American Indian Mythology:
The River Mermaids

From the American Indian mythology of California come tales of the River Mermaids, also called Ho-ha'-pe or Water Women. The Ho-ha'-pe are beautiful with long hair. They usually live in deep pools, and are known at several places along the Merced River. In that part of the river which runs through Yosemite Valley they have been seen a number of times.

Another lives in the deep water a little below Pleasant Valley. At this place a few years ago some Indians from Bear Valley and Coulterville came to catch salmon. They put their net in a deep place in the river, and when it was full of fish tried to pull it out, but could not, for it was stuck on the bottom. The Water Woman had fastened it to a rock, but the men did not know this. One of them went down to find where the net had caught, and to lift it up. While he was doing this the Water Woman put a turn of the net-rope around his big toe and he was drowned. Then several of the men had to go down to get him. After they brought up his body all of them saw the Water Woman in the pool below, and saw her long hair float out in the current.

This story takes place after the west was settled. The Indians continued to add stories to American Indian mythology up to modern times.

The story of Ho-ha'-pe the River Mermaid, varying more or less in details, reaches north at least to the American River, where the Nissenan (who call her Ho-sa'-pah) have the following version:

Two maidens were walking along the American River below the foothills when they heard a baby cry. They followed the sound and soon saw the baby lying on a sand bar in the edge of the river. One of them reached down to pick it up when it suddenly changed into the River Mermaid, who, seizing the young woman, dragged her into the river. She cried out and her companion took hold of her arm and pulled and pulled as hard as she could to save her, but the River Mermaid was the stronger and dragged her under the water and she was never seen again.

The other maiden ran home to the village and told her people what had happened. She was so terribly frightened that her mind became affected and in a short time she died.

Mermaids are often shape-shifters in both European and American Indian mythology. In Europe, this trait probably carries over from the time when they were goddesses. American Indian mythology may have adopted this from the Europeans, or it may just be coincidence. I am struck by how mermaids are always described as having long hair. Could this be because the stories all have a common source? Or could it be simply that men like long hair on women?



American Indian Mythology --> Mermaid Mythology