Story Telling

Awarded title of Story Keeper by Storytellers of Canada in 2007

Video of story performance for Storytellers of Canada


A life in translation. (for Brian Swann (ed.) Born in the Blood 2011


When I was a child, I made about 30 solitary trips between my divorced parents, one in Chicago, the other in Fort Collins, Colorado, on the Union Pacific Streamliner “City of Denver”. Each trip was a thousand miles all by myself and they were great adventures that I looked forward to eagerly. At night, in an upper bunk, I would slide open the small window and look out through the darkness rushing by, and see in the distance a house, visible only by a lighted window or two. I used to wonder what it was like, living in those prairie farm houses – how life looked from the inside of other people’s homes.

As an adult, after several brief careers and adventures, I wound up making about 30 trips to James Bay, in Northwestern Quebec and Northeastern Ontario. There I and (often) my family sojourned in Cree coastal communities where it became my vocation to try to understand what it had been like living the traditional seasonal round in the bush – how life looked from the inside of other people’s homes.

I had the great good fortune to find a mentor in John Blackned, a man who was born in the bush in about 1894. When I first met him, he was 69, and was regarded in his and other Cree communities as a remarkable repository of traditional knowledge. For seven summers during the 1960’s, I learned to be his scribe, recording in careful detail all that he wanted to tell me. I continued to see him during my more brief trips, speaking of points in the stories and getting a few additions. John aged well and continued to go to the bush into his 90’s, with his two unmarried sons. Although he has no direct descendants, my recordings of his voice, telling his stories, remain available in the Cree region and in archives.

At the time of this writing, I have spent 45 years thinking and writing about those stories, and so now you can understand my choice of the title of this chapter. It does not require 45 years to do this, but that’s just the way it has worked out. From the first story John told me, I was intensely interested and, to the extent that I was able, vicariously followed the paths of the events he related. Sometime in the third summer of my fieldwork, my understanding “broke through” when I had learned – actually become immersed in - enough narratives for them to, in some sense, substantially cross-reference their meanings and implications of meaning within my mind. I had a moment of epiphany that I still regard as a spiritual experience, when my normal, more or less intellectual recognition of the coherence of a story gave way to a welling up into consciousness that silently but clearly said the words “yes, that makes sense … and it really does”. The next 42 years brought some additional depth of insight, a few fruitful surprises, even some small epiphanies, but no great revelations.

I was not then, and am not now, fluent in Cree (or any language other than English), and this has necessarily limited my ability to see more deeply and accurately. Indeed, Crees who interpreted for me were sometimes hard put to understand the meaning and implication behind or beyond John’s words, and I know of only one non-Cree whose fluency I regard as adequate to the task. Fluency is crucially important, but it is always, even at its best, a limited facility to mix and match words. While I had four graduate courses in linguistics, and have taught it, I did not do any serious linguistic analysis in Cree, and have found only scarce help from the many professionals who have done very good work in Cree linguistics. The gap is deep between language regarded primarily as a code to be contemplated, and language in action as a vehicle for conveying experience.

My task here is to try to explain my perspective - or how I regarded, respected, and re-presented the stories for an audience that may never see the places or experience the “old ways” Cree culture that John experienced. The translation of Cree words was done by Crees who knew English, but the translation beyond the words, of the experiences that the stories were intended to preserve and convey to others, was done mostly by myself. My translations are, of course, only the best I can do. I am not seeing through John’s, or his grandmother’s eyes, but I try to approximate what I believe to be the story-tellers’ original intentions.

Concepts and background of the problem

There are several useful types of perspectives on translation of Native American narratives. Each has a contribution to make and to refine. Each favors particular skills. Principal among them are: fluency, linguistic analyses, interpretative descriptions, cultural contexts, and spiritual understandings.

1) fluency in the language enables the most nearly precise translation of words, phrases and ideas. Fluency is not an end-point reached at some age, but a life-long process of learning;

2) linguistic and semantic competence in the formal analysis of language reveals abstracted “structural” implications and enables definitional and comparative statements;

3) interpretive or “ethno-poetical” depiction of expressive aspects of the language and thought systems of another culture, enables greater breadth and depth of cultural understanding, where anthropology tries to merge with literary criticism;

4) cultural contexts may refer to many kinds of setting, but in our present case the reference is to culture as an idiom of experience. The word “idiom” is usually used to refer to the figurative use of a word or phrase. But it may have a wider generality of reference, up to and including the whole symbolic system of a culture as composed of “webs of significances” – that is, meanings beyond the obvious and specific parts. Beyond the concept of cultural systems (item 3) above), then, is a fourth perspective, that of culture, oral tradition, and language as overlapping, aesthetic wholes, where memory and action recognize and express a gestalt that is not literal, particularistic, or time-apportioned but is remembered as a (simultaneous) whole.

