While the U.S. government and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) denies their existence, Native American tribes have been telling stories about mermaids from time immemorial.
From the Halfway People of the Mi’kmaq and the Lampeqinuwok of the Maliseet, to the story of Ne Hwas told by the the Passamaquoddy and the story of the first merman told by the Potawatomi, there is no shortage of tales about the half human creatures.
The Mi’kmaq tell the tale of Lone Bird who stumbles upon a cove of five beautiful maidens swimming and playing in the water: “They were lovely, it is true, but they looked nothing like human maidens, for humans do not have pale skin, spotted with silvery scales. They do not dress their hair with strands of seaweed. And though maidens adorn themselves with necklaces of bright shells, humans have legs. Their bodies do not end in long fish tails,” from the book Spirits, Fairies, and Merpeople: Native Stories of Other Worlds by C.J. Taylor.
Lampeqinuwok are water sprites from Maliseet and Passamaquoddy stories. The website Native-Languages.org reports that in some stories they take human form, and in others they have fish tails, but in most stories they fall into the power of anybody who can steal their magical garments.
The Passamaquoddy tell the story of He Nwas, the mermaid. It’s about two girls who defy their mother by swimming where they weren’t supposed to. The girls turn into mermaids and instead of playing on the shore, they tow their parent’s canoe for them.
“They were all slimy; they grew to be snakes from below the waist. After sinking a few times in this strange slime they became very handsome, with long black hair and large, bright black eyes, with silver bands on their neck and arms,” from The Algonquin Legends of New England, by Charles G. Leland.
The Potawatomi story “The Adventures of Raccoon” recounts a troublemaker raccoon and how he tricks villagers, crawfish and his brother Wolf. In the end of the story, raccoon’s last trick is to drown Wolf: “When he was within reach, Raccoon sprang upon him and ducked him until he was drowned. Because of this there is a two-legged animal in the water to this day, which the Potawatomi call a merman. He is half fish and half human,” from The Mascoutens or Prairie Potawatomi Indians, Part III, Mythology and Folklore.
There is also a Sekani legend about a man who married a mermaid. He captured her by tying her to a tree by her long hair. During her first winter on land she begged him to let her return to the water. During her second winter her husband wasn’t able to kill much game so he let her return to the water. She brought him and their son food and returned to him.
“After this the mermaid lived very happily with her husband for many years and bore him several children,” the legend says. “Very reluctantly he consented and dug a hole through the ice for her. She dived into the water but returned immediately because her children were unable to follow her. One after another she rubbed their mouths with water and told them to dive in after her. Then they all went down into the water and never returned.”
Another legend called “The Lost Boy” comes from the Lenape. It tells the story of three boys crossing a normally calm, shallow stream. One of the boys was lost when a wave came rushing at them. The boys’ parents went to a mystic man to find their lost son. The man told them their son was alive and had been taken by a woman. The mystic man told them they could see their son at sunrise if they camped on the bank of the great river.
“Before the hour, a great crowd gathered at the appointed place, and the mysterious deep began to roll and throw forth great whirlpools. And thunder or rumbling sounds burst into the air,” from The White Deer and Other Stories Told By The Lenape edited by John Bierhorst. “At sunrise, behold, they saw on the waves of the great river the missing boy. At his side was a beautiful humanlike personage, said to be a mermaid.”
An Ottawa tale tells the love story of Menanna and Piskaret. Menanna showed up at the door of an Ottawa warrior, covered in scales with twin fishtails where her legs should be. She told him she had once been mortal but longed to roam the heavens. The Great Spirit granted her wish, but she grew tired of wandering and was allowed to return to earth, though in a form “neither mortal nor immortal, neither man nor beast—the mermaid shape in which the warrior beheld her. In this guise she became the adopted daughter of the Spirits of the Flood.”
The warrior took her in and the scales began to fall away, but she wouldn’t regain her original human form until she found love. When she did find love, it was with Piskaret, the son of an enemy tribe—the Adirondacks, who refused their love.
Menanna was so sad she left the Ottawas and rejoined the Spirits of the Flood, who vowed vengeance on the Adirondacks.
“The Spirits of the Flood attacked the canoes of the Adirondacks, leaving few of the tribe alive. Piskaret was caught and shielded in the arms of Menanna, who drew him from his canoe and sank with him beneath the waters,” reads Sea Enchantress, The Tale of the Mermaid and her Kin by Gwen Benwell and Sir Arthur Waugh.
Native Americans aren’t the only cultures that have numerous legends of the fishtailed creatures; cultures across the continent speak of mermaids. The fantastical creatures seem to be universally imagined in similar fashion.