The Potawatomi creation story

I’m just writing a brief post to back up something I said on The Atheist Experience this weekend, because it’s something I’ve found funny for years, but I had a hard time finding afterwards.

While talking about creation myths with a caller, I mentioned that there was a Native American tribe whose myth involved creating humans by baking them like cookies.  Actually, it turns out it was clay, but I was pretty close.


This story comes from the The Potawatomi tribe of Wisconsin.  According to the source, it was copied from a 1947 book called Indian Fireside Tales.

Earthmaker made the world with trees and fields, with rivers, lakes, and springs, and with hills and valleys. It was beautiful. However, there weren’t any humans, and so one day he decided to make some.

He scooped out a hole in a stream bank and lined the hole with stones to make a hearth, and he built a fire there. Then he took some clay and made a small figure that he put in the hearth. While it baked, he took some twigs and made tongs. When he pulled the figure out of the fire and had let it cool, he moved its limbs and breathed life into it, and it walked away. Earthmaker nonetheless realized that it was only half-baked. That figure became the white people.

Earthmaker decided to try again, and so he made another figure and put it on the hearth. This time he took a nap under a tree while the figure baked, and he slept longer than he intended. When he pulled the second figure out of the fire and had let it cool, he moved its limbs and breathed life into it, and it walked away. Earthmaker realized that this figure was overbaked, and it became the black people.

Earthmaker decided to try one more time. He cleaned the ashes out of the hearth and built a new fire. Then he scooped up some clay and cleaned it of any twigs or leaves, so that it was pure. He made a little figure and put it on the hearth, and this time he sat by the hearth and watched carefully as the figure baked. When this figure was done, he pulled it out of the fire and let it cool. Then he moved its limbs and breathed life into it, and it walked away. This figure was baked just right, and it became the red people.

So, yeah, as the caller was saying, I’m sure the ancients had massive amounts of wisdom that is now lost to us. All the same, I’d rather stick to scientific investigation over putting unreasoning trust in things people said, just because they said them a long time ago.


  1. eric says

    I’d rather stick to scientific investigation over putting unreasoning trust in things people said, just because they said them a long time ago.

    Not THAT long ago. That story can’t be older than the 1500s, I’d guess late 1600s because the slave trade didn’t get rolling until then. So, that origin story is likely younger than The Taming of the Shrew.

  2. jacobfromlost says

    Creation/origin myths are cool.

    Dan Dennett, in one of his lectures, says that a Native American told him some myths once, and then told him, “Maybe it didn’t happen that way, but the story is true.”

    Which meant there are truths IN the story (morals, insights, understandings, etc), not that the story literally happened.

    It’s so sad to me when people take stories and myths literally, as they are missing the point. Language, stories, and myth are tools to help us work out our very human problems, but they aren’t magic–they require US to use the tools effectively.

    Of course, if you don’t know how to use those tools (or how others use them), it’s easy for them to become mystified. If you can’t read, writing becomes magical. Terms like “scripture” and “the word of god” take on power simply because reading and writing seems so mystical to those who can’t read or write. Instead of seeing writing/reading as an opportunity to be entertained and/or instructed, they see it as magic words written by god(s)…because who else could be smart enough to read and write?

    It always amused me that “the bible” literally means “the book”, as if there is only one.

  3. says

    I baked some cookies today but I had the heat on a bit too high and the outside is a bit crunchy… where can I send my crunchy skinned people?

  4. Alverant says

    Imagine if a teacher suggested including this story and giving it just as much class time as creationism. Or better yet, having it replace creationism under those “teach the contraversy” laws creationists are always pushing.

  5. says

    “The Potawatomi tribe of Wisconsin”

    I don’t know about the present day, but the Potatwatomi used to live in other areas in addition to Wisconsin. Northern Indiana, for example. If I am not mistaken, the Indiana towns of Mishiwaka, in the greater South Bend metro area, and Wakarusa, within 25 miles of South Bend, both have Potawatomi names. The Potawatami who once lived in that area are sometimes referred to as the St Joseph and Elkhart Potawatomi, after the St Joseph and Elkhart rivers.

    I don’t know whether there still are any Potawatomi living in that area. I have the impression — perhaps mistaken — that Indiana has been, ironically, almost empty of Native people for quite a long time.