5) the final perspective is spiritual, the lifelong maturing holism of deepening and widening apperception and understanding of our experiences, of where our choice of expressive words to convey experiences comes from, and of the extent to which our words succeed in conveying experiences. At this level of understanding and action, the stories are a source of guidance for how we are to live with each other, now, tomorrow, and for the rest of our lives.

Let’s look at these different perspectives more closely:

Fluency. Our task here is learning how to speak the language, and to do so with a level of skill that allows us to speak with mature expressiveness. This is a major achievement for most people, but fluency may not entail the ability to understand the full range of meanings imbedded in the language and the culture. “The understanding of a simple poem, for instance, involves not merely an understanding of the single words in their average significance, but a full comprehension of the whole life of the community as it is mirrored in the words, or as it is suggested by their overtones.” (Sapir 1949 [1929]: 162)

Linguistic or Formal analysis. Through close analysis of speech events, our task is explaining how the language “handles” its utterances. Linguists have collected a great deal of Native oral tradition, but primarily for the record of the utterance itself, to be described with analytical precision. Linguistics is firmly scientific, and most linguistics stop at the boundaries of “hard” analysis. A grasp of phonology, morphology, syntax and semantics points the way to more precise and full understanding of a speaker’s intention. It is about the form of the language, and how it shapes and how it ‘carries’ it’s content. But it only points the way to meanings and understanding. Some “applied” linguists have gone on to provide dictionaries and language learning curriculua.

This low estimation of descriptive linguistics as only a modest contributor to the translation of idioms from one language to another language, and from one tradition to another tradition is a contentious claim. I am not the first, or the best able, to make it. Let’s go back eighty years to Sapir.

All in all, it is clear that the interest in language has in recent years been transcending the strictly linguistic circles. This is inevitable, for an understanding of language mechanisms is necessary for the study of both historical problems and problems of human behavior. One can only hope that linguists will become increasingly aware of the significance of their subject in the general field of science and will not stand aloof behind a tradition that threatens to become scholastic when not vitalized by interests which lie beyond the formal interest in language itself.

… It is peculiarly important that linguists, who are often accused, and accused justly, of failure to look beyond the pretty patterns of their subject matter, should become aware of what their science may mean for the interpretation of human conduct in general. Whether they like it or not, they must become increasingly concerned with the anthropological, sociological, and psychological problems which invade the field of language. (1949 [1929]: 165-166)

Sapir, had he lived longer, might have coined the title of Dell Hymes’ 1981 book, In Vain I Tried To Tell You, given the reluctance of most linguists to embrace the larger problems. American descriptive linguistics followed the narrower path and refined an orthodoxy. The narrowing of the contexts for research for the sake of descriptive precision was not limited to linguistics. During this period, from the 1920’s through the 60’s, anthropology, sociology and psychology were also comparably timid. Psychology was mired in a narrow behaviourism, sociology in Ogburnian quantiification, and Anthropology in ahistorical functionalism.

Interpretive or ethnopoetical descriptions

Interpretive description is perhaps more accurately called the depiction of webs of signification. It was not until the 1970’s that Dell Hymes made the opening into the larger context of language as cultural communication - - into an ethnography of communication, and subsequently, in the 1980’s, helped define and advocate ethnopoetics. But this opening of the field of linguistic inquiry was essentially an extension of description with the goal of finding a way into interpretation – itself a vast field already developed in the literate disciplines, especially literary criticism. Clifford Geertz, Victor Turner, and Harold Schneider brought the interpretive turn into anthropology at about the same time that Hymes and a few colleagues were urging linguists to move towards interpretation.

The interpretive turn was a response to the limitations of formal analysis. Linguistic sophistication does not necessarily make us see as we do when we are immersed in a literature and find breadth and depth of understanding. Our task here is “thick description” - discerning how to understand what is meant, from within the contexts of the oral milieu of the home culture, and then converting or re-presenting it to the written milieu of the receiving culture. The interpretive turn was intended “to enlarge the universe of human discourse,” and it has done so.

