Native American Legends of the Butterfly

Butterflies have played a large role in Native American culture. Given the large diversity between tribes and regions, tribes all have their own unique names, knowledge, and experience for the butterfly. Native Americans have a strong spiritual connection to nature, which is often represented through the butterflies. They often decorate their clothes, teepees, and possessions with butterflies.

This is a famous photo of Sitting Bull taken circa 1880-1890 wearing a hat with a Monarch butterfly on the hatband.

My favorite legend is a story among some Pueblo tribes. According to this legend, the Creator felt sorry for the children when he realized that their destiny was to grow old and become wrinkled, fat, blind, and weak. Hence, he gathered beautiful colors from various sources such as sunlight, leaves, flowers, and the sky. These colors were put into a magical bag and presented to the children. When the children opened the bag, colored butterflies flew out, enchanting the children who had never seen anything so beautiful. The butterflies sang which further delighted the children. However, songbirds complained to the Creator because they were jealous that butterflies were both so beautiful and could sing like birds. So the Creator withdrew the ability to sing from butterflies. And, accordingly, butterflies are so beautifully colored but are now silent.

Bear Painting, Native American Myth “How Butterflies Came to Be” by Colorado Artist Nancee Jean Busse.

For the Blackfeet, the butterfly was associated with sleeping and dreaming. They believed that butterflies delivered dreams. It was the custom for a Blackfoot woman to embroider the sign of a butterfly on a small piece of buckskin and tie this in her baby’s hair when she wishes it to go to sleep. At the same time, she sings to the child a lullaby in which the butterfly is asked to come flying about and put the child to sleep.

Butterfly symbols are found on this Pendleton butterfly pattern from the 1920s.

The butterfly was a prominent figure in the myth and ritual of the Hopi. This insect occurs frequently on prehistoric pottery and in the “Butterfly Dance”. The Butterfly Dance, a traditional social dance of the Hopi, is held in August or September after the gathering of the harvest and presentation of the Snake Dance. It is a thanksgiving ceremony for the harvest, chiefly for the corn crop. Like most Hopi ceremonies, the Butterfly Dance is a petition for rain, good health, and long life for all living things. The dance also recognizes the butterfly for its beauty and its contribution to pollinating plant life.

The spirit of the butterfly is also personified in Hopi Kachina figures. Kachinas are the spirit essence of everything in the real world. They represent game, plants, food, birds, insects, and even death itself is given a Kachina form. Among the various insect Kachinas are three of butterfly origin.

Poli Taka (Butterly Man), Poli Sio Hemis (Zuni Hemis Butterfly Kachina) and Poli Mana (Butterfly Girl)

I am not sure this legend is legitimate, but it’s still beautiful nonetheless and frequently repeated when butterflies are released at various celebrations:

If anyone desires a wish to come true, 
they must first capture a butterfly and whisper that wish to it.
Since a butterfly can make no sound,
the butterfly can not reveal the wish to anyone but the Great Spirit who hears and sees all.
In gratitude for giving the beautiful butterfly its freedom,
the Great Spirit always grants the wish.
So, according to legend,
by making a wish and giving the butterfly its freedom,
the wish will be taken to the heavens and be granted.

“Caught in a Moment” by Mike Bollerud. Powdered graphite, #2 pencil on 18X24 inch Yupo watercolor paper. Used with permission.
This delightful retelling of a Native American folktale is “a satisfying selection, creatively designed, with beautiful pictures and striking imagery. See more here:
A portrait of Sitting Bull, looking back on the events that shaped his life and fate. Click here to see more: