In the early 1900s, it was widely accepted that early Amerindian cultures had encountered mammoths and mastodons. However, it is still arguable whether the current cultures like Iroquois, Algonquian, and others had encountered these elephant relatives or not.
Historian Mary Chandler Edmonston sought to demonstrate that both creatures had been encountered, and were confirmed in oral Amerindian histories. Just as Amerindians detailed information on deer, alligators, and other wildlife, they would have also mentioned massive mammoths if encountered.
Edmonston's paper reviewed 60 stories largely from the northeastern U.S. and southern Canada, as well as stories from other North American regions. She also counters objections of various archaeologists and anthropologists on these issues. In reviewing these oral Amerindian stories, she had two sets of information to retrieve.
First, she tried to identify what qualifies as elephantine descriptions, taking into account that the storytellers back then had never seen a mammoth and would relate the story to a creature that they were more familiar with. Hence, most of these stories involve giant bears, moose, or a monster. A prime example is the northern Maine Penobscot nation that described a “bear-kind” with teeth long enough to pierce (tusks), a lip as long as several paces (the trunk), and great strength.
Second, Edmonston drew conclusions about these creatures' natural history in the North American continent based on the stories. The majority of the legends bore a monster-versus-man relationship with these creatures, describing the monsters as secretive, solitary, and rare beasts. As such, Edmonston argued that mammoths and mastodons in their final days dwindled to small numbers and merely consisted of roaming individuals.
Now, with mammoths long extinct and no longer a cultural aspect of Amerindian life, what is their significance in modern dialogue on indigenous viewpoints? These Amerindian mammoth myths can provide a prime reflection of how respect has been lost toward Amerindian cultures. In the Ice Age, Amerindian cultures like the Yakama (formerly spelled Yakima) described a time when animals and people were great in both size and harmony, living together peacefully. However, over the centuries, the animals dwindled into mythological monsters for most.
In the same way, while Amerindian oral histories once served as guides for hunting and witnesses of national history, today they are cultural artifacts of little use other than diversity celebrations or children's stories. They are far too inaccurate to be of any historical use for American scholars. Similar to a story of an Iroquian killing a lone mammoth roaming in a swamp, a biologist that is reading a story on Iroquoian animals is unfamiliar, monstrous, and to be disposed of.
Edmonston, 1953. The Mammoth and the Mastodon in the Folklore of the Indians of North America. Journal of the Illinois State Archaeological Society January 1953(1). Accessed April 4, 2021. https://www.jstor.org/stable/43588552
Native Languages writers. Native American legends: Yakwawiak, the BIG Rump bear. Native Language.org website. 2020. Accessed April 4, 2021. http://www.nativelanguages.org/yakwawiak.htm
Deloria V. Red earth, white lies: Native Americans and the myth of scientific fact. Golden, CO: Fulcrum Pub. 1997.
Last Fact Checked on May 28th, 2021.