Published on December 10, 2012 by Casey
The claim has recently popped up online that cockroaches were sacred to Native Americans. This is definitely not true, and is probably the result of linguistic confusion– there is a type of Native American headdress, which indeed is sacred to many tribes, that is referred to as a “roach” in English. However, roach headdresses do not have anything to do with cockroaches! “Roche” was just an Old English word for a hairstyle that stuck up in the air, which Native American roached hairstyles and headdresses somewhat resemble. (“Cockroach,” on the other hand, is an English corruption of the Spanish word “cucaracha,” meaning “loathsome bug.”)
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In reality, the type of insect we think of when we say “cockroach” did not even exist in the Americas– common cockroaches (known as “German cockroaches”) first came to America along with the Spanish in the 1500′s, and palmetto bugs (known as “American cockroaches” or “Florida roaches”) came from Africa on slave ships a century later. There are some other cockroaches that are native to the Americas, such as the Death’s Head cockroach of South America or the Green banana cockroach of the Caribbean. Although they may not look much like the cockroaches we are used to seeing, they are “cousins” who belong to the same order of insect.
In any case, we do not know of any Native American legends that include cockroaches as characters. In his book Spirits of the Earth, Native author Bobby Lake-Thom suggests that cockroaches are a bad sign and represent unwelcome visitors or unpleasant people. Certainly other swarming insects are viewed negatively in many tribes and sometimes associated with curses or other bad magic, and the association of cockroaches with colonization probably has not helped their standing any. In our personal experience, though, none of us has ever heard Native American people expressing any reaction to cockroaches except for the standard American desire to keep them out of the kitchen.