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Showing posts with label Native American folktale. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Native American folktale. Show all posts


Saltypie: A Chocktaw Journey from Darkness into Light (2010)

Written by Tim Tingle

Illustrated by Karen Clarkson

Cinco Puntos Press

When Indian storytellers and writers get together, we often ask, "How much can we tell them?"

I'd love to be a fly on the wall at one of those get-togethers. It turns out, Tim Tingle has quite a bit to say in this book, put out by good ol' Cinco Puntos. The story goes to a lot of places. Beginning with a rousing bee sting on the bottom, feeding chickens and doing chores, to a stone thrown in anger and fear, a cut across the face, and a really beautiful image of Tim's grandmother as a young woman, holding her hands to her face with blood seeping between her fingers, her son's tiny hands reaching up with curiosity. It reminded him of sweet cherry pie filling, bubbling up from the criss-cross crust of Mawmaw's pies.

This is 'saltypie,' the taste of the blood, the sting of the bee. "It's a way of dealing with trouble, son. Sometimes you don't know where the trouble comes from. You just kinda shrug it off, say saltypie. It helps you carry on."

All of these stories come from Tim Tingle's familial recollections. He's working through these feelings of anger, hostility, which he had as a child, trying to understand why the universe wasn't fair.

The identity of the stone-thrower was never discovered, and it's interesting how it's not a central part of this story. It's just something that happened, and soon makes way for the story of Tim's grandmother recovering her sight decades later. "Maybe it was a stone of misunderstanding, thrown by a boy who simply didn't know," writes Tim. "...let us forgive him. Let us teach his grandchildren, so they will pocket their stones and extend a hand in friendship."

There's quite a bit going on in the afterward to the book, I found it to be as interesting, if not more interesting, than the story itself. In response to the question, "How much can we tell them?" he writes:

Can we tell them that the vast majority of children's books written about Indians in America were not written by Indians? Can we somehow convince them that this matters?


Turkey's Gift to the People (1992)

Retold and Illustrated by Ani Rucki

Berol Primacolor pencils

Scholastic Press

We're coming up on Thanksgiving, and this is a good one to read if you think Turkeys might be good for something other than eating. It's based on a Navajo story, though the form of it reminded me of the Lenape tale Rainbow Crow. In Rainbow Crow, the earth was about to be consumed by snowfall, but in this tale, a "wall of water" is headed towards the land, first spotted by the Crow, and all the animals must figure out how to escape.

I like the threat of impending doom, and it is great to see how the animals work together to escape. There is no single easy solution, they must all share ideas and use their abilities to ensure that they are all safe.

Mouse has the idea to hide in the giant reeds.

Beaver gnaws an opening in them.

Spider weaves a web so they can climb to the top of the reeds.

Wasp seals the opening back up again.

All of the animals are accounted for... excepting the Turkeys. Where are the Turkeys? Eagle goes gliding over the earth, seeing the oncoming tidal wave, but also the Turkeys, running for their lives.

"Hurry!" Eagle shouted. "You can make it!"

Later, safe and sound, the Turkeys explain, "You forgot the seeds."

Then he spread his feathers, letting the thousands of seeds that he and his wife had collected fall to the ground - the seeds the People would need to rebuild and survive after the flood waters receeded.


Arrow to the Sun (1974)

Retold and Illustrated by Gerald McDermott

Gouache and ink

16 point Clarendon Semibold

Viking Press

This is the complete tonal opposite of The Magic Tree, I can't help but wonder how intentional the contrast was. The Magic Tree was all blues and blacks - which perfectly fit the downbeat story - but Arrow to the Sun is full-on blinding yellows and golds and shades of orange.

The first image is - fittingly - the sun itself. Within its center stands a god, holding his bow, sending a fiery shaft to the earth, "the spark of life." But this isn't an origin story. It's divine conception.

He's called only 'the Boy,' and its not clear if he or his mother understand what has happened.

...the other boys would not let him join their games. "Where is your father?" they asked. "You have no father!" They mocked him and chased him away.

And so begins his quest. It's a classic game of threes. The Corn Planter, the Pot Maker, the Arrow Maker... Ah. It is Arrow Maker who has some answers, and the ability to shoot the boy back to the sun in order to become reacquainted his his father.

