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 In one page discuss how you feel the heroes within the myths you read might define the concept of an “American Dream”. Do you feel this concept of an ideal American life will change after the European conquest of the Americas? Do you feel the values displayed by the heroes of Amerindian legends will impact later American literature – if so, how? 

Course Themes: Race, Gender, Class, and the American Dream

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  • What is the “American Dream?”
  • Is it different for each individual?
  • Is it equally possible for all the achieve? Historically?
  • In a class like this, we will examine what the “American Dream”, if one exists or is possible, looks like for different individuals. We will be especially focusing how this Dream might be different dependent on one’s class, gender, and/or race.
  • We will be sure as a class to avoid stereotypes and generalizations about groups of people, and remember to analyze texts according to individuality.

America is said to have been discovered about 12,000 years ago (or much earlier) “when Stone Age hunters from Asia crossed the land bridge that is now the Bering Strait” (McQuade, 1999).

The literature of the Americas begins with American Indian narratives.

Eskimo (Inuit)

Native Americans of the Northeast
5 Nations of the Iroquois

Chippewa (Ojibwa)

  • By the end of the eighteenth century the Ojibwe were the almost unchallenged owners of nearly all of the present Michigan, Northern Wisconsin, and Minnesota, including most of the Red River country and west-ward to the Turtle Mountains of North Dakota, together with the entire northern shores and drainage of Lakes Huron and Superior on the Canadian side.

Indians of Coastal New England

Indians of Virginia

Native Americans of the Plains

  • They call themselves Dakota, Nakota, or Lakota, according to dialect, meaning “allies”.

Native Americans of the Southeast

Native Americans of the Southwest

Amerindian “Ecological Heroes”

  • The text you’re reading, The Heroes of Amerindian Mythology, points out how often many Amerindian mythic heroes are portrayed as heroes because of their willingness to learn from nature – especially their willingness to see themselves as a natural element, equal to all natural elements, even when facing their own mortality.
  • When looking at some depictions of Amerindian ecological heroes, like divine beings, culture heroes, heroes who trust or even marry nature, or heroes who actually transform into nature, consider how these stories are also defining an idea about an “American Dream” for the audiences of the myths.

“New World” Literature


Later texts reveal the sharp contrast between the cultures of the native inhabitants of America and the European conquerors. Most European texts speak of trying to eliminate or assimilate the American Indians.

There are few early American Indian texts because most of their culture relied on the oral tradition, not the written language. Therefore, we are mostly left with the European explorers’ accounts, which only depict the American Indian culture through their limited European viewpoint; thus, leaving the true character of the American Indian often unknown.

With over 350 Native American languages and thousands of political and social groups throughout the land, “no single image of the Native American people can accurately capture the complexity of their culture. Yet historically, convenient stereotypes have dominated” (McQuade, 1999).

Before Columbus’ 1492 “discovery” of America, Icelandic and Norse texts depict the New World in European Literature.

Leif Ericsson the Lucky (980?-1020?) was a Viking (Norse) explorer who was possibly the first European to sail to North America. Leif sailed north from the southern tip of Greenland, then went south down to Labrador, and then landed in what is now called Newfoundland (which he called Vinland).

  • Ericsson sailed for North America in the year 1000 with a crew of 35.
  • The Sagas: Two medieval Icelandic chronicles, The Greenlander’s Saga and Eric’s Saga comprise the primary written evidence for the Norse landfall , relating their sightings, explorations, and attempts at settlement in North America.
  • 11th century AD Cultural Contacts: Both peaceful and violent meetings between the Norsemen and natives are recorded in the sagas. Skraelings, the Norse term for the natives, included both northeastern Algonquin tribes and Eskimos.
  • The short accounts in the sagas provide tantalizing glimpses of North American aboriginal physical appearances and customs, as well as initial inter-cultural reaction. The Greenlander’s Saga contains the first known record of an encounter between native North Americans and Europeans, shortly after AD 1000. That narrative tells how eight Indians were killed by Thorvald, Leif Ericsson’s brother, and the battle which ensued.

