Before approaching North American Native literature, lets provide a bit of background on the Native Americans residing in the continent. At the arrival of the Europeans to America, there were around five hundred different languages spoken in the continent. Nowadays, still exist around two hundred languages, from which around forty five of them are spoken by more than a thousand people. In all the Americas, including centre and South America, there are around six hundred languages spoken by more than eighteen million people. These figures gives us a picture of the richness and of the diverse cultures found in the Americas. 

In the book by Brian Swann, we read stories from all the North American continent, placing certain attention in California, as this region at the arrival of the first Europeans presented the greatest diversity of native American cultures and languages in the continent: some 200 languages and dialects belonging to many language families. In my articles though we will treat the whole North American continent, giving a small picture of Alaska, Canada, South and West North America. 

Since the arrival of the Europeans to the continent, there was a strategy to eradicate and to eliminate native languages, including moving out natives from their reservoirs into towns, or missionaries strategies to eradicate native languages in native communities. Natives though managed to maintain their culture by persistence, and thanks also to the support of some universities, it made possible the survival of some of these languages and cultures. Nevertheless, half or more of those two hundred languages are obsolescent, that is, are only spoken by the elderly and no one under fifty years old speaks them. This fact, the authors mentioned at the time the book was written, surely will bring them to extinction. Provably then, some of the languages mentioned in this book have already died. 

In Alaska, just Yupik and Central Yupik are flourishing. Inipiaq is also spoken by more than sixty four thousand people.  Other Alaskan languages are Tsimshian or Tlingit. Despite some efforts to monolingualism, efforts have been made to revive and to strengthen native language and culture, including writing books, or the work of University publishers releasing dictionaries and grammars in Aleut and Eskimo. In the continent, some languages have strengthened, such as Athabaskan and Navajo languages, Mikasuki in Florida, Choctaw in Mississippi, or Zuni, Hopi and Jemez in New Mexico. Risk of extinction and disappearance of Native languages is there. The author says in this regard, that when languages die, its universe, a unique way of understanding, interpreting and inventing the world, dies with it. A cultural gene dries up, and all of us are the weaker and the poorer for the dying of diversity. 

Europeans’ perception of Native culture has gone through a process: from having little or none interest on it, to their literature being seen as poetry defined as imaginative, aesthetic and emotional, but lacking intellectual quality, which corresponds roughly to prevalent contemporary ideas of male and female qualities. Boas was revolutionary with his ideas and based them on studies he did on Native North Americans. He stated “our people are not the only carriers of civilisation… The human mind has everywhere been creative”. Boas saw imagination, creativity and understanding on the stories explained by Native North Americans. 

Yupik territory

Leslie Marmon Silko mentioned about “the racist assumption still abounding that the prayers, chants and stories weaselled out by the early ethnographers, which are now collected in ethnographic journals are public-domain”. It is an interesting statement, because it goes against the mentality of North American natives. The Hopis for example, believed on a system in which communication of knowledge was not open free-for-all; they believed that much knowledge was privileged and valuable, and that the average citizen did not have access or rights to its content. A Native wise man stated that “research needs to be based on the reality of natives existence as they experience it, and an inclusive agenda should involve mutual study”. So what are they saying, that unlike Europeans believed, those stories were not public and should not be shared with everyone, because they are sacred and should only be shared with a few. Understanding this and respecting Natives views on this, is the right and only way to approach their culture. Things though have slowly changed and improved. The 1992 quincentenary celebrations boosted Native American cultures, and has its roots on the 1960s, which has seen a new ethnic awareness and the growth of civil and minority rights. 

We are going to look at some of the stories collected on this book, and we will start on the North, in Alaska, the Yukon and the subarctic, moving slowly South. In one of the stories, we read about the Inuit. Tikigaq, the subject of one of the narratives lies on what is provably the oldest continuously inhabited site in the Americas. Here, people lived in semi-subterranean igloos. This place had a quick access to whales and seals, and was an important ceremonial centre. In Tikigaq, there were six ritual centres, and in here in the long autumn, community’s skin boat owners organised ceremonies supervised by the shamans in preparation of the great spring whale hunt. Whaling was vital to their subsistence and to the identity of its people. 

In the local origin story, we find the connection between the death of a whale and the creation of Tikigaq flowing from the united power of the couple male and female shamans. This primal couple of shamans appear in other Inuit stories, defined all as myth and legends. Mythology that goes back to archetypal times. In the story about Tikigaq, the female shaman is either punished or raped and the male shaman is successful only when Siguana has succumbed to the horror of old age, and when the seal’s emergence succeeds. 