But all is not so easily resolved:

"Perhaps you are my son, perhaps you are not. You must prove yourself. You must pass through the four chambers of ceremony - the Kiva of Lions, the Kiva of Serpents, the Kiva of Bees, and the Kiva of Lightning."

I'm glad I'm not the only reviewer who noticed that the illustrations - especially here during the Kiva Trek - really do resemble the graphics from an old Atari game. I can imagine moving the Boy from brightly colored Kiva to brightly colored Kiva. However... this book was published in 1974, and the Atari console didn't come out until 1977! Strange... unless McDermott had some hidden connection with the Atari corporation!

Upon the completion of his tasks, the Boy is given his father's blessing, and he returns to the earth a second time - the Second Coming? - to bring his father's spirit "to the world of men."

"Father, it is I, your son!"


The Great Ball Game: A Muskogee Story (1994)

Retold by Jospeh Bruchac

Illustrated by Susan L. Roth

Cut paper

("Cut paper?" you ask. "Is that really the best description you can give for the interior artwork? You can't even tell us what kind of paper?" Okay fine. According to the book: The illustrations are rendered in collage using paper collected from all over the world: red umbrella paper from Thailand, a cranberry colored envelope from Tibet, a blue from Japan, a dark green from Italy, and many other places. Several kinds of paper were handmade, including the mottled white of the rabbit, made by Sheila Swan Laufer, and the gray of the squirrel, marbled by the artist. So there.)

Dial Books

This is a fun book which, for me, went in a surprising direction. What would you have supposed the story to be about, judging from the title and from the cover? A great ball game? Indeed, but that's only the backdrop to the more pertinent tale of how it is that bats are considered mammals and not birds.

This story has apparently been told in Native American tribes all over, but Bruchac writes in the introduction that this particular version is based on a story told to him by an Oklahoma Muskogee elder, Louis Littlecoon Oliver, who died a few years before this book was published. Here is the argument which is central, which type of animal is better? Those with teeth or those with wings? The argument rises in intensity throughout the animal kingdom, until finally Bear and Crane decide to settle things through a friendly little bout of lacrosse.

This is apparently how real conflicts were resolved, quarreling tribes, rather than going to war, would instead play the game. Would that out present-day international conflicts could be decided as easily. We already have the perfect platform for it - the Olympics! If there is ever need to encourage public interest in the Olympics, why not say that in addition to watching athletes compete, actual foreign policy will be decided and rests on the outcome?

Anyway, the lines are drawn and the game is about to commence, when suddenly Bat swoops down, trying to determine which side he belongs on, for he has both teeth and wings. Grudgingly, the toothy-animals accept him on their team.

The game then commences, and takes place over the course of a full day. I really like the way Susan Roth is able to imitate darkness settling in using only her cut paper collages. And lest you think that there is some larger moral emergent, as the animals realize that both teeth and wings are equally important, not so. The story ends with clear winners and clear losers, and the repercussions help to explain some puzzling present-day animal behavior.


Crossing Bok Chitto (2006)

Written by Tim Tingle

Illustrated by Jeanne Rorex Bridges

Cinco Puntos Press

There is a river called Bok Chitto that cuts through Mississippi. In the days before the War Between the States, in the days before the Trail of Tears, Bok Chitto was a boundary. On one side of the river lived the Choctaws, a nation of Indian people. On the other side lived the plantation owners and their slaves. If a slave escaped and made his way across Bok Chitto, the slave was free. The slave owner could not follow. That was the law.

This opening paragraph sets up the time period, the environment and the tone of this tale. This is a downbeat, yet elegant story and quite a contrast to Tingle's previous book which I had just discussed, When Turtle Grew Feathers. There's no jaunty talking animals this time, though there is a fantasy-device running through the narrative, the ability for African Americans to render themselves invisible.

"Son, son, it's about time you learned. There is a way to move amongst them where they won't even notice you. You move not too fast, not too slow, eyes to the ground, away you go!"

That's the father of Little Mo, giving his son advice on sneaking past the white plantation owners in order to help a young Choctaw girl named Martha Tom back across the river. This is a story about their friendship, and takes place over several years, as the two grow and age within their respective cultures, separated by the Bok Chitto.