Christopher Columbus

  • Columbus was an Italian explorer who sailed across the Atlantic Ocean in 1492, hoping to find a route to India (in order to trade for spices). He made a total of four trips to the Caribbean and South America during the years 1492-1504.
  • The First Trip: Columbus sailed for King Ferdinand II and Queen Isabella of Spain. Columbus led an expedition with three ships, the Niña, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria, with about 90 crew members. They set sail on Aug. 3, 1492 from Palos, Spain, and on October 11, 1492, spotted the Caribbean islands off southeastern North America.
  • They landed on an island they called San Salvador. They were met by the local Taino Indians, many of whom were captured by Columbus’ men and later sold into slavery. Columbus thought he had made it to Asia, and called this area the Indies, and called its inhabitants Indians.
  • While exploring the islands in the area and looking for gold to loot, Columbus’ men traveled to the islands of Hispaniola (now divided into Haiti and the Dominican Republic), Cuba, and many other smaller islands. On the return trip, the Santa Maria was wrecked and the captain of the Pinta sailed off on his own to try to beat Columbus back. Columbus returned to Spain in the Nina, arriving on March 15, 1493.

Watch Columbus Clip

HERNAN CORTES (1485-1547)

  • Cortés was a Spanish adventurer and conquistador (he was also a failed law student) who overthrew the Aztec empire and claimed Mexico for Spain (1519-21).
  • Cortes sailed with 11 ships from Cuba to the Yucatan Peninsula to look for gold, silver, and other treasures.
  • Hearing rumors of great riches, Cortés traveled inland and “discovered” the capital of the Aztec empire.
  • He then brutally killed the Aztec emperor Montezuma and conquered his Aztec Empire of Mexico, claiming all of Mexico for Spain in 1521.
  • Treasures from the Aztecs were brought to Spain, and Cortés was a hero in his homeland. Cortés was appointed governor of the colony of New Spain, but eventually fell out of favor with the royals. He then returned to Spain where he died a few years later.


  • De Vaca was a Spanish explorer who sailed to North America from Spain, leaving in 1527. He traveled from Florida to Texas on a raft, then walked from Texas to Mexico City. He also explored the Paraguay River in South America. De Vaca and his fellow travelers were the first Europeans to see buffalo.
  • The expedition of 250 to 300 men was led by Panfilo de Narvaez. After surviving a hurricane near Cuba, the expedition landed on the west coast of Florida (near Tampa Bay) in April 1528, claiming the land for Spain. A series of hurricanes and fights with Native Americans killed many of the crew, and the pilot of the ship sailed to Mexico without the 250 to 300 men. The stranded men hastily made 5 make-shift rafts on which they sailed west, hoping to reach a Spanish settlement in Mexico. Three rafts sank, but the two surviving rafts (carrying 80 men) landed at Galveston Island (off what is now Texas). Narvaez did not survive.
  • After a very cold winter with very little food, only 15 men survived. In spring, the men traveled west by land, walking along the Colorado River. By 1533, there were only four survivors. The men were enslaved for a while by some Indian tribes along the way, and were helped by other tribes. They were the first non-natives to travel in this area of the southwestern North America.
  • The four men finally reached a Spanish settlement in early 1536 (8 years after being stranded in Florida).
  • After serving as a Mexican territorial governor, Cabeza de Vaca returned to Spain (in 1537) and published an account of his travels, noting the appalling treatment of Indians by the Spanish. His writing encouraged many other Spanish expeditions to the Americas, including those of de Soto and de Coronado.

Watch Film Clip of Cabeza de Vaca

Hernando De Soto (1500?-1542)

  • De Soto was a Spanish explorer who sailed the Atlantic Ocean and was the first European to explore Florida and the southeastern US.
  • In 1524, he went on an expedition to Nicaragua, South America. De Soto lived for a while in Nicaragua, prospering by engaging in the slave trade.
  • During an expedition to Peru they met and killed the ruler of the Incas and conquered the Inca empire.
  • De Soto arrived on the west coast of Florida on May 30, 1539 with 10 ships carrying over 600 soldiers, priests, and explorers. They spent four years searching for gold and silver, exploring the area, and brutally contacting native societies, including the Cherokees, Seminoles, Creeks, Appalachians, and Choctaws. De Soto died during the explorations and was buried on the banks of the Mississippi River in late June, 1542.

