Subarctic Mythology

October 13, 2021

Myths and legends described a time when animals had great power and could assume human form. Many Subarctic peoples told stories about a “culture hero,” the first person to gain special powers. For them, power and knowledge were one, and a powerful individual was one who “knows something.” The culture hero demonstrated the personal knowledge and self-reliance recognized as important survival skills and could outwit individuals with knowledge of evil medicine. They also possessed the ability to overcome dangerous animals and thus made the world a safer place in which humans could live. The Algonquian culture hero and trickster figures are known as Nanabozho and Wisakedjak. The Dene culture hero goes by many names but is often associated with migratory water birds and the sun, both of whom are seen to fly through the heavens. Beliefs about the interdependence of people and nature embodied in myth helped Subarctic Aboriginal peoples interpret their environment.

The Dane-zaa of the Peace River region in the West had prophets called Dreamers – people who had experienced death and flown like swans to a spirit land beyond the sky. They were healers and leaders in religious dances based on songs they brought back from their journeys to heaven. Like many other Subarctic peoples, they sang to the accompaniment of single-headed hand drums. Most people, however, had some degree of medicine power obtained from childhood vision quests. In addition, there was a body of beliefs and practices, taboos, prescriptions, and minor rituals separate from shamanism, divination, and curing. Among these customs were the special observances made prior to and after killing animals.1

  1. 2021. Arctic Indigenous Peopls in Canada | The Canadian Encyclopedia. [online] Available at: [Accessed 1 February 2021].