This is moving toward the realm of deep translation, from the interpretation of culture as a system of symbols, to the translation of culture – a translation of one aesthetic idiom of experience to another, based on an intuitive grasp of the cultural structures of meaning or the art of its expression.

Discerning an idiom of experience. Here our task is to see language, culture and personality as a single, dynamic gestalt - an idiom of experience. As we saw above, nearly a century ago, Edward Sapir, anthropology’s humanist pioneer and its only generally acknowledged genius, pointed linguistics in a far more broadly conceived and literate direction – a psychology of language that he envisioned in tandem with a psychology of culture. But the great majority of linguists did not follow Edward Sapir’s lead, and chose instead a narrower range of formal analysis – what George Trager much later termed micro-linguistics. Sapir’s vision of linguistics took in the aesthetic side of language, for he was also a poet, essayist, critic, and composer. And his anthropology was also broadly, optimistically humanistic, aiming for a psychology of culture that explicitly embraces the notion of the spirit of a culture, or the spirituality inherent in a culture (Sapir 1949 [1924]). We now have examples of this spirituality-in-culture.

Barre Toelken has provided a profound and exemplary treatment of one Navajo trickster story that he has considered and reconsidered over three decades. I am under the impression that the process of his own maturing has been a vehicle for the maturing of his understanding of a myth. To me, the 1981 paper is beautiful, and makes a persuasive case for the ethnopoetic approach and format. But it goes further and touches the spirituality inherent in the culture.

"Thus, the stories act like “surface structure” in language: by their articulation they touch off a Navajo’s deeper accumulated sense of reality; they excite perspectives on truth by bringing a “critical mass” together which is made up of ethical opposites (one thinks of the Zen koan here); they provide culturally enjoyable correlatives to a body of thought so complicated and profound that vicarious experience in it through entertainment is one of the only access points available to most people." (1981:110)

Toelken’s 1987 (“Life and Death”) paper is a challenge, and I can only hint at the significance he draws from his later experience. In a very few pages, he reiterates the two levels that he has previously opened so effectively to our view, put simply, 1) the entertainment level and 2) the moral level. Then he adds 3) the medicinal level, with several examples of how the narrative, or its evocation in a part or reference, is deeply believed to have the power to cause changes in the world - - changes that are healing. Then, in a late evening’s surprise, an elderly healer tells him of the 4th level, which is witchcraft - - damaging, analytical, individual-centered, acquisitive, competitive, destructive, alienating, deadly - - a mirror opposite of level 3. After careful thought, he decides that he must draw a line in his inquiry. For urgent moral reasons, he will leave the 4th level alone, and to do this he must also leave Level 3, witchcraft’s mirror image, alone.

I have struggled with this. I can easily recognize Cree narratives in terms of Navajo levels 1 (entertainment) and 2 (morality). Is the Cree level 3 comparable to the essentially sacred Navaho Level 3? Is there a Cree level 4? I think that the Crees have a rather different way of depicting the spiritual, and I will return to this in the conclusions.

Stories and spirituality

The notion of culture as an idiom of experience opens the question of spirituality, where the translation of culture requires that we proceed with primary loyalty to the integrity of the idiom – realizing its existential primacy. Perhaps the title of Biedelman’s collection in honour of Evans-Pritchard, The Translation of Culture, may be taken as an omen of things to come, but in any event, Evans-Pritchard’s Nuer Religion is a classic example of contemplating the spirit of a culture in Nuer actions, notions and concepts.

It is difficult for most of us to hold in consciousness the fact that the spiritual incorporates practical actions along with the mythos. In the Cree example, Trickster’s spirit is present in the everyday hunt for food to feed the family, and the idiom of experience merges story and action, past and present.

A reflexive point of reference

Here let us pause and think of our own language and its analysis. The gap between fluency, a linguistic analysis, and the cultural meaning of what is said, may be relatively minor, or it may be fundamental. It may be fundamental because language is an imperfect vehicle, a code to convey subjective meanings and experiences and so refers to memories or images in the listener’s minds, and because what the listener brings to the words will differ with the life experience and cultural context of each individual.

Casual conversation may be trivial, but as we move into the realm of legends and myths, the plot thickens. We are challenged to use our life experience and our tacit psychologies of language and of culture to grasp what is being offered in webs of significance (Geertz), in the lived experience of others, or (on the other analytical extreme) in structural juxtapositions (Levi-Strauss). If we have personal experiences that we can bring to bear on comparison with the content of a narrative, we may be able to intuit what is to be discerned.