Maybe the white people tell it best. They talk about the night their
forefathers witnessed seven black spirits, walking on the water
- to their freedom!
It struck me how I am used to reading stories of Native American befriending the whites, and stories of black slaves befriending the whites, and on and on with so-called "unlikely" friendships between a minority and a white. In this story, however, the whites are always the other, and are never humanized. They represent a common adversary for the Choctaw and the black slaves.

Jeanne Bridges' art is wonderful. We begin very naturally, very downbeat, figures cast very plainly, but with just a subtle variation in tone, and the artwork takes on mystical tones. The Choctaw women, dressed in long white robes, holding candles out before them under the full moon, seemingly gliding across the surface of the river. "When they reached the Choctaw side of the river, they blew the candles out and disappeared into the fog, never to be seen on the slave side again." I felt it, I felt all the mystery and the beauty and the elegant mysticism of it.

Really beautiful book trailer made by a fan


When Turtle Grew Feathers (2007)

When Turtle Grew Feathers
Retold by Tim Tingle

Illustrated by Stacey Schuett


August House

I remember way back when, when I had first become interested in storytelling, a Texan girlfriend gave me a set of "audio cassettes" - a bygone device upon which sound is captured on thin strips of tape - of stories by Choctaw storyteller Tim Tingle. He's been around for a long time, and so it was great to find this beautifully illustrated, vibrant edition of one of his tales, "When Turtle Grew Feathers."

Of course, it's not really his tale. The last page of the book includes a list of his sources in rendering this here telling. David Bushnells's Myths of the Louisiana Choctaws from 1909, very nice, followed by this entry: "Jones, Charley. Oral interview. August 1992." Following that, "McAlvin, Jay. Tape-recorded interview. November 1992." Wow. Lest no man audit Tingle's cultural memory!

I looked up this Charley Jones, curious to find out who he was. The best I could find was an interview with Tingle, in which he refers to Jones as being both a Choctaw tribal storyteller and his mentor. "Charley Jones says, 'Tell the stories,'" says Tingle. "But make sure the origin is acknowledged."

And so it is.
When Turtle Grew Feathers

"Most everybody knows about the race between Turtle and Rabbit," the story begins. "But the Choctaw people tell the story differently..." which immediately got me wondering, was this an actual response to the old fable, and if so, when exactly did Aesop make its way over to those Choctaw? Or, was this yet another example of synchronous stories evolving independent of each other? Even good ol' Uncle Remus tells a story about a tricky turtle outwitting Brer Rabbit.

There is a fast, boastful rabbit, a slow turtle and a proposed race. After that initial set-up, however, it careens in wildly divergent ways, thanks to the interference of a oblivious turkey stepping on Turtle's shell, accusing him of "sleeping too low in the grass," and finally gathering together all of the ants to sew together Turtle's shell using the silk from the cornfield, yes indeed. What does that have to do with the race? Only that then Turkey decides to take up residence in the cozy, newly-sewn shell, and is thus mistaken for Turtle when he becomes the object of Rabbit's boasting:

"I feel real fast! I'm ready to race. Who wants a little mud in his face?"

When Turtle Grew Feathers

Rabbit is in for a surprise, and Stacey Schuett does a great job illustrating that magnificent transformation, along with the various expressions of shock, bewilderment and shame on poor Rabbit.

Doesn't really have the same lesson as Aesop's Tortoise and the Hare, though, does it? Slow and steady definitely did not when the race this time around. Fortunately, Tingle enunciates the moral quite clearly:

Turtle learned you don't have to be the biggest, or the fastest, or the best. But it sure is nice to be friends with those that are!

In this video, Tim Tingle talks to a group of children.
I like that he addresses the difference between telling a story
and writing a story. Adjectives.


Rainbow Crow (1989)

Retold by Nancy Van Laan

Illustrated by Beatriz Vidal

Dragonfly Books

I know I've heard this one before, but maybe I'm just thinking of the story of the Phoenix. Bird travels to the sun and becomes charred in the process. Doesn't that sound familiar to you, too? This incarnation is Lenape, and the author, Nancy Van Laan, first heard it herself while at a corn-planting ceremony - a good place to hear stories - from a Lenape Elder, from whom it had been handed down "from father to son, for countless generations."