Francisco de Coronado (1510-1554)

  • Coronado was a Spanish ruler, explorer and conquistador. He was the first European to explore North America’s Southwest.
  • He searched fruitlessly for treasure that was rumored to exist in northern Mexico: the fabled seven Golden Cities of Cibola.
  • With a group of hundreds of Spaniards and enslaved natives, he traveled through what is now northern Mexico and the southwestern USA (including Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Oklahoma, and Kansas).
  • His expedition found only Zuñi, Hopi, and Pueblos, native Americans who repelled Coronado when he demanded that they convert to Christianity. Coronado killed many native Americans during this expedition. Since he did not find gold, silver, or other treasures, his expedition was branded a failure by Spanish leaders.

Spain in the New World


  • Vespucci was an Italian explorer who, in 1501-02, was the first person to realize that the Americas were separate from the continent of Asia. America was named after him in 1507, when a German mapmaker printed the first map that used the name America for the New World.
  • Sir Walter Raleigh (1554-1618) was a British explorer, poet, historian, and soldier.
  • Raleigh led expeditions to both North America and South America; he was trying to found new settlements, find gold, and increase trade with the New World.
  • In 1585, Raleigh sent colonists to the east coast of North America; Raleigh later named that area Virginia, in honor of Elizabeth, the Virgin Queen.
  • He is often credited with bringing tobacco and potatoes from the New World to Britain, but they were already known there. Raleigh was later executed by King James I for treason.
  • Captain John Smith (January 9, 1580 – June, 1631) was an English adventurer and soldier, and one of the founders of the Jamestown, Virginia, settlement.
  • Smith was one of 105 settlers who sailed from England on December 19, 1606, and landed in Virginia on April 26, 1607. When they reached North America, the group opened sealed instructions and found that Smith was chosen as one of the seven leaders of the new colony. This was controversial since Smith had been accused of mutiny on the voyage.
  • The settlers established Jamestown on May 24, 1607; it became the first permanent English settlement in North America.
  • On another trip later that year, Smith was taken captive by the Chief of the Powhatan Indians and was condemned to death. Pocahontas (1595-1617), daughter of the Indian chief, saved Smith’s life. (Pocahontas eventually married the English settler John Rolfe and later died of smallpox.)
  • By the end of the first year, most of the settlers had died of starvation or disease. After that disastrous first year, Smith imposed order by forcing everyone to work.
  • More settlers arrived at the Jamestown colony in August, 1609. There was no agreement on who should be in charge of the colony.
  • Samuel de Champlain (1567?-1635) was a French explorer and navigator who mapped much of northeastern North America and started a settlement in Quebec. Champlain was important in establishing and administering the French colonies in the New World.
  • In 1609, Champlain befriended the Huron Indians and helped them fight the Iroquois (this battle led to 150 years of bitterness and hostility between the Iroquois and the French). It was during this venture that he discovered Lake Champlain.
  • In 1613, he again sailed up the St. Lawrence, and explored the Ottawa River. Two years later, after returning from France, he retraced this route and ventured into what is now northern New York state and the eastern Great Lakes.
  • Most scholars now agree that the number of native Americans alive in 1619 was but 5 to 10 percent of the number alive in 1519, probably killed by diseases such as smallpox, measles, plague, or influenza. Other reason were war, genocide, the destruction of traditional ways of life, and forms of colonial rule that both reduced native populations and prevented normal recovery.
  • So many Native Americans died that the Pilgrims, who arrived in 1620, persuaded themselves that God had destroyed the natives to open their territory to European colonists. This “self-serving conquest,” as the historian Francis Jennings called it, had fundamental psychological consequences for later relations between natives and newcomers.

For many explorers, America represented the dream of a Golden Age, a place uncorrupted by man and resembling the original state of nature. This view of nature was soon to change into a fear of a “’hideous and desolate wilderness, full of wild beasts and wild men’” (cited in McQuade, 1999). Other motives for exploration included: “investigation of new regions, religious conversion of native populations,” and the search for gold and riches (McQuade, 1999).

An image of an American hero begins to emerge, where survival, self-reliance, and spiritual rebirth are valued and admired.

The New World is promoted to colonists as a place of “individual well-being, liberty, and improved social status” (McQuade, 1999).

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