Now, however, we are seeing through a glass, darkly. Some people spend their careers in attempts to ‘decode’ a particular genre, or even a single narrator. Some mythic traditions, such as the “Abrahamic” traditions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, have inspired centuries of painstaking hermeneutical study by a great many scholars, to try to discern the meanings of the texts. For example, we have William Blake characterizing the Bible as the great code of art.

Breadth and depth of cultural understanding, then, is a forest of symbols that extends far beyond the trees of fluency and the normative particularities of language structure. Of course, this is no less true for the understanding of Native American traditions. This has been the main focus of my career as an ethnographer of James Bay Cree people, and it is the main focus of this chapter.

And so, Back to the Crees

I explore James Bay Cree cultural knowledge by listening to what people say as a basis for translating from one culture - one idiom of experience - to another. I hope to show how it is also reasonable for you to take seriously our claim that there are deeper meanings in these narratives, moving us from winks to epistemology. To a significant extent, the listener becomes partly responsible for the narrative’s meaning – for understanding what the wink, or the other message beyond the words, conveys.

We will return to spotting some visible winks and to the quest for Cree epistemology following the reading of an English text of a Cree myth.


The Child That Was Not Born Naturally

Once there was a man who had a lazy wife, and he told her that someone was going to come near her.

"And when this person comes to you, you will take our child and put it under the boughs inside our tent.”

And an atoosh (cannibal) came.

And the woman remembered what her husband said and put her child under the boughs, and gave him a bone awl to hold.

And when the atoosh got to the woman he just killed her right away and cut her down both sides of her abdomen. She was pregnant, and the atoosh threw away the baby that was inside her.

And the mice came, and took the baby to care for it.

This atoosh had a young one with him, and the young one was looking all around inside the tent, and when he came near the child that was hidden and pulled the boughs aside, the child stuck the young atoosh with the bone awl.

He stuck the young atoosh in the nose and gave him a nose-bleed.

The young atoosh went crying around the tent.

The big atoosh heard his son crying. He didn't know that the "moose" was in the tent (he called persons that he had killed "moose").

When the man came back, the atoosh had already killed his wife.

He came up behind the big atoosh and killed him with a spear, and killed the small one with an axe.

And he thought to himself, "Maybe my wife hid the child."

Then he looked for the child. He didn't see him and thought the atoosh had eaten him.

He called him and the child moved his hands and the father found him.

The father didn't know about the young baby, he thought the atoosh had eaten the baby too.

He went to a place where he had used to hunt before, and made a new tent to stay in.

The man went out and found a female lynx, and made her his wife. He made another tent, away from the one his son and he slept at.

And he told his son never to go on that trail, because his son didn't know about the lynx.

The man made another trail and told his son if he wanted to go out, go on that trail. His father was afraid that if the boy saw the lynx he would try to kill it for the fur.

And every morning the man went out the trail to his wife.

And the years went by and his son grew up.

The father made some toys for him, like a bow and arrow. And the boy was losing his toys.

They didn't know about the baby that the mice had kept.

This one had grown up some, and the mice would come and steal some of the older boy's toys.

The father told his son, "You are throwing your toys away, you are not watching where you put them. You don't watch where your arrows go and then you lose them."

When his father told him this, the boy shot an arrow and watched to see where it went.

And he saw the mice come and carry it off.

When he saw that, he followed them and found the little tent where the mice were staying.

He knew it wasn't his own tent.

When he got to the tent he went in and found the young boy and saw his toys hanging up all around.

And he didn't know it was his brother.

And the mice told the boy that when the atoosh killed his mother and threw the baby away, they took the baby and looked after him.

The mice told him to go home and not to tell his father.

And in the other tent, where the lynx woman was, he had a brother there, too, but he didn't know that.

Every morning, when his father went out hunting, the boy went and got his little brother and brought him to his tent to play with him.

And the mice told the little brother to always come back in the evening. The mice weren't going to steal the baby, but when he was old enough they would give the man back his son.

The father didn't know that the boys are playing together in the tent while he is out hunting.

The mice told the older brother, "Be sure and come and get your brother and play with him when your father goes out in the morning.”

The mice know that the father will see the different footprints, one set larger and one set smaller. They told the older brother that if his father asks about the smaller footprints, he should tell him that he was just putting his foot down on the front part.

And the man came back from his hunting and saw the footprints in the snow, and he said to himself, "I wonder why some of then are big and some are small?"

So his father asked the boy how come his footprints are like that and the boy remembered what the mice told him and he said, "Well, I put my feet like that." And he showed him.