Long, long ago, before the Two-Legged walked the Earth it begins, in a Garden of Eden-esque splendor, animals lounging about in sunny contentment, not a care in the sky, and crows were not black at all, but contained all of the colors of the rainbow. But then, one day, the Earth grew cold, and "tiny crystals, glittering like diamonds, drifted down from the sky, covering Earth with a sparkling softness." Snow, in other - less poetic - words.

Except this is a snow which would make Noah and his Ark feel at home, for as it falls, it slowly buries all of the inhabitants of the earth. One by one, they all vanish beneath the heavy falling white stuff. The rabbit is just two ears poking out, a tip of a tail over here, and on and on, over the course of several pages, until finally, the surviving animals elect Rainbow Crow to journey to the Great Sky Spirit and ask it to kindly knock it off. Or, as the Rainbow Crow puts it:

O Great Spirit in the Sky,
You rule the Earth from way up high.
You make the creatures, large and small,
You are the ruler of us all.
You make the trees and flowers grow,
You cause the wind and clouds to blow,
You make the rain, you make the snow,
You make the cold on Earth below.
O Great Spirit in the Sky,
For you, I sing this lullaby.

I like the Great Spirit's polytheistic answer: "I cannot stop the snow, for snow has a spirit of its own."

I wonder if this is the first time Rainbow Crow and the other animals realize the cosmology of the world they live. Did they know that there are spirits to whom the Great Spirit is not lord? Regardless of the theological implications, Rainbow Crow returns to Earth with a burning fire in its beak - a gift from the Great Spirit to combat the snow. In the process, he takes on the form he had today.

"Soon the Two-Legged will appear on Earth. He will take the Fire and be master of all of you," pronounces the Great Spirit. In this context, Rainbow Crow seems a direct allegory for the Greek god Prometheus. Although Prometheus stole the fire to give it to the humans, Rainbow Crow was given it freely. As the story ends, crow flies through the sky, "proud that he was now Black Crow, with shining feathers full of tiny rainbows."


Coyote Christmas: A Lakota Story (2007)

Written and Illustrated by S.D. Nelson

Acrylic Paint on 140-lb. cotton paper

Abrams Books for Young Readers

Oh, this is a fun one. It's an original story, and does a great job of bringing Trickster Coyote of many an age-old tale into a contemporary Lakota reservation. Despite the fact that it is appears to be a heart-warming Christmas story, the mere presence of such a trickster figure means it will have an unpredictable way about it.

Nelson describes it very well with a note at the end of the book:

When it comes to good and evil, Coyote is not the same as the Devil found in the Judeo-Christian tradition. Instead, Coyote reveals the paradoxical nature of life, capable of both good and evil. He reminds us that all of life is in a state of constant creation and destruction.

"On a more fundamental level, Coyote's antics offer insights into an underlying dynamic of life itself - order and chaos," he writes. "Coyote, of course, is the one who delivers chaos."

So then, in this particular incarnation, it is a snowy Christmas Eve, and Coyote is - as usual - cold and hungry. However - also as usual - he has a plan, a plan which involves passing himself off as Santa Claus and inveigling his way into the warm home of the two-legged creatures with the good food. In so doing, Coyote seems to unwittingly tap into a deeper magic than he bargained for.

The sack full of straw which he had brought is transformed into a sack of wrapped packages, containing the very presents the children had wanted.

"Oh Santa, thank you!"

And there is even more magic to come. Curiously, instead of embracing this turn of events, Coyote is rightfully freaked, and dashes off, back into the coldness. At least he got his fill of meatballs.


The Boy Who Lived With The Seals (1993)

Retold by Rafe Martin

Illustrated by David Shannon


Typeset in Meridien

G.P. Putnam's Sons

I thought I'd begin this month of Native American stories with a book by two of my favorite people, Rafe Martin and David Shannon. They previously had collaborated on The Rough-Faced Girl. In that book, I remember being very surprised at how soulful Shannon's artwork could be - as I generally associate him with goofier, more playful fare. This book finds him back in full form here, adding some real gravity to a fanciful tale. In particular, I marveled at the violence with which the men of the village wrestle the boy from the island of seals to bring him home to his parents.

