Folklorists have commonly attempted to distinguish between native american myths, legends, tales, and oral histories. Sometimes a fine line separarates the distinction. Here are the basic differences.
Native American Myths
Native american myths are sacred accounts that are believed by narrators and listeners to be true. They are set in a period at or before the origins of the world as it is presently known, and they usually contain strong supernatural elements.
Native American Legends
Native American legends are also believed to be true, and they may also contain fantastic elements. However, they are set later in times, after the world had assumed the form in which it was known to traditional cultures.
Native American Tales
Native american tales are entertaining stories that narrators and listeners are not required to believe as true. They usually contain a strong moral message or life lesson. The heroes of the tales are often animals that do great things or get into trouble because of their actions and life choices.
Native american oral histories
Native american oral histories are stories that are narratives of actually witnessed events that have been transmitted, with greater or less embellishment, to subsequent generations orally. Many tribes appoint an official historian who begins learning these oral histories, that go back to the origins of the tribe, at a very young age, and continues to study them throughout life.
It is strongly impressed upon the tribal historians the importance of not embellishing the histories or leaving anything out. Elders and storytellers from previous generations, who also know the stories, often confer with the historian over the years, and compare their versions of the history to try to keep it as accurate as possible.
These oral histories are often backed up with physical evidence, such as winter counts painted on skins over the generations of the tribe. Winter counts are a pictorial history of the most important events that occur within a tribe each year. These events are recorded in pictographs painted on animal skins. These are carefully preserved and kept for future councils and future generations, and help validate the corectness of the oral histories passed down from generation to generation.