American Indian myths and legends.
Twenty years ago there was a marked revival of attention to Indian traditions; old monographs were ransacked for new anthologies. Now public attention has waned again. There is still in this country not one university chair devoted to the literatures and languages of the first people of the continent. There are still many who do not think that the first literature of the continent even deserves to be taken seriously, who think that such sympathetic attention as it receives is due to political or romantic identification. Yet at the same time three transformations of the situation slowly gather strength. One is the emergence of a modern literature by Indian authors. Another is the emergence of sustained critical and literary attention to traditional texts. A third is the discovery that the traditional texts are not what they have appeared to be on the printed page. They are not prose, but a kind of poetry; not paragraphs, but lines and groups of lines.
How does this new collection fit into the changing scene? For those who do not know the range and vitality of American Indian narratives, it is a good read indeed. For those who think of such tradition as extinct, it will be a surprise to find that so many of the stories have been collected in recent years, and not only on reservations. Of the 166 narratives, a good third are published here for the first time. Ortiz contributes seven translated from Tewa. Erdoes contributes a Cheyenne story heard at a Crow intertribal fair; a Brule Sioux story from around a powwow campfire at Pine Ridge, South Dakota; a Cherokee story told at a Cherokee treaty council meeting in New York City. Leonard Crow Dog told Erodes stories at Rosebud reservation and also in New York City. Indians in cities, even in suits and ties, may still command a living oral tradition, in English if not otherwise.
The collection does favor the Southwest and the Midwest, especially the Sioux there; each of those regions contributes about a quarter of the stories. But all regions and kinds of story are represented.
The book does not touch on the use of stories like these in the literature created by N. Scott Momaday, Leslie Marmon Silko, Simon Ortiz, Buane Niatum, James Welch and others. That is beyond its intended scope, no doubt, but the ancient traditions live in new ways in the words of such writers. More surprising, the book does not tell where one might find out more. Is the information left out because it might interfere with a sense of direct, unmediated experience? Its omission puts the public, including the Indian public, at the back of the bus, allowed to enjoy the stories as entertainment but not to join the conversation about them, and not allowed to know why such stories have commanded the devotion of some of the best scholars of the century.
What is striking about the book is the difference in the way the old and the new are treated. The new material is attributed to individuals. The older material is attributed only to tribes. We learn the names (with one shy exception) of the tellers visited by Erdoes, and something interesting about them. Not so with those whose stories are taken into the book from other books. Sometimes the origin of the stories is not accurately given, or not given at all. The book's one myth from the Kalapuya, who once lived in the Willamette Valeey of Oregon, is said to be "told by Barry Lopez in 1977." Lopez changed it when he put it in his own anthology. The story was actually told in Kalapuya by John B. Hudson, an Indian I had the privilege of meeting. Why should an anthology preserve a rewriting by a non-Indian and let the name of the Indian source be lost?
Maybe scholarship and accuracy are thought to be out of place in such a book. A scholar may be inconvenienced but can usually find out the stories' origins. But an Indian at the recently reinstituted reservations of the Willamette Valley, Grand Ronde and Siletz, aware of some Kalapuya ancestry, perhaps through Hudson, would probably like to find Hudson's name here. One aware of some Alsea ancestry, finding an Alsea story here, and seeking to trace it, would be stopped altogether. No reference at all.
Why care about the names of Indians long dead, unless one is descended from them? Because the fundamental challenge to all of us is to realize that the stories told years ago, like those told today, come from individuals. Personal creative use of tradition did not begin in our lifetime. It is as old as the narrative art itself. True, the older collectors helped to obscure that fact. They usually gave the names of their sources, and thanked them, but would publish stories told by a single person as if they stood for a whole community. The texts we have in the language of the Clackamas Chinook, who lived near Oregon City, Oregon, reveal that many myths were dramatically re-interpreted by a line of women in that shattered culture. Male adventures are turned around by the viewpoint of women affected by them. But the collector took these stories to be simply expressive of the Clackamas.