The story Siguana and the old Anatkuq is about an old medicine man, Anatkuq, asking the hand of a girl and being rejected. Then, following her to all igloos and her running away from him until he uses magic to turn her old while sleeping, and the family realising that magic can be turned by marriage. Siguana, who is this young girl, sees a seal crawling from her, and after she is promised to Anatkuq, the later makes her young again. In here we read about the importance of marriage, about magic brought by seals, about the importance of seals for society…

In another story by this same people from Tikigaq, we read about the progress of a boy into a shaman (Tigguasina). The story also tells of children living rough lives, outcasts, living with dogs at times, depending on begging and scavenging. This tale, in which Anatkuq tries to kill Utkusk with a harpoon is a more complex one, with symbols such as whale jaws or seals, and a baleen put at the entrance of a ceremonial centre anytime someone died at the entrance. At the end of the story, the observing child Tigguasina, achieves becoming a shaman after few events, obtaining a place in the sacred hierarchy. The story’s initial focus is Tigguasina’s lonely authenticity; its conclusion, his social and shamanistic triumph. 

The next story is a Yupik Eskimo story, which seem to have originated with remote ancestors. These type of narratives are called Qulirak, which explain the origins of the environment, living creatures or social customs. Perhaps with supernatural encounters, ghosts or with the underworld, of Raven and other animal characters transforming from human shape, and of kids of women refusing husbands or fathers. The tale is a dramatic exploration of cruelty, violence, and the bonds of kinship, telling vividly of a hero who finds his youngest brother in the hands of a sadistic hunter and is then guided in his revenge by strange allies. 

The family of 6 appears to be self-sufficient, and are ideal morally, as they bear no immodest pride over their success. When the youngest disappear, they are helped by a grandmother and a disheveled man. This evokes a Qulirak story about an orphan who is abused, and acquires superpowers, while maintaining his reserve and humility. When the moment is right, he overwhelms his former tormentors in an ironic and violent way. The orphan is the grandson who bears these qualities, poorly dressed, living in the outskirts. He is seen as a model of behaviour, showing patience and power, and also meekness and vengefulness. Then we find the hunter character, cruel and powerful, a shaman who is ultimately done by a revenge taker. This revenge is seen as an act of virtue and justice, even the killing of the whole village is seen as an act of virtue. 

The next story is from Bering sea people of central Alaskan Yupiit origin, a place densely populated, supported by rich runs of salmon, herring and saffron cod. People lived in communal Qasgiq in the winter, when family groups were not dispersed in seasonal fishing, hunting or trapping camps. These natives held ceremonies on the Qasgiq, with masked dances and large-scale distributions of gifts. On dark nights, in that Qasgiq, men often told narratives, some lasting several days, to entertain each other and to instruct the youth. Women lived, and told their tales, primarily in the smaller family dwellings. 

The Yupiit told two type of stories. The first ones were Qanemciit, stories of legendary people, historical events and personal experiences.  The second type were Qulirat, myths and tales set in more distant times, like “the Woman who returned from the dead”, which deals with life after death. This story reminds us of the thinness of the separation between the living and the dead. The Yupik earth is flat, four or five steps away from the land of the dead. When the earth was thin, encounters with ghosts and supernatural beings were commonplace. This image and the metamorphic character of humans and animals in oral tradition may stand as metaphors for interdependence.   

Contact with the dead required long preparation and care. The Elriq ceremony involved providing for dead relatives and namesakes, giving them food, water and clothing in the afterlife. This story portrays the transition zone between the two worlds, describes some features of the afterlife, and offers explanations for some mortuary and post-mortuary customs. This myth tells us that for locals a proper human action interconnects the dead and the living. Naming is an example of these customs, as it is a basic means of perpetuating relationships among the living and between the living and the dead. For those who share the same name may share a spiritual essence, elements of the same identity and personality. This myth teaches us that for natives the essential identity of a person with his or her namesake creates linkages between the living and their ancestors. By giving gifts to the living namesakes of their deceased relatives, people maintained past kinship ties in the present. We find a dynamic interplay in Yupik epistemology, which balances two ideas: that the world is a place of multiple possibilities and that words can actualise the events they describe. The comfortable acceptance of artistic variation reflects the former; a careful, indirect, and reserved use of speech reflects the latter.

