The Blind Man and the Loon: The Story of a Tale.
The result of forty years of research, Craig Mishler's The Blind Man and the Loon is a significant example of what twenty-first-century folklorists do. Mishler's text is an auto-ethnography--a work in which Mishler acknowledges his role as a "curator, biographer, interpreter, and friend" of the story as well as those tellers whose continual reiterations span across the subarctic from Alaska and Northwest Canada to Labrador and Greenland (xx). The narrative, in variation, spans eight regional groups or "oicotypes", "moving fluidly across the continents of North America and Greenland like gigantic herds of caribou" (xxv). Mishler gives ample evidence of the "livingness" of the tale as it has emerged from time immemorial (when loons could speak with people) into popular media: films, compact discs, radio broadcasts, a ballet, a composition of chamber music, theatrical performances, and various literary adaptations (119-20). Mishler says that an estimated 33 million people have seen the abbreviated film adaptation/revision The Loon's Necklace (123). Mishler has also "discovered ... eighty-six artistic works "based on the tale created by no less than fifty-four different artists"--paintings, etchings, sculptures, woodcuts, and masks (96). Contemporary Native storytellers Annie Blue (2009), James and Maggie Gilbert (1973), and Kenny Thomas (2000) are included under Mishler's designation of artists.
The text includes Mishler's commendable discussion of the contributions and shortcomings of well-known folklorists Hinrick Rink, Emile Petitot, Franz Boas, and Knud Rasmussen, as well as criticisms of semi-literary variants by such notable authors as N. Scott Momaday. The ethics of collecting, translating, and redacting are brought into question. Mishler calls Native storytellers cartographers. He contends that "the story of the Blind Man and the Loon is a cognitive map of ancient Indian and Eskimo cultures, plotting systems of knowledge, emotion, belief, and value" (154). The tale is, in many respects, a cautionary tale. "Even when corrupted" by ignorant, unaware, unethical collectors who don't acknowledge their informants, edit out portions (the violence) of the tale, or mash versions together, the story remains "a vibrant, protean piece of culture, a life force," says Mishler (155).
If anthropologists, ethnographers, folklorists, and mythographers can be called scientists, Mishler's text is dense with the stuff of scientific investigation: data, facts, maps, folkloric structures (the morphology and molecular structure of the narrative), and linguistic analyses (original native renditions set alongside translations). Drawing on an analogy from Darwin's study of groups of finches, Mishler groups various versions of the tale into eight "regional oicotypes." However, it is in the chapters discussing the function and possible meanings of the story that Mishler's text takes flight and travels with the loons. The story is troubling in any Native variant (popular redactions tend to leave out the violent reciprocity). A blind man (often a shaman) in a subsistence culture is tricked out of his kill for food by a selfish, cruel, and angry grandmother or wife. Often left to survive on his own, or with the help of a sister, loons take pity on the medicine man and restore his sight through their healing medicines or rituals. With his sight restored, the man returns to his people and wreaks vengeance on the woman who betrayed him.
The above oversimplification of the narrative runs counter to what Mishler advises for any retelling; but the essential disturbing details are there--void of the ethnopoetics typical of the telling by Maggie Gilbert rehearsed in Chapter Four. Of particular delight is Mishler's reference to a YouTube site where Maggie's voice can be heard speaking the story in Gwich'in with the sound of her clock chiming in the background (86). Maggie's Gwich'in version of the tale includes the children of the medicine man who collude with their mother in the betrayal of their father. The shaman kills his wife and abandons his children because of their mutual treachery. The shaman's relatives are not happy with his behavior; and Maggie believes the man's behavior is too "harsh" (82, 88). Such a telling seems to demand commentary. The narrative has mythic import and, therefore, reveals a female as instigator of the disruption of a problematic yet harmonious cultural ethic. The creation of violent reciprocity ensues--a role given to a male of some spiritual stature. Is gender hostility foundational? That the tale has endured through time is referenced by Maggie's continual punctuation of the story with "they say." And "they say" is a typical reference to mythic/historical/ psychological truth.
Mishler is "convinced" that the story is told "by Natives everywhere in the North because it weaves together several basic themes or tenets of indigenous Native American and First Nations life" (137). Among these themes are: the necessity of sharing food in subsistence cultures, the significance of kinship cooperation, the conflicts that can dismantle families and cultures, the obligation of Native peoples to care for the disabled, and the sympathy that must endure if tribal peoples are to endure. Of particular interest to Mishler are the transformative elements in the tale: "the transformation of a blind man into one that sees, the transformation of a wicked woman into a narwhal" and the ritual transformation brought about by the power of the loons to heal. The killing of various animals--polar bear, moose, deer, buffalo--by the shaman might also indicate a passage into manhood, including the arrival of "sexual potency." Dimensions of psychology, sociology, ethnography and social justice rise up in Mishler's commentary. The durability of the tale can be attributed to the fact that "the tale offers practical and symbolic solutions to complex social problems such as the breakdown of the nuclear family and the destruction and loss of kinship rights and obligations" as well as decoding the formulation of the ethical demands of cultural identity formation (155). Additionally, the tale teaches while it entertains.
While Craig Mishler insists that folktales like the Blind Man and the Loon be "respected as the private property of the storyteller, of the community, or of the indigenous tribal group" from which they come, they are also models of human communities' efforts to establish meaning that transcends boundaries and provides insight into collective archetypes that contribute to our cross-cultural humanity. Essential to such insight is the unveiling of violent reciprocity that appears to be deep-rooted in many mythologies--an insight continually discussed by Rene Girard in the multiple conferences dedicated to Girard's thought. Such violent reciprocity can be seen in numerous instances in contemporary political and religious practices. When Maggie Gilbert ends her story with, "That's what is said about it./And so that's it./That's the end of the story" and her husband adds, "Nothing more," could that be an indication of the discontinuity of cultural life-ways or the loss of cultural integrity brought about by violent reciprocity? The publication of The Blind Man and the Loon by the University of Nebraska Press is yet another contribution of the press to the world's body of knowledge. The text could be used in university classes within various disciplines: anthropology, sociology, psychology, and, of course, the humanities.
Suzanne Evertsen Lundquist
Brigham Young University
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|Author:||Lundquist, Suzanne Evertsen|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2015|
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