing, and it is impossible for the Indians to protect themselves till their boundaries are fixed tangibly. They will not have the means to begin serious work till they receive assistance. They are waiting now in hope that the Commissioner of Indian Affairs will have their lands surveyed, and that Congress will make a small appropriation for their benefit. This is the extent of their hopes and wishes. They are very glad to have land, and the majority of them will make fairly good use of it. When I met them in 1895, they were very grateful for the part which I had taken in settling them in life, adding that they could not have settled themselves unassisted. As to me, I cannot but make an emphatic acknowledgment of the generous and effective aid given by Governor Greenhalge.
"Olelbis," the first myth published in "The Sun" (March 19, 1896), was preceded by the following brief introduction:--
The Wintus, with whose creation-myths I begin this series, are a very interesting people. Their language is remarkably harmonious, rich, and flexible. It has great power of describing the physical features of the country in which it is spoken, as well as the beliefs and ideas of the Wintus themselves.
The picture of Olelbis, a being who lives in the highest and sees everything, is drawn more distinctly and with more realism than any character in other American religious systems, so far as I know.
The theory of creation evolved by the Indians of North America is complete, simple, and symmetrical. I have referred to it somewhat in the introduction to "Hero Tales of Ireland," in "Myths and Folk-lore of Ireland," and in "Myths and Folk-tales of the Russians, Western Slavs, and Magyars." This theory is in brief as follows:--
There was a people in existence before the present race of men in speaking of the present race of men, the tales have in view Indians only. This first people lived in harmony for a period of indefinite, unimaginable duration, without division or dissension,--undifferentiated, so to speak. This was the golden age of existence, a Nirvana preliminary to life as we know it at present, a Nirvana of the gods, as the Buddhist extinction of self is to be the Nirvana of just men when all shall be one in all and one in one. At last a time came when character appeared, and with it differences and conflicts. When the conflicts were past and the battles fought out, the majority of the first people were turned into all the animated things, walking, creeping, crawling, swimming, flying, that have ever been seen on the earth, in the water, or in the air. They were turned also into trees and plants of every kind,--some into heavenly bodies, others into remarkable stones and rocks, just as, in the Bible, Lot's wife was turned into a pillar of salt.
According to this theory, every individual existence which we see in the world around us is a transformed or fallen god. Every beast, bird, reptile, fish, insect, or plant was at one time a divinity of high or low degree, an uncreated person who had lived in harmony with his fellows from the beginning till the time when variety
of character, or individuality, appeared and brought with it difficulties, or perhaps we might say, penalty. With individuality came conflicts; when those conflicts were over, creation was finished.
At the end of each particular conflict the victor turned by means of a word the vanquished into that which embodied and expressed his character. The vanquished on his part had a similar compelling word, and changed his opponent into the beast, bird, or other existence which described him; in other terms, he gave his opponent the physical form, the outward personality, which corresponded to the nature of his hidden or at least his unapparent character. Besides these metamorphosed or fallen divinities, there is in the Indian mythologies a group, a small minority, which was not changed, but left this world going out under the sky at the west to live in harmony and delight; and they live in that way to this moment. Sometimes this group, or a part of it, went to live above the sky.
The Indian Creation-myths all relate to the adventures and exploits of the "first people,"--the gods; none relate to human beings, and none touch on anything done since man appeared on earth. They are the accounts of what took place when there was an order different from the present, and explain how the present order rose from the first.
Such, in substance, is the foundation of American religious systems, and the method of all of them, so far as examined. The Wintu is different from many others in its methods and details, but the result is the same in all cases. Olelbis, with few exceptions, disposes of the first people, retains with himself whomsoever he likes, sends to the earth and transforms those whom he thinks more useful below than above, and gives the example of a single ruling divinity which, without being represented as all-powerful or all-wise, manages through the knowledge and services of others to bear rule over all things.