My husband and I have been a bit obsessed with hummingbirds the past couple of years; we’re up to three feeders in the backyard, and we can sit in the afternoon and watch hummingbird skirmishes (Anna’s hummingbirds are notoriously territorial) with as much enthusiasm as other people bring to sports championships. What better then, than a series on hummingbird folklore?
Hummingbirds exist only in the Americas; a uniquely American bird, and so their folklore is also uniquely American. Hummingbird stories exist among many peoples of North, Central, and South America, and so it gives me a change to learn a little something about groups whose legends I know nothing about.
I’ll start this series with a couple of legends from the Ohlone people of the California Coast. The Ohlone lived in the regions around the San Francisco and Monterey bays, down to the Salinas Valley: regions where my husband and I, and my husband’s family grew up. I can’t claim to know a lot about the Ohlone, but the knowledge of their existence has been somewhere in my consciousness since childhood. So even though these first stories are really more Coyote stories than they are Hummingbird stories, they’ve given me a chance to delve a bit into the stories of the people who once lived where I live and where I grew up.
Let’s start with a creation myth, from the Rumsen Ohlone. Rumsen speakers lived in the area of Monterey and Carmel, into the Carmel Valley. Rumsen was the principle indigenous language spoken at Mission Carmel.
The Beginning of the World (Rumsen Ohlone)
At the beginning of this world, the earth was covered in water, save for one peak, on which were Eagle, Hummingbird, and Coyote. They stood looking out as the waters continued to rise, until it lapped at their feet. Then Eagle flew up with Coyote and Hummingbird, landing again at Gavilan Peak, and there they stayed until the waters began to recede. Then Eagle sent Coyote down to see if the world was dry.
Coyote went down, and came back to report that the world was dry, and that by the river was only one person, a beautiful girl. Eagle told Coyote to marry the girl, to repopulate the earth.
“But how will I raise my children?” Coyote asked.
“That’s for you to figure out,” said Eagle.
“I will make them behind the woman’s knee,” said Coyote.
“Noooooo, that’s not good,” said Eagle.
“Then in the crook of her elbow.”
“No, that’s not good.”
“In her eyebrow? In the back of her neck?”
“No, those aren’t good either.”
Finally Hummingbird lost patience.
“No, no, no, Coyote! In the belly! The belly will be good.”
Eagle agreed, but Coyote was angry at Hummingbird for showing him up. He wanted to kill Hummingbird, but Hummingbird flew beneath Eagle’s wing and Coyote couldn’t find him.
So Coyote married the woman, who became pregnant by eating a louse from Coyote’s back. And that’s how, eventually, Coyote (with his apparently multiple wives) became the father of the human race.
- This retelling is based on a version collected and translated by cultural anthropologist Alfred L. Kroeber, a prominent researcher into the indigenous tribes of California (among other peoples) and the father of science fiction author Ursula Kroeber Le Guin. My retelling stops with Coyote’s marriage, because I’m interested in hummingbird stories. In Kroeber’s version Coyote’s wife ran away from him, throwing herself into the ocean and turning into a shrimp to escape. Coyote eventually has five children, I suppose with a second wife (or wives). The five children are the ancestors of five peoples: the “Ensen, Rumsien, Ekkheya, Kakonta, and that of the Wacharones,” who each speak different languages.
- The Rumsen identified the peak where Eagle, Hummingbird and Coyote stood after the flood as Pico Blanco, sacred to the Rumsen and the Esselen (who are not Ohlone). More northern-living Ohlone (the Chochenyo?) identified the peak as Mount Diablo, as did the Miwok, who have a similar creation myth. Gabilan Peak is known today as Fremont Peak.
- Madison Beeler speculated that perhaps the Santa Clara Ohlone identified the peak where the creators stood as Mount Umunhum. The word in Rumsen for “hummingbird” is u’mun, and in Santa Clara it’s something like umanu or umuni. While I think the provenance of the name Umunhum is still officially “not determined,” most people believe the mountain is named after hummingbirds — my husband, who grew up almost in the shadow of Mt. Umunhum, says he was told this as a child.
Beeler, Madison S. “Sonoma, Carquinez, Umunhum, Colma: Some Disputed California Names,” Western Folklore, Vol. 13, No. 4 (Oct., 1954), pp. 268-277.
Kaufman, David. “Rumsen Ohlone Folklore: Two Tales,” Journal of Folklore Research, Vol. 45, No. 3 (Sep. – Dec., 2008), pp. 383-391
Kroeber. Alfred L. Indian Myths of South Central California, 1907. Kroeber refers to the Ohlone as Costanoan (“coast dwellers”), the name the Spanish used to refer to them.
—. Handbook of the Indians of California, 1925, pp. 472-473.
Hummingbird: photo by Nina Zumel
Mount Diablo: photo by Falcorian. Source: Wikipedia