Book 5: Some Myth
Cloth, Ira J Friedman, Port Washington, New York, 1922
As research for an RPG that I’m participating in, I went looking for a book that would lay out the Iroquoian myth and belief system. Probably due to inadequate research on my part, Beauchamp’s is the best book that I have come across so far. This is not what I expected: I had imagined that, salted by the work of Marxists, Feminists, and Post-colonialites, contemporary works would give me a more (if never) completely honest and thorough account of anything I wished to avail myself of. This is not to say that there isn’t a frustrating fog around Iroquois Folk Lore, and Beauchamp’s book not without comments and assumptions that seem so outdated they’re offensive, but the completeness of his account was indeed refreshing when I compared it to most of what was on offer.
I went into this search with two contradictory assumptions: I know the transfer of traditional knowledge from oral cultures into print is not without its pitfalls. Truly oral literatures (I’m sure there’s a better term for this) contain subtleties that require truly talented poets to render into print. And this is to say nothing of the fact that in oral cultures, as in print ones, some kinds of knowledge is proprietary. The owners of certain tales may not wish to part with them by expressing them into an alien system, administered by unsympathetic guardians. Add to this the demographic collapse and near-collapse due to disease and suppression that indigenous cultures in the northeast have faced since contact - whole tribes, such as the Neutral, who lived between the Hurons and the Iroquois, disappeared from smallpox before the French arrived - and I knew that my search would not be easy. But I also thought that, since scholarship in the last thirty years has been rooting for the underdog, the largest library in Central Canada, home of the peoples whose myths I was seeking, should at least be two or three good tomes that I could sink my teeth into. I was looking for a work that was one stage removed from primary sources, which I would probably need much more study to understand, but one, like a parallel translation, was frank about the author and editor’s decisions. I thought that if the West Coast had produced something like Robert Bringhurst’s Story Sharp As a Knife surely Central Canada and the northeast of the U.S. could do us one better. Bringhurst’s work is very controversial, but he at least tries to maintain some of the flavor and context of the original tales. I hope the Iroquian version is out there, but I haven’t found it yet. The shallow representation of this branch of knowledge on Robarts’ shelves is a shame.
As I trolled the shelves of the University of Toronto’s Robarts Library the books I found fell into distinct classes:
Children’s literature: The process of La Fontaine-ization of Iroquois lore is best illustrated by Legends of the Iroquois: told by “the Cornplanter” (Canfield, 1902) where the tales, which run no more than two pages, are all centred around animals (raccoons, foxes) and are devoid of the the witches and warriors one finds in the rest of the literature. At the more contemporary (and comfortable) end of this path is Indian Legends of Canada (Clark, 1960) where the stories are more complete but are also suspiciously tidy. The Secret of No Face (an Ireokwa Epic) (Parker & Oledoska, 1972) which, while populated by stone giants, flying heads, and Thunderers, is written for pre-teens, which to be fair, was the authors’ intent. The best of this type is probably Voices of the Winds (Edmonds & Clark eds., 1989); this is aimed at adults, but it is clearly a rough overview.
Outhouse reading for the back-to-the-landers: There is, amongst non-natives, a strong feeling of respect for the traditional knowledge of North America’s aboriginal peoples, as well as guilt for the post-contact destruction of native peoples and cultures. This has, understandably, created an aura of authority around surviving systems and beliefs. While this respect is healthy, most non-natives are also profoundly ignorant of the systems they propose to venerate. Into this breach has stepped arms of the same industry that gave us ankhs and wicca. While respectful, the Turtle Island Alphabet: a Lexicon of Native American Symbols and Culture (Hausman 1992) would happily occupy a place on the shelf beside Celtic Myth & Magick: Harness the Power of the Gods and Goddesses (McCoy 2002). Printed on textured cream paper and partially set in Lithos - a typeface designed look like ancient Greek inscriptions (which is intended to convey that this is “ancient Earth Mother knowledge”) - this is a piece of puff pastry. To say this book is a superficial gloss of a highly complex and rich subject is being kind.
Bathroom reading for everyone else: This class could also be called The Inadequate Encyclopedia. The Encyclopedia of Native American Religions: an Introduction (Hirschfelder, 1992) and North American Indian Mythology (Burland, 1965) both fall into the careful, don’t bore people with too much information! trap, to the point where I’m not actually sure why anyone would go to the tremendous effort of writing and publishing books like these at all. The longest entry in Hirschfelder is 10 lines (on a two-column page), and Burland’s work is suspiciously like a Childcraft Annual. The only member of this class - the Butler’s book of Saints of the bunch - is the Dictionary of Native American mythology (Gill, 1992) which actually seems like a reference book.
Why didn’t you write more? By far the closest I came to my grail was Voices from Four Directions (Swan ed., 2004). Here the Seneca tales were presented free from Bowlderization, and framed with a careful discussion of the Senecan language and a good bibliography, but alas there was only one chapter. I would have happily read a whole book in this vein. And, although tangental, Native Religious Traditions (Waugh & Prithipaul eds., 1977) gave me an interesting portrait of Handsome Lake, a figure who, at the end of the 19th center, sought to fuse Iroquian beliefs and morality to then dominant culture of the Bible.
History, instead: The Children of Aataentsic (Trigger, 1976), while a history of the Huron peoples to 1660, presented me with a helpful introduction to their mythology and beliefs. The Hurons, who were not part of the Iroquois Confederacy, and so strictly speaking outside of my focus, shared many cultural features with them. I am only half-way through the first volume of this work but it is - for a history, at least - everything I could have hoped for: careful, well-written, and fair. The Huron belief systems are presented in their widest context, and the ethnographic portrait of the Hurons is detailed and full of colour. Not what I was looking for at the outset, but very satisfying.
And Beauchamp? His text is a gallimaufry, a pot of seeming odds-and-sods that hangs together when taken as a whole. Broken into short sections without hierarchy - one section an introduction, another a continuation of a thread that was dropped a few breaks before - one can at least hear the admittedly muffled voices of the storytellers through Beauchamp’s hand. Most of the tales are from the Onondaga nation, in upstate New York, although the Seneca and the Oneida are also represented. Beauchamp has clearly interviewed some storytellers first hand, but beside these he has stitched oddments cribbed from late 19th century local accounts and early Jesuit reports, complete with references to the natives’ spirits as “demons” and “djinn's”. But I can say now that I have at least a rough idea of who Hiawatha is, why the white dog feast featured the burning of a basket, and what the tale of Heno and the serpent is.