On the story “Andy Kinzy’s Telling”, we read about the Elriq ceremony and about the process for the namesake to be passed on from the elderly to the young, including the process of bringing back the dead. In this tale, we read of a granddaughter performing the Elriq ceremony for her grandmother. It tells how she goes to pick up some fish for her and finds an obstacle. It tells also how she requires the support of a shaman and how they accomplish to bring the dead relative into the Qasgiq, the house were only men slept, bringing the dead there and achieving the transferring of the namesake to her young relative. The tale tells about becoming aware to one’s earliest continuous memory and is the mark of becoming fully present in the world. It tells of the importance for your identity of transferring that namesake from your old relatives to the living ones, and also punishes those relatives that do not participate on the ceremony. 

In another story called “Martha Mann’s telling” we also read about the transferring of namesakes from the dead to the living, but this time emphasises on the importance of knowing the provider of the food received, of all gifts given for namesake rituals. In the narrative, the character uses animals, such as dogs, to reach her dead grandmother. It tells of the importance of the mother’s brother, who is one of the giver of gifts.  

Yupik mask

Another type of Eskimos found in the Alaskan territory are the Yupik Eskimos, who apparently are one of the least known and most traditional native American groups. These people speak central Yupik language, practice elaborate ceremonial exchanges and harvest an abundance of fish and wildlife from their rich coastal environment. They reap from their environment a wealth of resources, and build semi-subterranean sod houses. They also have Qasgiq, communal men’s houses, while women lived separately. 

For all Inuits, the relationship humans-animals is central to the construction of values. Humans and animals distinguish themselves from one another by their acts, and the boundaries between them are dynamic and transitional, being passages between them always a potentiality. 

The Quliraq, or traditional tales, describe Yupik views of animals, and also an understanding of how animals view humans. In the story “The boy who went to live with the seals”, we read about the relationship between hunter and prey as a cycle of reciprocity, in which seals visit the human world, where they are treated as guests and afterwards the seals return to their world. The Eskimos believed that hunting was an act in which seals intentionally approached the good hunters in the ritual of the hunt. Yupik moral discourse, or to follow the community values, it was believed it cleaned the path, so that animals could approach hunters. It is also a path for animals to see the humans’ world. Another interesting characteristic is that hunters disguise to protect themselves when hunting seals. In the story, an Angalkuq or shaman sends an uninitiated youth to dwell in the seal’s underwater home, where the boy simultaneously views the seals as persons and is given glimpses of the human world from the seal’s point of view.

Yupik believed in infinite, cyclical quality of both human and animal life. That was accomplished by hanging the bladders of animals caught at the men’s house. This was done to return the seals they caught to their home in the ocean. When hunters caught a seal, save and kept its bladder. Those bladders made sure seals would be again next year. This process assured an eternal life for seals. 

Another Alaskan community mentioned on the book are the Aleuts, culture that gave the name to Alaska. On one of their stories we read about a cosmic myth explained by a blind Aleut old men and translated by a Russian ethnologist. The tale tells about the moon’s sister, who is presented living on the upper floor of the ancient Aleut universe, digging roots. By digging she finds this hole, and looking through, sees a couple of hunters going in kayaks. She goes with them, is invited to smoke salmon and water, becomes their wife, and gives them a child, who is bred by the boy’s maternal uncle. Son and mother go to visit her uncle the moon, but he lives very far away, so on the way she dies of old age. Before dying, she though explains him how to reach the moon, ascending by a ray of sunlight. On the way she finds two bowls of blood and empties one, then finds the Orion’s belt, the evening star, the pleiades, the Ursa major or Caribou, and finally reaches the moon. There, he finds the sun rolled up on a mat, unrolls it, and because of this burns his face. Exhausted, his uncle asks him to take his place and dies. He then puts on clothes representing the moon phases. A clear meaning and symbology is found here, telling how the moon came to be the way it is now. In Yupik culture, moon’s task is heavy, a moral of guarding taboos, and not to be made light of, for he has to pass over the filth and excrement on earth before becoming the moon. 

The Athabaskan is another culture discussed on this book. They are a culture inhabiting eastern Alaska. Even though Russians and Americans colonists led to acculturation and population loss, on the eastern shore, between the sea and the towering peaks of the Alaskan range, inland people maintained part of their culture. In one of the stories collected in this narrative, we read about the Raven, the most important figure in Northern Athabaskan mythology. This character is similar to Coyote. He is the transformer, whose deeds changed from the world of myth time, when animals lived like people, to the world of historical time. Many of those deeds are achieved by deceit, for Raven is also the great trickster, sometimes working his magic for the benefit of humans, sometimes for the benefit of no one but himself. Yet this powerful being appears in the role of a dupe whose egotism and base desires lead to his own humiliation. It is unsurprising that irony is the major mode in the literature of the Athabaskan, having a god like Raven as hierarchical figure of great importance. Raven appears using magic to torment and rob an innocent fisherman, uses trickery on an evil way, appears funny at times, at times is humiliated by a despised orphan. At times he appears on a human form, at times on avian form. His wishes have the force of magic spells. It is a really interesting character, capable of the best and of the worst. 

