Sunday, November 4, 2007

American Indian Stories

The Native Americans of North and South America are the survivors of an astonishing set of journeys. Some fifteen thousand years ago the first humans unknowingly edged their way from northeastern Asia into northwestern North America opening up the pathway to two continents untouched by humans. It was indeed a New World, the Americas being the last continents to be settled by people. From those first few groups trudging across the Beringia landscape, temporarily exposed through lowered ocean surface levels, came the remarkable settlement of both continents in the space of just a couple of thousand years. From the tip of Alaska to Tierra del Fuego in 80 generations, with all the other distractions of huge continents, wide open and empty spaces along the way, that is quite a pace. Depending on the routes taken that translates to each generation's moving two or three hundred miles further out. It is almost inconceivable but that is what the evidence currently tells us happened.

There is still much we don't know about the exact routes taken, some of the sequencing of settlement, the dispersion of various language groups, the number of distinct migrations from Asia before the routes were flooded again, why and how there are so many distinct language groups in the Americas, etc. What we are left with is a puzzle box where we don't know if we have all the pieces, we can't quite make sense of the picture, and we may even have some odd pieces of other puzzles jumbled in there.

And after that mystifying spread and settlement of some thousands of years ago, we then have the equally dramatic, tragic and fascinating collision between the two branches of humanity that had taken different directions at a fork in the road from the first excursions out of Africa. One group headed eastwards, through Asia and then eventually up and over Beringia. The other group headed northeastwards into Central Asia and then veered westwards back towards the still frigid and ice covered Europe. Having settled on the barely habitable fringes of that continent 35,000 years ago, they then filled it up as the glaciers and ice sheets retreated and ultimately continued their westward migration over the oceans; two branches of humanity re-merging with each other after fifty thousand years of travels apart.

While we think of the collision of European exploration and settlement of the Americas with the already established populations there as being almost uniquely tragic, I am not so sure that is the case. By one of those odd chances of a disordered and haphazard reading regimen, I happen to be reading David Herlihy's The Black Death, shortly after having completed several archaeological articles on the original settlement of the Americas as well as Nicholas Wade's Before the Dawn. From these, it seems, the massive loss of life as two populations with markedly different histories of disease exposure was an unavoidable tragedy, with the earlier European experience of massive death from new pathogens (the bubonic plague) being recapitulated less than two centuries later in the Americas.

The parallels between Europe and the Americas are interesting. From the first emergence of the plague in Europe in 1348 from Asia, there was a loss of life in Europe on an unimaginable scale. In the space of less than a hundred years, the population of Europe fell 50-70%. Some regions, towns and villages were effectively completely depopulated and temporarily abandoned. Death came not just from disease but secondarily from the consequences of the social disruption attendant to the massive loss of life. The Black Death, as it was referred to, was not a singular event, but a rolling thunder cloud of death periodically resurrecting itself every generation or so, just as people began to recover from the previous disaster. The first exposure was, however, the worst and most consequential.

So just one hundred and fifty years after their own exposure to foreign pathogens had wreaked its havoc on their own populations, Europeans unknowingly and unwittingly brought the same cycle of death from disease to the Americas starting with Columbus's discoveries and initial settlements in the 1490's.

And what do we have from this long-running history of travels and collisions? Well we have the stories and some of the peoples still to tell them. All around us we also have the clues and evidence of what went before us here in this land. Even in our big cities, the evidence is before our eyes and ears in both sites and names. Here in Atlanta the most obvious visible history is related to the sign-posted Civil War battles and troop movements, but as you wade along any of the streams and creeks that wend their way through the hills and watersheds of the city, you can occasionally pick up shards of Creek or Cherokee Indian pottery from a thousand years ago.

There is a wonderful book that came out a number of years ago, (The Garden by Dyan Sheldon and illustrated by Gary Blythe), that tells the tale of a young child discovering an arrow head in her back garden, the arrow head then serving as the launch platform for her to imagine her way back to what the space she occupies might have looked like in the past and the other people that lived there. It reflects the opportunity to try and expose children to the exercise of their imaginations by getting them to recognize the traces of the past around them and then get them to project themselves back to other times, places, peoples and circumstances.