The individual sources, then, are in a sense creators as well as preservers. When what they said is accurately recorded, and the devices and designs they employed are understood, one can hear both a tribal art and a personal voice.
It is this exact artistry that must be the object of literary critical attention. To see it, we must have fresh editions of the old collections, editions that "liberate" the stories from margin-to-margin paragraphs, and show their lines and groupings of lines. John B. Hudson's Kalapuya story "Coyote takes water from the frog people," reprinted here as changed by Lopez, comes out like this:
Coyote was out hunting and he found a dead deer. One of the deer's rib bones looked just like a big dentalia shell, and Coyote picked it up and took it with him. He went up to see the frog people. The frog people had all the water. When anyone wanted any water to drink or cook with or to wash, they had to go and get it from the frog people. Coyote came up . . .
John Hudson had in mind a somewhat different story. He began by announcing it as a Coyote story with the widespread conventional beginning "Coyote was going along." His Coyote was not out hunting. He did not just pick up a big dentalium shell, but ate all of a deer he found, setting aside one small rib. (The deer and its rib are both appropriately small; "small" is repeated three times). As so often, it is through chance and his appetites (here, his eating the whole deer, and at once) that Coyote gets the opportunity to do good for humanity. The deer's rib did not look like a dentalium (money bead) shell; Coyote made it so. Hudson's Coyote does not then just go to the frogs (who do not simply have all the water, but sell, make people buy, what should be freely available). He announces his intention. Hudson probably had fun taking Coyote's voice here. The rewriting takes both voices away.
Here is how Hudson began the story: (A) (a) Coyote was going along. A small deer had died. Now then Coyote found it. (b) Now then he ate it all. He set aside one small rib. (c) Now then he made a money bead out of the small rib of the deer. (B) Now then together the frogs had the water. They stood guard over the water all the time. All the time the people bought it. (C) Now then Coyote said: "I am going to drink water, "The frogs' water."
Notice that he employs a traditional Kalapuya pattern of grouping lines or actions into sets of three or five. In a set of three the first action is an onset, the second an ongoing, the third an outcome: here, finding the deer; eating it and setting aside the rib; making the bead. The intended grouping is shown by the three occurrences of the initial marker, translated "Now then." The action proper begins with its first use, culminating the introductory verse of the first three lines. ("Coyote was going along" is not so much an action as a formulaic beginning, like "Once upon a time.") The second set has just three lines about the frogs, each with an expression of time. The third set, completing the opening scene, gives us Coyote's words, framing the rest of the story. The three-part patterning applies at this level too: the stanza about the deer is onset, the lines about the frogs ongoing, Coyote's direct speech the outcome.
This is just an opening section of a story, but perhaps it gives a sense of the ways the specific words shape such a story, arousing and satisfying expectation (in Kenneth Burke's terms), and, in full stories, giving point to comic or tragic events, providing placement for voices, signaling import by pace or elaboration within an implicit frame. Form and meaning go together. To change the form is to change the meaning and, in important part, to erase the artistry that kept an audience engrossed.
Much of the style of American Indian narratives--the absence of description, use of direct speech, variation within repetition--is shared with narrative sections of the Hebrew Bible (see Robert Alter, The Art of Biblical Narrative). As in stories such as that of David and Bathsheba, traditional materials are unified through subtlety in repetition and variation. american Indian narratives, accurately seen, show that literary imagination of this kind may be a universal human possession. We ought to ask of future anthologists that they make this clear.
Moreover, the shaping in terms of a community's formal patterning has been available for personal experience as well. A somewhat shapeless encounter may be reported at the end of the day as a terse, effective story. Experience generally can become story, and the tacit logic of action is available to give experience assured form. Perhaps here most of all in Indian life "a cool web of language winds us in." The more we take the actual shape of Indian stories seriously, the more we shall come to understand that web and world.