Another type of stories found in Athabaskan culture are those from a genre called mountain stories. The Fog Woman is a good example. These type of tales were told in the summer, when communities moved to the mountains to hunt game, which they then preserved for the long, cold winter. The stories were didactic, explaining to the younger the proper relationship of humans to nature and the importance of valuing the survival of the group over the desires of the individual. To understand the meaning, the reader should know how vulnerable caribou hunters were to weather conditions, and how important were them for the survival of the community. The Dena’ina, an Athabaskan community, believed many animals, birds, plants and weather conditions had corresponding spirits; when humans dealt with objects in the natural world, they necessarily dealt with their spirits. Fog woman is one of these spirits, who tries to attract a young hunter, telling first that he shouldn’t love her, but then accepting the union because of her watery, cloud-like nature, which make her not to resist, or perhaps to punish his transgression. Then this young man realises that his family survival is at stock, and in the end resumes the responsibilities of ordinary life. 

Fog Women is representative of a widespread theme in mythology, alien marriage stories, marriages between humans and natural beings or spirits. These stories may symbolise the experiences of women captured in war and forced into marriage among strangers; more deeply the tales may strike a responsive chord in anyone who senses the profundity of otherness amid intimacy. 

The Dena’ina believed in animal reincarnation through their bones, by putting them in water. It was a kind of returning process of preys into the wild, to be able to hunt again. So animals were treated with respect. In the story “Beliefs in things a person cannot see”, we read about this man who caught a caribou, and is molested by mice, not allowing him to eat. He is then finding a beautiful girl on a dream, who explains him how to show respect towards the animal world, and how to keep the reincarnation process alive. The hunter learns how to follow the ritual and becomes teacher for future hunters. It is interesting to read that the dream appears as an inspiration, changing the man forever. The man is shown how important is to respect the bones, how to deal with them, how to keep the reincarnation cycle alive. 

In another story, the Lynx story, the animal tells how should he be hunted, what weapons should and shouldn’t be used. On another one, we read about killer whales and how they influence human beings, not just showing a boy’s path back to the village, but changing everything on the process, including the boy. On the “Dog story”, we read about jealousy and evil-minded behaviour, and how bad it is for one’s health when conflicts occur. The narrative tells of a chief administering punishment and pardons according to traditional laws and customs. On the tale also appears a dog, who is the assistant on a dream. It tells of this man asking for a loan, and turning this badly. At the end of the story, people lose their minds, and when they do the tale tells, they listen the dog’s bark. 

In “The Girl who Married the Bear”, we read about an awful balance in relationship between humans and animals. This is what indians believed existed since the world began. We also read about a matriarchal system that governed Southern Yukon indians, who traced their consanguineous ties only through females. It was through women that one’s kin group was formed. Wife and children formed one moiety and the husband another one, forming crow and wolf moieties. Each moiety had different functions and had responsibilities towards the other moiety. Membership to one moiety for example obligated one to dispose of the corpses of those in the opposite moiety. 

The Yukon indians have a social system of cross-sex sibling avoidance. After puberty, brothers and sisters avoid each other. They don’t talk or look to each other, though in a crisis a younger brother or sister might have spoken circumspectly to an elder sister or brother. Despite that, a strong sibling unity lies at the heart of their society. The oldest brother looks after his siblings and they take care of each other between brothers and sisters, providing food and clothing throughout their lives. Brother-in-law tie is equally important because link opposite moieties. 

Hopi people

Some of these connections between moieties include animals. Natives believed that long ago existed animal people who looked like humans. They existed on this form up until they pulled up their animal masks. This happened after Crow the transformer opened the box of daylight to them. From that point in time, animals appear almost always to humans in animal guise. Locals thought that animal spirits were greater than human’s and could use this power for good or for ill. Indians used ceremonies and rituals to unleash animal spirits’ beneficial powers and to ensure reincarnation of their spirits, so humans have food in the future. One never should act or speak offensively towards animals, or treat disrespectfully anything that is from animals, such as their excrement. There are obvious reasons for this need to act respectfully. 