Whenever you start such a journey of imagination and start discovering one culture from the basis of another, there are things that are misunderstood, there are things that are misinterpreted, and there are things that seem incomprehensible. As an example, I have always been fascinated by archaeology and the discovery and interpretation of ancient cultures. For some reason though, as fascinated as I am by the history of the Aztec and especially the Mayan cultures, whenever I am in a museum trawling the displays, I am also perpetually taken aback by the violence and brutality that is so beautifully rendered in much of their artwork. That discordance, fascination and revulsion, is I think, a hallmark of beginning to understand something that is different: if it is immediately comprehensible, it probably isn't all that different.

The list of books below focuses on the traditional stories that survive from the first inhabitants of these New World continents. There are, of course, many hot potatoes in selecting stories such as these. Stories always have a way of becoming hostage to political or cultural agendas. Can a native story be properly told by someone not of that ethnic group? Are stories the "property" of one people over another? Who is the arbiter as to which stories are authentic? These are chosen, not on some putative measure of authenticity or the ethnicity of the author or some of the other criteria that have become popular. Rather they are chosen on the basis of whether the story is written (and illustrated) in a fashion likely to engage a child and to encourage him to start that journey of walking in another's moccasins.

Do you have favorites you would like to have added to the list? Please use the comments section to suggest them. I am especially interested in any suggestions members might have for stories south of the border. We have many wonderful renditions of Native American stories from the US and Canada but where are the stories from the Aztecs, Mayans, Incas and others?

Picture Books

Between Earth & Sky by Joseph Bruchac and illustrated by Thomas Locker

How Chipmunk Got His Stripes by Joseph Bruchac and illustrated by Jose Aruego

The First Strawberries by Joseph Bruchac and illustrated by Anna Vojtech

Brave Wolf and the Thunderbird by Medicine Crow and illustrated by Linda R. Martin & Joseph Medicine Crow

They Dance in the Sky by Jean Guard and illustrated by Edgar Stewart

Buffalo Woman by Paul Goble

Dream Wolf by Paul Goble

Girl Who Loved Wild Horses by Paul Goble

Song of Creation by Paul Goble

The Legend of the White Buffalo Woman by Paul Goble

The Tale of Rabbit and Coyote by Tony Johnson and illustrated by Tomie dePaola

Fire Race by Jonathan London & Lanny Pinola and illustrated by Sylvia Long

Arrow to the Son by Gerald McDermott

Coyote by Gerald McDermott

Jabuti the Tortoise by Gerald McDermott

Papagayo by Gerald McDermott

Raven: A Trickster Tale from the Pacific Northwest by Gerald McDermott

Legend of Michigan by Trinka Hakes Noble and illustrated by Gijsbert Van Frankenhuyzen

The Story of Jumping Mouse by John Steptoe

The Gift Of The Inuksuk by Michael Ulmer and illustrated by Melanie Rose

The Legend of Leelanau by Kathy-Jo Wargin and illustrated by Gijsbert Van Frankenhuyzen

The Legend of Mackinac Island by Kathy-Jo Wargin and illustrated by Gijsbert Van Frankenhuyzen

The Legend of the Lady's Slipper by Kathy-Jo Wargin and illustrated by Gijsbert Van Frankenhuyzen

The Legend of Sleeping Bear by Kathy-Jo Wargin and illustrated by Gijsbert Van Frankenhuyzen

How Raven Stole the Sun by Maria Williams and illustrated by Felix Vigil

Independent Reader

Native American Animal Stories by Joseph Bruchac & Michael J. Caduto and illustrated by John Kahionhes Fadden

Our Stories Remember by Joseph Bruchac

Return of the Sun by Joseph Bruchac and illustrated by Gary Carpenter

Indian Legends of the Pacific Northwest by Ella E. Clark and illustrated by Robert B. Inverarity

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