When the man would go out, the boy took some food to eat that the man had killed and took it to the mice, but the man didn't know that he had this son yet.

When the mice had taken care of the baby they would come and steal some food to keep the boy alive.

And the mice thought that they would give the man back his son someday and surprise him.

Then one day the mice told the older brother to take the younger brother to the tent and when the old man comes, tell him, "This is my younger brother from when the atoosh killed my mother."

And when the man came back from hunting he found his son and another young boy and the boy told him the story.

The man had a beaver that he had kept dried and he took it and folded it up and told his two sons to go and give it to the mice.

And after that, they always took food to the mice.

So the man lived with his two sons, and still he told them never to go on the trail where he goes every morning.

And soon the sons were pretty big, and the younger one said to his brother, "How come he doesn't want us to go on this trail; how come he is afraid for us to go there?"

"Let's go on the trail and see what kind of a place he has got there."

So they went on the trail and found the tent and the big female and all the little lynx, too.

So they said to each other, "Let's go get our bows and arrows so we can kill them."

So they went back on the trail, and came back and killed all the young lynx and the big female too. They didn't know that they were related to them and to the big one they would call her "aunt".

"Lets take one only and show it to our father." they said.

And the two young boys took the lynx and covered it with a cloth and when the father came in they said, "Here is what we brought for you." and pulled the cloth and showed the lynx.

And the father went right out, crying.

They said to each other, "I guess we made a mistake, the lynx was our brother and the big one was our aunt."

And the man went out to the trail and found the dead wife and all the young ones, too.

So the boys said to each other, "I guess we're in trouble . . .our father is going to kill us."

After the man had gone out to the place, the brothers went out and saw lynx coming from all directions.

And they got their bows and arrows and started shooting at them.

They took their father's bow and arrows, too, and shot it.

When their father came back, they thought he was going to kill them, so they took his bow and shot at him and killed their father.

Afterwards, they said to each other, "Who is going to be our father now that we have killed him?"

The older brother said, "Well, I guess we will have to hunt, like our father was doing. I guess we can do it."

After that they left and went to another place.

And the two brothers were always together.

Then the older one told his brother, "I guess it’s about time that I stay with a woman."

The younger one said, "Well, mine is not going to be like the human one my father had."

And the older brother said he wanted one like his mother (human).

The older one said, "I'm going out to look for a couple of women for us".

And the younger one said, "No, just look for yourself."

One morning, when they were just waking, the older brother found a frog close to his covers.

So the younger brother took the frog, and threw it outside and said, "You are too filthy to be inside a tent."

[In reply to my question later, John said that if he hadn't done that the frog would have turned into a woman older people used to call the frog /tcumsrnu/. meaning older sister.]

And one night the younger brother woke up and said to himself, "I wonder why he doesn't make a fire?"

And he looked and saw two women lying close to his older brother.

So, the younger brother said, "Make a fire" and went back to lie down then he saw these two women making a fire.

The older brother said to his younger brother, "These two women who are staying with us one of them only I'm going to sleep with tonight."

The younger brother didn't say anything to the other woman. He said, “These two women that you found, I don't want anything to do with them."

The two women were sisters, and the oldest sister sleeps with the older brother.

So the younger sister says, "Why should we share this older boy when there are two men here. I should be sleeping with the younger brother."

So the younger sister wants to stay with the younger brother.

The younger brother says, "I‘m not going to stay with you any more, I'm going to go away."

The younger brother remembers when his father stayed with the lynx, and he says to himself, "Well, that's the way I want to be."

So the older brother says, "It’s going to be pretty hard when you do that, its going to be a lot of work."

The younger brother thinks, "When I leave my brother this evening, I'll find a woman to stay with."

When he went out he found a beaver house, and he saw this female beaver and said, "Will you stay with me?"

The boy tells this woman, "You can make a tent there where we can stay."

The beaver woman has a brother, and the brother knows that she wants to go and stay with that boy.

The boy goes out and kills all the rest of the beaver and brings them to the tent.

So he stayed with the beaver for one night, and sleeps with her.

Then the boy looked at the beaver woman and said, "I don't think her hair is very nice." So in the morning when he got up, he said, "Well, I’m not going to stay with you anymore, you are not too pretty." He didn't like the teeth so much.

So he left the beaver woman.

He said, "When I stop this evening I'm going to look for a wife again.