In the story, as soon as the girl mocks the bear excrement, she is at risk. A handsome man appears and she feels attracted by him, only to find out little later that the man is a bear. She betrays him by living signs of where she is. She is nevertheless getting in love with the bear, but only after having two children. Then a dilemma comes, to stay on the animal world, or to return to the human world. She persuades the bear to give up his life to his brothers-in-law, but the irony is that she herself ends up doing the unthinkable, killing all her brothers except the youngest. In here we experience that every rule of siblings and close relationships are violated. A young girl’s careless defiance of a fundamental taboo has doomed her to join the animal world forever. The bear appears to be a kind of shaman with supernatural powers. He threatens with killing her brothers, which she tries to avoid, as she worries who will look after her children. Maternal uncles played that role. Eventually she turns into a bear, after her husband is killed by her brothers, and she ends up killing her own family. At the end the story tells locals that grizzly bear meat shouldn’t be eaten, as it was seen as kind of sacred. 

In the myth “How the world began”, story of Tagish and Tlingit ancestry providence, we read about the Trickster and the Crow, an ambivalent combination of good and evil. Crow is the transformer, a clown, a selfish and petulant being. His exploits are told with humour. The trickster is a figure of chaos, the principle of disorder. He embodies two distinct and conflicting roles: creator of the world and bringer of culture on the one hand; glutton and instigator of trouble in the other. In the Yukon, Crow creates the world, brings light and fire and fresh water. He creates human beings and teaches them the principle of culture. He though marries a fish mother so he can eat without working and treats her with no respect. He frightens villagers to obtain food and his vanity blinds him. He does other evil actions. He is basically good and evil, all behaviours found in human beings. 

The story “Glacier Bay History” is also part of Tlingit literature. It is about the passing from puberty to adulthood, which is a really important ceremony. The girl starts contributing when married, brings kids to the physical survival of the community. She also contributes to cultural survival, by learning how to act emotionally and spiritually, as well as a physical adult. The elders teach her while on seclusion, teaching her self-discipline and self-control. She is basically sacrificing herself for the group, and by doing that, establishes Glacier Bay as sacred space and establishes the physical as well as spiritual property of the clan. The story also explains mythical relationships between the human, the natural and the spiritual worlds. 

The Dunne-za, or Beaver indians, are Athabaskan-speaking hunting people who believed their stories took place simultaneously in the real time of its telling and in the mythical time in which it occurred. The beginning and end of the stories were like entries and departures of a Dunne-za dancer, when he or she moves in or out of the dreamer’s dance circle. Stories were learning tales and illustrations of Dunne-za knowledge and power. They became archival representations of that knowledge and power. They also were a mixture of performance and written text. From these communities I would like just to mention that in Dunne-za thought everything could talk just like people, which tells a state of being that children traditionally experienced through their vision quests and adults through their dreams. The mythical time always came to mind with the telling of a story, even the events of recent history were mythologized. 

In the same section on Alaskan and Canadian native indians, we read about Naskapi, Montagnais and Naskapi-Montagnais, also called the Innu (the people). They were a native group from Eastern North America. In this community we read about the trickster Wolverine, the canniest, most indomitable member of the Mustelid family. Wolverines are born survivors. They survive in the subarctic, its fur turns darker in the winter and is a really brave animal, standing even bears, who are much bigger animals than them. They are loners. self-sufficient and relentless nomadic, which is a way of behaviour similar to the Innu.   

The mythological Wolverine has similar powers of survival. He created our present world to keep himself from drowning. In one of the stories, we read how the world was all water and how animals could only lead from stone to stone. Then it tells how Wolverine asks few animals to bring ground from the bottom. To an otter first, then to a beaver, and finally to a muskrat, who brought ground which became dry earth to stand.  

There is though a flip side to Wolverine’s adaptability. Same as with other animals taken as tricksters in Native North America. Wolverines tend to make a mess of things. Either he is getting stuck inside a bear’s skull, is duped by a woman, or his ass is mistaken for caribou jerky. This aspect of Wolverine’s behaviour is at least as significant as his other attributes to the Innu. For it allows them to shrug off their own shortcomings by implying that it’s not so bad, after all, to get stuck inside a bear’s skull. Innu told these kind of dirty jokes, stories with scatological frills and furbelows.  

Unlike with other North American communities, most Innu storytelling happens away from the settlements, usually around a winter campfire in the bush. Before a story could be told, the teller had to make sure there weren’t any evil spirits lurking near by, or else his story will attract them in much the same way blood attracts a predator. Wolverine stories on the other hand are told at any time and anywhere as they are anecdotal rather than ritualised. These stories are basically intended to make people laugh. 

Based on book: Coming to Light: Contemporary translations of native literatures of North America by Brian Swann

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