This is a Chinook tale, and is a tale with some familarities. The Jungle Book sprung to mind. Boy runs away from home, boy is taken in by anthropormised animals, boy returns to society... However, I have to think that it was the more spiritual elements which made Rafe want to tell this story. "These People understand well the sacredness of all life," he writes in an afterword. "They know one cannot just take without giving some gift in return - and that out of this gift new gifts of renewed life will grow."

Once the boy returns to his people, he tells of his life with the seals. It's mostly swimming and fishing, as you might imagine, but also...

He said that they build fires at night under the sea and tell stories. Only the stories the seals tell, he said, are of the things that happened long ago when the world was new, and of the things that are yet to happen far in the future.

A strange, cosmic detail, indeed.

I couldn't help but be glad to see the boy escape and rejoin his underwater family, yet the tale was bittersweet, as we end with the parents who must now go on living without their son.


Crazy Horse's Vision (2000)

Illustrated by S.D. Nelson

Acrylics on Wooden Panels
Text set in Amerigo

Crazy Horse is one of the most famous of all Native Americans. He is attributed with leading the Sioux in the Battle of Little Bighorn - also known as Custer's Last Stand - an event which had massive ramifications throughout the country. He was reviled, considered an enemy of the United States. The author of this book, Joseph Bruchac, makes no bones about how he feels about it:

"The irony of Custer's final defeat by Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull at Little Bighorn in June, 1876, was that the battle began when Custer make a surprise attack on yet another village that wanted to be left alone."

The story begins with Crazy Horse's infancy, being carried around the village on his mother's back, studying the world "with serious eyes." From there, we follow him through adolescence, leading his friends on adventures. Nelson has a really stunning eye. In one spectacular scene, he is leading his friends up the side of a mountain where an eagle has made its nest.

The characters are designed in what Nelson calls, "The traditional ledger book style of my ancestors." This means they have a rather flat, two-dimensional yet highly stylized look about them. Yet what is so striking is that he paints the background swirling about them with much depth and texture.

We see this effect again later on, when the Lakota come upon an army fort. The foreground characters stand two-dimensionally with their blue horses, eyes and faces rendered with sharp angles, while all around them, the fort and its settlers are spread out with realistic perspective and design and coloration. Not only have two peoples met, but two distinct artistic styles as well.

The first battle, however, is drawn entirely in the ledger style, with both white and Native Americans flat and stylized, which gives an eeriness to the sight of the soldiers falling over with arrows in their chests, the Lakota lying lifeless.

It in not until after their terrible battle that we get to the true heart of the book. As Crazy Horse stands looking at the dead and dying, he is suddenly seized with the need to have a vision. He does not go the traditional sweat lodge route - instead he rides off into the mountains.

"Wakan Tanka! Great Mystery, even though I am small and pitiful, I want to help my people."

For three days and three nights, without food or water, he remains there. He sees, "no spirit, no bird, no animal, not even an insect. All he saw was the sky above and the earth of the pit."

His blue skin really blends in well with the rich blueness of the night surrounding him. Nelson writes, "I painted Crazy Horse blue because blue represents the sky and a connection with the spirit world."

At last, late on the third day, [Crazy Horse] climbed out of the pit. He was barely able to stand. He staggered downhill to where his pinto grazed near a cottonwood. Reaching the tree, he could stand no longer.

"Then," the text continues, "the vision came."

Click here for other Native American tales!


The Rough-Face Girl (1992)

Retold by Rafe Martin

Illustrated by David Shannon

Text set in Veljovic

G.P. Putnams' Sons

When Arlo first learned that this was a David Shannon book, he was surprised - as was I. The paintings are just so... earnest. Beginning with the cover, which I could look at for a year and a day, waiting for her to move the hands from her face, just a centimeter, as I know she is about to, and then continuing into the early morning mist revealing a small encampment by the shores of Lake Ontario, followed by the two sisters standing over the eponymous rough-face girl, their eyes lost in shadow as they gloat above a roaring fire. They look hollow. They look like evil statues. These are paintings which carry weight.

This is a Cinderella story, and it is also a retelling of the Sootface story which I reviewed last week. Sootface was Ojibwan, this story is Algonquin.

The former heroin had a face of soot, this girl has sisters who "made their youngest sit by the fire and feed the flames." Over time, as the sparks do their worst to her flesh, her skin begins to take on a rough appearance.

