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Indian Tales

by Hartwell Bowsfield

Manitoba Pageant, Spring 1965, Volume 10, Number 3

This article was published originally in Manitoba Pageant by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make it available here as a free, public service.

Please direct inquiries to webmaster@mhs.mb.ca.

It might easily be argued that all literature has its origin in the talents of the primitive story-teller. For countless centuries men gathered around the camp-fire, in the cave or grass hut recounting the adventures and tales of their people, passing on such stories from generation to generation, until finally with the development of writing they could be recorded in a permanent form.

To some people the art of writing came earlier than to others. Hence we have available the legends of the Norse people, the mythology of the Greeks and Romans, the fairy tales of Europe. To some the art of writing never came, and, as in the case of some of our native people in Canada, a written language had to be invented or their stories recorded in a known language.

Every human group known has developed its tales or mythology, its chronicles of tribal and religious customs and events. How or why they arise has long been a topic of scholarly debate for in all parts of the world primitive people have devised surprisingly similar myths and stories to account not only for their creation but to ex-plain the world of nature around them.

It is only within the last fifty years in Canada that a systematic attempt has been made to record in writing the stories told by our Indian peoples. One of the most interesting attempts is Indian Legends of Canada by Ella Elizabeth Clark which is a collection of myths, legends, personal narratives and historical traditions representing nearly every tribe and region of Canada. As any anthology it is a product of many minds and many hands, consisting of stories from previously published works and others recorded for the first time but a few years ago. The virtues of this particular anthology are many. It is designed for readers of all ages, it covers a variety of themes and includes a large proportion of stories revealing the everyday life, the beliefs and the ceremonies of the Indians of Canada - their food, the use of tobacco, the sweat lodge, the Sun Dance, aspects of native religious beliefs, plans to bring about a lasting peace with their traditional enemies.

One English writer who spent several months among the Chippewa people in the 1830s wrote that "Like the Arabians they have among them story-tellers by profession, persons who go about from lodge to lodge amusing the inmates with traditional tales, histories of the wars and exploits of their ancestors, or inventions of their own, which are sometimes in the form of allegories or parables, and are either intended to teach some moral lesson or are extravagant inventions, having no other purpose but to excite wonder or amazement."

Story-tellers were judged by their eloquence, and their ability and imagination assured them of the best place in the wigwam and the choicest food wherever they went. Many writers have remarked at their accomplishment in the art of story-telling and expressed surprise at finding this narrative talent so widespread. Appropriate gestures and pantomime were often used - the stealthy approach of the hunter, taking aim, the shot, the cry of a wounded animal all being used to render the tale more dramatic.

To entertain, to instruct the young, and to preserve history, rituals and beliefs were the chief purposes of story-telling among the Indians as among other early peoples. Story-telling, we are told, was usually restricted to the winter evenings, the reason being, according to one Indian narrator, that in the summer the spirits were a-broad and did not like being talked about. In the winter they were far away, they couldn't hear the stories and so were not likely to be offended.

On certain special occasions, however, such as before a war expedition a chief might ask a story teller for a rousing war adventure and at the time of the Sun Dance Festival on the prairies warriors told of their earlier deeds and the old men related some of the important traditions of the tribe.

Tales of native peoples have a strange way of developing not only in different sections of the same country but also of paralleling stories in distant countries. Charles Clay's collection of Manitoba Cree legends includes, for instance, a story about Wawa, the Wavey Goose, which is almost identical with a story about a crow among Indians of Eastern Canada and the Cree legend of how the moose got a loose coat is curiously similar to a South African Legend.

In the collection Indian Legends of Canada each story is pre-faced with useful introductory remarks noting the source of the legend, any similarity with tales of another tribe, and any influence which might have affected the story by contact with the white man and his religious teachings.

There is hardly a single story which is not a delightful tale in it-self as well as a reflection of Indian ways and customs. Simplicity and imagination - prime requisites in any story form - are evident on every page. In the story of the origin of Niagara Falls the narrator tells of The Thunderer, great Chief of the clouds and rain, and guardian of the harvest who told the Seneca people that the fever sickness among them was caused by a snake-monster which lay coiled in the ground beneath their village and poisoned their spring water. To help the Senecas The Thunderer hurled a thunderbolt killing the snake-monster. It was so huge that when the Indians uncoiled it, it lay stretched out for a distance greater than twenty arrow-flights. They pushed it into the Niagara River and wondered as it floated away whether it could get through the narrow place between the rocks. When the huge snake reached the narrows it be-came wedged between the rocks, the water was forced to rise above it and to fall over it in a giant cascade. As the weight of the snake pressed on the rocks, the rocks were pushed back, bent like a great bow. Never again did the Senecas have the fever sickness in their village. And the great waterfall, in the shape of a great bow that is bent, remains in the Niagara River to remind Indians of their friend and protector The Thunderer.

Such tales, explaining the world of nature were common with our Indian people yet each is a tale of child-like fantasy. The Chippewa Indians often spent their evenings gathered together in the fields watching the stars. The stars, they believed, were the homes of the good people who had been taken to Star Land by the Great Spirit. One night as they watched, a star, brighter than all the others shone far away in the south near a mountain peak. Every night for many nights they watched it, and they saw that it grew larger, brighter, nearer to them. The head chiefs called a council in order to find out the meaning of the unusual sight but decided they could do nothing but wait. One night a young man of the tribe had a dream in which a beautiful maiden stood beside him and spoke to him.. "I am delighted with the land of your people," she said to him, "so I have left my sisters in the Star Land above, in order to live here with you. Will you ask your wise and great men where I can live. Tell them I want to be where I can see the people at their happiest. Ask them what form I shall take in order to be loved by them." When he awoke the young man hastened to the chiefs and related his dream. "Let the star maiden decide where she will be happiest," said the wisest of the wise men. At first the star maiden chose the white rose of the mountains to be her home. But there she was so far away she could not be seen and could not often see the people. She went to the prairie, but there she feared the hoof of the buffalo. Next she looked for a rocky cliff, but it was so high that the children would not be able to see her. She continued until she found just the right place. "Now I know where I shall be happiest," said the star maiden. "In the water, where I can see your canoes as they float by. The children will be my companions as they play beside the water." As she finished speaking, she floated down to a lake and spread her wings on its surface. Next morning the people were de-lighted to find, floating on the lake, thousands of white flowers in the midst of circles of green leaves. These were the first water lilies.

Throughout many collections of Indian Legends of Canada are charming stories such as this. To young and old they will provide many hours of delightful reading.

Page revised: 18 July 2009

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