  6. says

    It always amused me that “the bible” literally means “the book”, as if there is only one.

    Moreover, there’s not even only one book in the book, if you know what I mean. Saying “the bible” gives the impression that God wrote it, printed it as is, and sent it down a conveyor belt to the faithful, where in fact there were lots of writings from different sources, collected into an anthology quite late in the game. “Scriptures” as a descriptor has an advantage in this sense, but unfortunately it’s got that aura of woo woo sanctity about it. I generally go with “biblical texts” but an alternative would be nice.

  7. Travis says

    I remember reading this in a high school textbook (around 1990?). I remember it because it had an accompanying illustration of a white man and a black man running away. I can’t remember if it was a biology book or a health (taken during P.E.) textbook. I can’t imagine why it would be in either one of those to begin with. I’d like to find which textbook it was in and in what context it was for.

  8. eric says

    Ibis3 – I was thinking, when would the Powatami have first come into contact with black-skinned people? Probably not until they started being carried over to the Americas in significant numbers, which was the late 1600s.

  9. Jdog says

    The attempt by the Kansas Board of Education to introduce creationism to the school curriculum was the impetus for the Flying Spaghetti Monster to reveal It’s guiding hand- er, guiding noodly appendage in the creation of the universe.

    The revelation has been touted as the primary reason the creationists’ attempt was defeated, but I don’t know how true that is.

  10. tosspotovich says

    Check out Australian aboriginal dreamtime stories for some fruity creation myths. I think they are also not meant to be taken literally.

  11. MarkB says

    I see some similarities between the Potawatomi creation myth and the Christian; god forms humans from clay, and he’s a bit of a screw-up.

  12. Sids says

    What seems apparent here is that this is a culture that is willing to change it’s religious dogma based on new discoveries of the physical world and is willing to incorporate other cultures and peoples into their beliefs (albeit as gods mistakes). They also admit to a falible god which opens the door to discussion. I wouldn’t write them off so quickly. They may be batshit crazy, but I know of a lot of religions that could learn from such ‘ancient wisdom’.

    I’m trying to be optimistic today 🙂

  13. furtivezoog says

    A very similar story appears in American Indian Myths and Legends (Pantheon Fairy Tale & Folklore Library; 1985), compiled and edited by Richard Erdoes and Alfonso Ortiz, pg. 45-47, as “The Well-Baked Man”, resulting in the creation of the Pueblo Indians. You can read it via the “Look Inside” feature on Amazon. There are all kinds of wonderful stories in that book, btw.

  14. Richard Simons says

    Years ago a Chinese friend told me a similar myth but the people were made of dough and the ones that came out a nice golden-brown were, of course, the Chinese.

  15. greg1466 says

    Yet another in the endless line of creation stories that “proves” that the people to whom the story belongs are the special ones.

  16. heisenbug says

    K:All the same, I’d rather stick to scientific investigation over putting unreasoning trust in things people said, just because they said them a long time ago.

    Me: You should not discard right away the possibility that ancients were more knowledgeable about some things than we are today. For example, Ancient Rome was more developed than mediaval Europe (an example when a civilization from the past is more developed than a later one). Obviously, we live in a golden age compared to the past, but some small techniques (Damascus steel for example) were superior to modern technologies in some respect.

  17. John Kruger says

    Funny how easy it is to dismiss this story as made up folklore and not try to make any apologetics for it. I was amused that all the people of various skin types walked away from the same spot, so presumably one walked all the way to Europe and the other all the way to Africa. Oriental skinned people must have been for a separate meal. How they found females to procreate with I don’t want to know.

    It is too bad that somehow talking snakes, water walking, bread and fish conjuring, and coming back to life are not so easily dismissed as fiction. Any sound consideration at all reveals stories like this for what they are.

  18. Kes says

    The making humans from clay motif is very, very old. You can find it in Sumerian myths, which predate the writing of Genesis by several thousands of years. You can see themes in the Sumerian myths that later appeared in Egyptian, Arabian, Greek, Persian, and Canaanite myth. These include the crippled smith (Hephaestus), a spring/fertility goddess traveling into the underworld (Isis/Persephone) and the “rib-woman”, Nin-Ti (Ti also being Sumerian for life). The Sumerian pun was preserved in Eve’s origin story, but unfortunately the humor was lost, since the Hebrew for rib (tsela) bears no resemblance to their words for life, “Havvah” or “Chavvah”, Eve’s name.