Beyond that, the two stories were very much the same. I noted that neither one begins with the appearance of the Invisible Warrior. We are introduced to him and his sister and their large wigwam before we meet the Rough-Faced girl and her wicked sisters.

All of the women of the village go to the wigwam of the Invisible Being and are then challenged by the sister.

"If you want to marry my brother, you have to have seen him. Tell me, have you seen the Invisible Being?"

"Of course!"

"What's his bow made of?"

"The great oak tree."

"No! What's the runner of his sled made of?"

"The green willow branch."

"No! You have not seen my brother. Now go home."

So then, it is the rough-face girl who makes the journey to the wigwam, and as she walks, she must put up with the taunts and jeers of the other women. "Go home, you ugly girl! You'll never marry the Invisible Being!"

Here the tale diverges quite a bit from Sootface. I noted that in Sootface, when the young heroine is asked about the Invisible Warrior, she responds that his bow is made of the rainbow. We see a normal-sized warrior approaching holding a bow which indeed appears to be a rainbow - or perhaps a rainbow colored piece of wood.

In The Rough-Face Girl, Shannon paints a gorgeous, 2 page spread of an unfolding landscape. "As she walked on, she saw the great beauty of the earth and skies spreading before her. And truly she alone, of all in that village, saw in this thing the sweet yet awesome face of the Invisible Being."

A very large, and very real rainbow arcs down from the skies.

Later, as night has fallen, and she is asked by the sister to tell of the Invisible Being's sled runner, she looks up into the starry skies and answers, "Why, it is the Spirit Road, the Milky Way of stars that spreads across the sky!"

There is the sense, then, that the Invisible Being is not a person at all, but a spirit which surrounds the whole of the earth. Perhaps the problem with the other sisters was that they took the questions too literally, trying to discern an invisible apparition, with the Invisible Being was with them and apparent the entire time. From this point of view, then, it seems The Rough-Face Girl - though beginning as a Cinderella story certainly, ends up being about a young woman's spiritual awakening, seeing for the first time the supernatural properties of the natural world.

Click here for more Native American tales!

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Sootface (1994)

Retold by Robert D. San Souci

Illustrated by Daniel San Souci


Doubleday Book for Young Readers

The subtitle for this book is "An Ojibwa Cinderella Story," which immediately gives us some narrative mile markers, even if it doesn't quite hit all of them.

Curiously though, San Souci tells us that this story is not just an Obijwa tale, but it also found in other Algonquian tribes and the Canadian Micmac, all the way down to the southwest. However, San Souci's detailed design of the village and the clothing of the characters are all based on that of the Ojibwa, so this tale is indeed grounded in a particular place and time.

There are no fancy dress balls, no portentous strokes of midnight, not even a lost shoe. There are however, two nasty, mean older sisters and a younger sister whom they mock and make do most of the work. In addition, they, "beat her and smeared her face with ashes." Thus the name, Sootface.

Legend is, across the waters there lives a mighty warrior who happens to be invisible. It is this mysterious warrior for whom all the young women of the village vie. One by one, they make their way across the lake - including Sootface's two older sisters - and there to find the warrior, who is represented only by a pair of white moccasins and a shadow.

"Can you see my brother?" asks the sister of the warrior.

"Oh yes," lie the women of the village.

"Of what is his bow made?"


"And with what is it strung?"


"You do not see my brother."

This goes on, one disappointed woman at a time, until at last it is Sootface's turn. There is no fairy godmother to magically make her beautiful. Instead, she takes two strips of birch bark and sews them together to make a skirt. Then she weaves herself a necklace of wildflowers and soaks her old, stiff moccasins in a spring until they grow softer. Finally, she puts wild flowers in her hair and she is ready.

"You are so ugly and foolish looking! You will shame us before the hunter and his sister!"

But Sootface is determined. After she makes the journey, and is approached by the hunter, his sister asks, "Can you see him?"

"Yes, he is carrying a beautiful bow."

"Of what is his bow made?"

"A rainbow!"

"And how is it strung?"

"With white fire, like Milky Way, the Path of Souls."

From that moment, she is no longer 'Sootface,' but 'Dawn-Light,' and she lives happily ever after, or - as the story says - "claim the wife's place by the door flap!"
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