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Just in Time for 1 & 4 July

Here is the opening post of our Mini-Course on the Origin Myths of Canada and the U.S.A.—and how Christianity did, and didn't, figure in those myths. Understanding those myths helps to understand why the two countries celebrate so differently on their respective national holidays.

The Fourth of July is a party. A big party. Every year.

Independence Day, as it is officially known, commemorates the Declaration of Independence, which was ratified by the Second Continental Congress on July 4, 1776, and established the United States of America as a new nation separate from Great Britain—and, perforce, the other British colonies in North America, some of which became Canada a century later. Americans—as individuals, as families, as communities, even as (sometimes especially as) churches—celebrate the Fourth of July with patriotic fervor and festivities great and small.

Three days earlier in the calendar, on July 1, Canada Day is celebrated also with a party. Every year. Just not a big party.

Yes, there is generally a public concert held in the square before the Parliament Buildings in Ottawa, attended by thousands wearing red and white and waving red-and-white flags. Other municipalities might host a small parade and later shoot off some fireworks over the ocean, lake or river. (Most Canadian towns of any size are on an ocean, lake, or river.) And families generally gather for a picnic or a “barbecue,” the latter being Canadians’ erroneous term for what is actually, ahem, grilling.

So there is a party in Canada, too, on Canada Day. But not a big party. This series explains the difference in the two holidays—and why it matters every day, not just once a year, in terms of the very different experiences of nationalism, diversity, church-state relations, and even foreign policy between the two countries.


In the beginning, the Earth was flooded. The Creator had condemned the planet’s feuding peoples and wiped them out with water. A few animals, however, survived the flood: the loon, the muskrat, and the turtle. And there was also Nanabush, sometimes called Nanabozo, or Weesakayjack—from which we get “whiskey jack,” the popular name for the Canada jay.

Nanabush was a great spirit with the power to create life. Nanabush asked the remaining animals to swim deep beneath the waters to retrieve soil that could be used to recreate the world.

One by one the animals attempted to obey, but one by one they failed. Eventually, the last animal, the muskrat, dove deep and stayed down longer than any other. It finally resurfaced—with wet soil in its paws. Alas, the little creature expired from the effort. But Nanabush took the soil and put it on the back of a willing turtle.

Turtle Island was born, the center of the new world. (And “Turtle Island” has since become a popular name for Canada among those interested in the traditions of First Nations.)

This is a dull and simplified version—borrowed from the Ojibwe—of one of many colourful “earth-diver” myths told in northeastern North America. Such tales vary with the tribe and even the teller, and they are usually much more complex and interesting.

Across the continent, Pacific Coast tribal lore speaks of creation also in terms of animals, but now these are the godlike Raven, Crow, Thunderbird, Wolf, and Bear. Up north, Inuit stories feature the goddess Sedna, whose father, angry at her love affair with Wolf, throws her out of his kayak and then, as she tries to cling to the side, cuts off her fingers and arms, which become the small and large animals of the Arctic. She then gives birth to half-wolf, half-human offspring—the Cree and the whites.

The Plains peoples tell a different sort of story. The Sioux say that the Old Man, Waziya, lived beneath the Earth with his wife. Their daughter married the Wind and bore four sons, the winds North, East, South, and West. Together with the Sun and the Moon, the winds controlled the universe. And as the rest of the world was being formed, Iktoma the trickster made trouble wherever he could.

The Crow tribes speak of Old Woman’s Grandchild, the son of an Indian woman and the Sun, who destroys monsters. He then goes to the sky and becomes Morning Star. In a Cheyenne version of the Dog Husband story (note the resemblance to the Sedna myth), the mother and her children go to the sky and become the Pleiades constellation.

The Comanche believe that the Great Spirit created some people but that there were white people existing before them. A flood washed away these white people, however, and they turned into white birds and flew off. A secondary spirit was then sent to create the Comanche. But they were not perfect at first, so the spirit came a second time, giving them intelligence and showing them how to make everything. And there are the usual trickster stories, featuring Old Coyote as the central figure.

Across the globe, tribal peoples tell stories with certain formal similarities. Great beings interact—in games, battles, sex, murder—and out of those interactions come the features of the world: mountains, trees, waters, animals, people. Behind it all is usually a single Creator, but somehow (the myths often don’t specify why) we have lost contact with this Sky Father. Foremost instead tends to be a trickster, whose antics range from the amusing to the lethal.

The world thus created is a strange place, a natural order emerging out of chaos into a state now of beauty and vitality, but also of perpetual danger. Life is precarious; bad things can happen in a moment. The best thing to do is to obey the teachings of the elders—who got to be elders by behaving themselves wisely—and to stay on the right side of the spirits and other powerful creatures who can, if offended, make life miserable, or just short.

The often-cited “harmony with nature” motif is thus revealed to be prudently pragmatic, not softly sentimental. Understand the way things came about and you will see how things continue to be. Humans are terribly vulnerable and therefore must get along with the rest of the world as carefully as possible.

Origin myths tell us not only about the past, but about how to conduct ourselves in the present. What then about the origins of the actual countries of Canada and the United States? What explains the excitement of the Fourth of July and the relatively muted enthusiasm of July 1? That’s what the rest of this series will explain.

To continue this series, sign up for the Mini-Course on Canadian and American Origin Myths—included in Companion and Sustainer memberships, and available at a small cost to everyone HERE.


 Mini Courses 


Understand key ideas in important Christian theology, ethics, and history in 30 minutes (or less!) in ThinkBetter Media's mini-courses, created by award-winning theologian and historian Dr. John G. Stackhouse, Jr. 

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