    The location of Eden can also be located with some confidence at the headwaters of the Tigris & Euphrates, based on the rivers mentioned in Genesis. This, of course, is where the Sumerian civilization had flourished thousands of years before.

    All these parallels become that much more interesting to me when one recalls that Abram’s city of origin, before he was called by El, was Ur of the Chaldees, a Sumerian city.

  19. CompulsoryAccount7746, Sky Captain says

    Speaking of not-so-ancient folklore, anybody know what stories tried to explain the plagues that arrived from overseas?

  20. says

    Thanks for your comment! I was just about to mention that the “creating humans from clay” motif was found throughout the Middle East as well, particularly in the Jewish myths that are more familiar to Westerners. “Dust you are and to dust you shall return.” I believe the Hebrew word can mean clay, soil, earth, etc. In the Babylonian legends, the seed of the god En (represented by the flowing river) combined with the womb of the Earth goddess to make the clay from which men were formed.

    Also, I was reminded strongly of the Jewish golems. The legend had it that some Jewish wise men (always men, of course) imitated El by shaping clay into human forms, baking it and putting holy words (the breath of life) into the clay figure. The being sprang to life and obeyed all their commands. (It belonged to them because they created it, just as humans belonged to Yahweh.) According to one story I read, the rabbi asked his golem to do something on a Sabbath day. The golem interpreted this as a command to do work. It went into a rage and ran around destroying everything until… something stopped it. I can’t remember what, exactly.

  21. James Solomon says

    I’m an indigenous Australian atheist and I agree with you that our creation myths are quite “fruity” when compared to other creation stories, they even appear to be quite primitive which is indicative of how isolated we were from the rest of the world’s trade routes and so never really developed philosophically and industrially on par with the rest of the world.

  22. Blue Duck says

    I regard my tribe’s stories (origin and other legends) as part of our cultural heritage. And I cherish them for that. We don’t take them as a literal origin story like fundy Christians try to interpret Genesis.

  23. adamszentirmai-schon says

    It always amused me that “the bible” literally means “the book”, as if there is only one.

    No it doesn’t. Bible means “books”.
    “Biblia” is the plural of the ancient greek word “biblion” (“book”).

  24. jacobfromlost says

    Sure, but my point stands even if we ignore the problem of using Greek to label a compilation of books that were not compiled until MUCH later by people who weren’t speaking Greek and who didn’t write the books (and ignore the problem that some “holy books” that were considered holy by people who spoke and wrote in Greek are not in “the bible” today, as well as the problem that there were a wide variety of believers who originally didn’t all agree on which books were holy and didn’t even concern themselves with a canon).

    My point was simply that an aura of magic is woven around these things, an aura that traffics in exclusivity. You give the illiterate the impression there is only ONE book. (But it means many books and there are many books in it.) Ok, but there is only ONE compilation. (But there are other holy books with other compilations.) Ok, but there is only ONE compilation that is truly holy.

    There is always a means to make it exclusive, and the more ignorant people are, the easier it is to make it exclusive.

    If the illiterate/ignorant learn a LITTLE bit more, there is always a way to wrap the exclusivity aura around what they don’t understand and say There Can Be Only One.

    (You’ll get a modern equivalent of this today in people who think that meaning is “woven into” words themselves. Usually you only get this with monolingual people who don’t really get the concept that languages evolve, they are not absolute, they are not handed down by god, meaning is not woven into them magically/spiritually throughout the universe, and that meaning only comes from our mutual agreement…and, most importantly, that our mutual agreement on what a word means doesn’t mean the meaning reflects something real.)

  25. Didaktylos says

    My guess would be that the original version of the story had two of the Potawatomi tribe’s neighbours rather than whites and blacks

  26. Anagramanachronist says

    I guess the Earthmaker couldn’t send out for Chinese. Clay of Sum Yung Gai?

  27. says

    Um, so your “path to salvation” for us is to tell us you’ll pray for us?

    Good luck with that.

    Whether you’re a troll or a Poe (and looking over your blog, I’m suspecting Poe), you’re not very good at either, and less if you’re actually trying to be an apologist.