Manataka American Indian Council
SUBJECT OF MANY
AMERICAN INDIAN LEGENDS
Hummingbirds are found in both the northern and southern hemispheres of the Americas, so they are absent from the traditional fairy tales, legends, and myths of European and African Americans. There is, however, a rich supply of stories about these tiny birds in Native American mythology.
A Mayan legend says the hummingbird is actually the sun in disguise, and he is trying to court a beautiful woman, who is the moon.
Another Mayan legend says the first two hummingbirds were created from the small feather scraps left over from the construction of other birds. The god who made the hummers was so pleased he had an elaborate wedding ceremony for them. First butterflies marked out a room, then flower petals fell on the ground to make a carpet; spiders spun webs to make a bridal pathway, then the sun sent down rays which caused the tiny groom to glow with dazzling reds and greens. The wedding guests noticed that whenever he turned away from the sun, he became drab again like the original gray feathers from which he was made.
A third Mayan legend speaks of a hummingbird piercing the the tongue of ancient kings. When the blood was poured on sacred scrolls and burned, divine ancestors appeared in the smoke.
A Mojave legend tells of a primordial time when people lived in an underground world of darkness. They send a hummingbird up to look for light. High above them the little bird found a twisted path to the sunlit upper world where people now live.
There is a legend from the Jatibonicu Taino Tribal Nation of Puerto Rico about a young woman and a young man, who were from rival tribes. Like Romeo and Juliet, they fell in love, precipitating the intense criticism of their family and friends. Nevertheless, the two of them found a way to escape both time and culture. One became a hummingbird and the other a red flower. The Taino Indians also take the hummingbird to be a sacred pollinator, whose mission is to bring an abundance of new life.
To the Chayma people of Trinidad, hummers are dead ancestors, so there is a taboo against harming them. An extinct Caribbean tribe called the Arawaks thought it was Hummingbird who brought tobacco. They called him the Doctor Bird.
In a Navajo legend a hummer was sent up to see what is above the blue sky. It turns out to be absolutely nothing.
In a Cherokee story, a medicine man turned himself into a hummingbird to retrieve lost tobacco plants. In another Cherokee story, a woman is courted by both a hummingbird and a crane. She first chooses the hummingbird for his good looks, but the crane convinces here that there should be a race around the world with the winner having her hand in marriage. She agrees, thinking the hummingbird is bound to win because he flies so fast. What she fails to take into account is that Crane can fly all night long, while Hummingbird is able to fly only during the day. Crane wins, but she reneges on her promise, because he is so ugly. The Creek Indians have a similar story. In this version Crane wins because he flies in a straight line, while Hummingbird zigzags.
Hopi and Zuni legends tell of hummingbirds intervening on behalf of humans, convincing the gods to bring rain. Because of this, people from these tribes often paint hummingbirds on water jars. The Hopi kachina for Hummingbird depicts him with green moccasins and a green mask. He has an aqua body, and he is yellow on top of the head. H is crowned with a ruff made of Douglas fir.
One of the Hopi stories is about a time of famine when a young boy and girl were left alone while their parents were searching for food. After the boy made a toy hummingbird, his sister threw it into the air. It came to life and began to provide for them by bringing an ear of corn every day. Eventually, the hummingbird flew to the center of the earth where it pleaded with the god of fertility to restore the land. Rain and green vegetation came, then the children's parents returned.
In a Pima legend a hummingbird acted like Noah's dove, bringing back a flower as proof the great flood was subsiding.
There is a legend from Mexico about a Taroscan Indian woman who was taught how to weave beautiful baskets by a grateful hummingbird to whom she had given sugar water during a drought. These baskets are now used in Day of the Dead Festivals.
An Apache legend tells of Wind Dancer, a young warrior, who was born deaf, but could sing magical, wordless songs that brought healing and good weather. He married Bright Rain, a beautiful, young woman whom he rescued when she was being attacked by a wolf.
Wind Dancer was killed during another errand of mercy. A bitter, death-bring winter ensued, but it suddenly and mysteriously ended after Bright Rain started taking solitary walks.
Tribal elders learned Wind Dancer had come back to her in the form of a hummingbird. He wore the same ceremonial costume and war paint he had worn as a man. In fields of spring flowers he would approach her and whisper his magical secrets in her ear. This brought her peace and joy.
The Pueblo Indians have hummingbird dances and use hummingbird feathers in rituals to bring rain. Pueblo shamans use hummingbirds as couriers to send gifts to the Great Mother who lives beneath the earth.
To many of the Pueblo the hummingbird is a tobacco bird. In one myth Hummingbird gets smoke from Caterpillar, the guardian of the tobacco plant. Hummingbird brings smoke to the shamans so they can purify the earth.
Some Pueblo Indians have a ritual for babies that are stillborn or die in the first few days of life. Prayer sticks with hummingbird feathers are held before the sunrise on the winter solstice in a ceremony that hastens re-birth.
One Pueblo story tells of a demon who is blinded after losing a bet with the sun. In anger he spews out hot lava. The earth catches fire. A hummingbird then saves the beautiful land of people and animals by gathering clouds from the four directions. Hummingbird uses rain from these clouds to put out the flames. This legend says the bright colors on a hummingbird's throat came after he fled through the rainbow in search of rain clouds.
In Central America, the Aztecs decorated their ceremonial cloaks with hummingbird feathers. The chieftains wore hummingbird earrings. Aztec priests had staves decorated with hummingbird feathers. They used these to suck evil out of people who had been cursed by sorcerers.
An Aztec myth tells of a valiant warrior named Huitzil, who led them to a new homeland, then helped them defend it. This famous hero's full name was Huitzilopochtli, which means "hummingbird from the left." The "left" is the deep south, the location of the spirit world. The woman who gave birth to Huitzil was Coatlicul. She conceived him from a ball of feathers that fell from the sky. Huitzil wore a helmet shaped like a giant hummingbird.
At a key moment in an important battle, Huitzil was killed. His body vanished and a green-backed hummingbird whirred up from the spot where he had fallen to inspire his followers to go on to victory. After Huitzil's death, he became a god.
The Aztecs came to believe that every warrior slain in battle rose to the sky and orbited the sun for four years. Then they became hummingbirds. In the afterlife these transformed heroes fed on the flowers in the gardens of paradise, while engaging from time to time in mock battles to sharpen their skills. At night the hummingbird angels became soldiers again and followed Huitzil, fighting off the powers of the darkness, restoring warmth and light. As dawn broke, the hummingbirds went into a frenzy. The sun rewarded them for this by giving them a radiant sheen.
In an Aztec ritual dancers formed a circle and sang a song which included these words: "I am the Shining One, bird, warrior and wizard." At the end of the ritual young men lifted young girls helping them to fly like hummingbirds.
There is another Aztec legend which says the god of music and poetry took the form of a hummingbird and descended into the underworld to make love with a goddess, who then gave birth to the first flower.
One of the widespread beliefs is that hummingbirds, in some way, are messengers between words. As such they help shamans keep nature and spirit in balance. The Cochti have a story about ancient people who lost faith in the Great Mother. In anger, she deprived them of rain for four years. The people noticed that the only creature who thrived during this drought was Hummingbird. When they studies his habits, the shamans learned that Hummingbird had a secret passageway to the underworld. Periodically, he went there to gather honey. Further study revealed that this doorway was open to Hummingbird alone because he had never lost faith in the Great Mother. This information inspired the people to regain faith. After that the Great Mother took care of them.