The traditional narratives of Native California are the folklore and mythology of the native people of California. For many historic nations of California, there is only a fragmentary record of their traditions. Spanish missions in California from the 18th century Christianized many of these traditions, and the remaining groups were mostly assimilated to US culture by the early 20th century. While there are sparse records from the 18th century, most material was collected during the 19th and the early 20th centuries.
Ethnolinguistically, most of the native peoples of California can be categorized into three large groups, Penutian, Hokan and Uto-Aztecan. Of these traditions, one of the best attested and most notable in US mainstream culture is Hopi mythology, the Hopi being a Pueblo people speaking a language of the Uto-Aztecan family.
A few versions of Native California traditional narratives were written down by Franciscan missionaries, notably Jerónimo Boscana in the early nineteenth century. Travelers, government agents, and local residents, such as Hugo Reid and Stephen Powers, added to this documentation in the later nineteenth century.
As anthropology in the United States transformed itself into a profession in the early twentieth century, preserving a record of native myths became one of its first major undertakings. Alfred L. Kroeber at the University of California, Berkeley, was a key instigator of these efforts, and the University's publication series, such as the University of California Publications in American Archaeology and Ethnology, as well as the Journal of American Folklore and other national journals, were important outlets for the results of the studies.
After the middle of the twentieth century, the work slowed somewhat. Much of the basic documentary work had been completed, and native cultural traditions had grown weaker with the passing of the decades. However, important contributions have continued to be made, especially in the presentation of narratives within their original languages as well as in translation.
Among some of the surviving descendants of the first Californians, narratives continue to be transmitted orally.
Several general traits are recognizable in California's traditional narratives. These traits are not universally present, but they characterize most of the narratives:
Folklorists have commonly attempted to distinguish between myths, legends, tales, and histories.
In the oral literature of native California, the lines between these genres are typically not at all carefully observed. It is often impossible to classify a narrative definitively as a myth, a legend, a tale, or a history. Cognate versions of the same narrative as told by different narrators may fall within different genres.
Many of the narratives are entirely unique, existing in only a single version. However, many others are known in multiple versions that vary but are clearly cognate with one another. The versions may come from different narrators within a single ethnolinguistic group, from different groups within a region of the Californias, or from groups that are scattered across the North American continent and even beyond. Patterns in the relative similarity of shared narratives are almost entirely dictated by the historic-period propinquity of the groups sharing narratives. Few if any patterns reflect preferential sharing among historically dispersed groups that originally shared a common linguistic descent. This suggests ongoing, creative modification of narratives, rather than rigid conservatism.
Lengthy traditional narratives tend to have an episodic or picaresque character. Their unity comes mainly from the presence of a continuing central character or from a causal sequence of events, rather than from any overall theme, plot, or narrative purpose.
As a consequence of weak narrative unity, the stories often have a composite character. Motifs are rather freely added, dropped, or transferred from one narrative to another.
In the traditional narratives of native North America, the Western expectation of essentially "good" or "evil" characters or events is generally not met. The same character is likely to act beneficently in one episode but malevolently in the next, according to the accepted norms of behavior or to criteria of general welfare. Many of the early discussions of this literature by outside observers were marred by attempts to characterize a mythic personage as either a beloved benefactor or an evil trickster, when both of these labels might be equally true, or equally false.
The events of traditional narratives are rarely set within realistic chronological frameworks. Time spans measured in years or decades are rarely specified. Characters often are conceived and grow to maturity within miraculously short periods.
The characters in many narratives are known by the names of animals (or, less commonly, by the names of plants or other natural features). Often it is understood that the character is the forebear or prototype of the animal species. Its conversation, actions, and motives are usually human, while its physical characteristics may be either human or animal, and commonly the two are mixed in a logically inconsistent manner.
Alfred L. Kroeber distinguished three main cultural regions within California. Each of these was seen as having a distinctive pattern in its traditional narratives that set it apart from neighboring regions.
Anna H. Gayton reexamined Kroeber's regional divisions. While finding them generally valid, she stressed the gradational character of the transitions between the regions. She also suggested that variability in their links with regions outside of California was a key to understanding internal differences: