I am currently looking into Crow Mythology and every website I've seen says essentially "The Native Americans thought of the crow as X". But "NATIVE AMERICANS" is too broad a category! Where are they getting this information from? No citations are ever presented. For example, here:

Crow - Crow is the keeper of the sacred law. In Native American folklore, the intelligence of crows is usually portrayed as their most important feature. According to Native American legends and myths, some tribes believed that the Crow had the power to talk, and was therefore considered to be one of the wisest of birds.

Is there any repository of Native American folklore that would have this kind of information? The closest I have found, specifically about crows, is Hopi and Zuni folklore "talk", again without any citations though.

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    What you are looking at is the basic problem every historian is facing when talking about a culture with an oral tradition: Utter lack of primary sources. Similar for the Germanic people, for example. They didn't write about themselves, so secondary sources is the best you can get.
    – DevSolar
    Commented Mar 10, 2020 at 11:51
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    "The Encyclopedia of Native American Religions" is not a bad source. Commented Mar 10, 2020 at 16:27
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    The question is more that a bit confusing. The crow is a bird, but the Crow are one of the many diverse American Indian peoples: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Crow_people So do you want to know about what Indians in general think of the crow (about like comparing Greek, Norse, and Celtic mythology), or about Crow mythology, or possibly what the Crow think about the crow?
    – jamesqf
    Commented Mar 10, 2020 at 16:39
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    Ah, I see what @jamesqf is getting at. Its is customary that "the Crow" (capitalized) refers to the Crow Nation, and if you mean something else that needs to be clarified by context (as the quote did). So I assumed this was asking about the Crow people's mythology, including Crow (the myth figure). If you don't care about the Crow at all, but just Crow, that should be clarified.
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Mar 10, 2020 at 17:12
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    @curiousdannii - That's one big problem I've found with native research. The people who really care about the information don't tend to be the kind of people who write things down in a scientific manner. For instance, the clan list and seating chart I got at my niece's Osage naming ceremony has no references on it, and looks to be something like a 5th generation photocopy. All I know is the elder handed it to me. He probably only knows that he got it from another elder. A lot of times those amateur websites are actually the best info available, bad as they are.
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Mar 11, 2020 at 15:57

2 Answers 2


The basic problem here is that scientific study of cultures (Sociology, Anthropology, etc.) is a relatively new discipline. There are indigenous social scientists today of course (my little sister is one of them), but by the 20th Century a lot of the original beliefs had been lost and a new hybrid culture developed (a process she calls colonial entanglement).

The first indigenous North American I am aware of who endeavored to record native cultures in serious detail was Francis La Flesche, who grew up on the Omaha reservation, and wrote extensive studies of the Omaha and Osage cultures and language at the beginning of the 20th Century. In a lot of ways his timing was fortuitous, because those cultures were newly Christianized, so he was able to get information on a lot of "secret" religious rites while the elders that knew of them were still alive, but after the taboos about sharing them had disappeared.

Both languages are in the same language subfamily as Crow, which tends to be predictive of a lot of other cultural similarities as well, so La Fleche's work is likely to be the best objective window into "Western Siouxan" (including Crow) culture available to you.

I can tell you from what I've researched (I have 2 of La Fleche's works, and have done some other research as well), that all Siouxans I've looked at believed in an omnipresent divine spirit, similar to The Force in Star Wars1, called some variation of "Wakonda"2. Christians like to translate that word to Great Spirit, which is why you see a lot of native-themed "Great Spirit" tchotchkes with what look a lot like Christian homilies on them floating around US tourist traps in the interior of the country.3

A better translation is usually "Great Mystery", but IMHO its probably better to think of it as The Force, but call it by its proper native name (in the language of your choice).

The Osages were divided up into 2 moieties (representing the Earth and the Sky) with 7 clans each (named for what you might call totem creatures, or sometimes just thematically). According to La Fleshe each clan had a part of required rituals they were the secret keeper for, which had a practical effect that major rituals (eg: declaring war) required at least some members of every clan in the entire tribe to gather to carry out properly.

The clan names used vary quite a bit by culture, but every Siouxan nation I've looked at (and many non-Siouxan) had one for Thunderbird and one for Underwater Panther. They are traditional antagonists, and with the Osages at least are in opposite moieties.

1 - This is not entirely coincidental. This is a common mode of belief not only in North America, but in Asia, and George Lucas according to some sources patterned his fictional "Jedi" religion after it.

2 - As near as I've been able to determine, the similarity to the name of Marvel's fictional African nation is entirely conincidental.

3 - To be fair, my Osage grandfather had one of those hanging framed in his house. So Native Americans themselves actually put stock in these, but that doesn't change the fact that they are modern anachronisms, and usually not genuine pre-contact native wisdom.

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    It's not just a 20th century problem. We probably will never know the true nature of the Norse gods and religion because what we know of Thor, Odin, Freya, Loki etc. was colored by a Christian perspective
    – slebetman
    Commented Mar 11, 2020 at 15:25
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    Another problem, of course, is that the beliefs of e.g. Siouxan peoples probably had little (pretty much nothing, from my casual reading) in common with say the beliefs of southwest peopleses like the Navajo & Hopi (they don't even seem to have a lot in common despite being close neighbors), and neither with the peoples of the Pacific Northwest. It might be instructive to look at language diversity: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Indigenous_languages_of_the_Americas#/…
    – jamesqf
    Commented Mar 11, 2020 at 17:23
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    @jamesqf - Exactly right. The Apache and Navajo's (Na-Dene) ancestors in particular most likely came across Beringia much later that most everyone else's. But even the Sioux, Ojibwe, and Iroquois appear to be no closer related than say the Arabs, English, and Turks are to each other. But, much like all three of those peoples have their own gods, but also myths involving dragons, all three of those former North American peoples have their own stories, and also stories about Thunderbird. So some stuff did spread across many different native cultures.
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Mar 11, 2020 at 19:53

The personal papers of Robert Harry Lowie at the Bancroft Library (Berkeley) would be a good source.

The library says that some of the papers are written in Crow.

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