He found another beaver house, and while he was sitting near this beaver house, he said to himself: "If only a female caribou would come so I could stay with her."

So he only stayed near this beaver for a little while, and then he saw a female caribou and said to her, "Can I stay with you?"

And he had his toboggan with his tent and all and he said, "Can you pull this toboggan over there and make a tent"

So she took it and made a place to stay.

It only took her a couple of minutes to make the tent and he saw a fire coming out and he thought to himself "My, she's fast.”

So he killed all the beaver in that house and took them to his wife.

He looked at his wife sitting there and said to himself, "She's pretty there, the way she looks."

But when she went outside, the way she stood up, he saw her rear end all of her.

And he thought to himself, "If somebody sees her I guess they're going to laugh at her for showing all herself."

She cooked the beaver and when they went to bed he slept with her.

In the morning when she went out he saw her rear end again.

So he said to the caribou, "Well I'm not going to live with you anymore if you slow all of yourself every time you get up.

So he took the tent down and packed it on the toboggan and told her he was not going to stay with her anymore.

"Don't come with me."

Then he found a porcupine woman and he said he would stay with her.

So he told her to go and take the toboggan and make the place to stay.

And he saw a fire coming out but she was kind of slow it was late.

He killed beaver again and took them to his wife.

The tent poles were all clean, and he said to himself, "She makes a tent nice."

So he told her to cook the beaver.

He looked at her and thought that her nose was big and pointed and she's too black.

After they ate and went to bed he slept with her.

The woman thought, "I guess he is going to kiss me on the nose."

The next morning he said the same thing to her, "I'm going to leave you, on account of your nose.”

All of these females beaver, caribou, and porcupine they went home crying to their mothers.

He left and took his tent and things.

In the evening he found another beaver house and he thought to himself: "I guess I can't get married the way I am going now. This is the last time I’ll look for a woman."

He said to a whiskeyjack "Can I stay with you?"

He told the whiskeyjack to go and pull the toboggan, but she couldn't do it.

She could only go a little bit at a time and took a long time.

He killed the beaver and looked for the tent and still she didn't have a fire going.

Finally he saw a fire coming out.

He took the beaver home and threw the beaver in, and she tried to pull it in.

She was too small and broke her legs trying to pull the beaver in.

She told the boy to tie her legs up so they would be straight, and that's how the rings around the legs of the whiskeyjack got there.

"Try to cook the beaver." he said to the bird. It was pretty late, about midnight, and she hadn't even cooked the beaver yet.

Finally she cooked the beaver.

After they ate they went to bed.

The next morning he told her, "If you didn't break your legs I would have stayed with you."

So he left her and took his tent and things.

He said to himself, "I guess I'm never going to get married. The first one I stayed with, I should have stayed with her."

This female a beaver was saying to her mother, "He didn't like my teeth and my hair."

And her mother said, "He’s going to marry you, that boy."

The boy thought to himself, "I think I'll go back to that first one I stayed with that beaver girl."

So he stopped at the beaver house, and thought to himself and said, "If only that beaver girl would come here."

And he saw the beaver girl coming again, with her hair and teeth all fixed up.

So he said to her, "Make a place to stay."

He killed all the beaver in that house and took them to the girl.

"Cook one of the beavers” he told her, and she told him she wouldn't eat female, only male.

So after they ate they slept together again. In the morning he woke up and said to himself, "This is the one I am going to stay with."

And he did.

So she told him, "If you stay with me it will be hard work whenever we come to a creek you will have to put a tree across for me to walk on."

Every time they came to a creek he would do this.

Soon the young man thought, "This is too much work."

Finally they came to a little creek and he thought, "I'm not going to put a tree across I'll see what she will do."

He went across the creek, but she didn't go across. She went into the water.

He left his toboggan to show her where to build the tent, but when he got back it was dark, and the toboggan was there but no tent.

So he was saying to himself, "I wonder where I left my wife. Maybe she is at the little creek where I didn't cut a pole for her to go across on."

So he went back on the same trail.

When he reached the creek he saw his wife in the water swimming.

He called to her, "Come on to the shore."

“You didn't cut the tree for me to cross, and I like it here in the water.” she said.

"Come on to shore." he said.

"No," she says, "I can't stay with you I'm in the water now."

The woman said, "You come in the water and come to me, back in the water."

He told her that he had never done this.

So she told him to throw his mitten to her, and watch it.

She took it with her teeth add swam under the water, then she came up and threw it back to him. He looked at it and it was all dry.

She said to him, "If you will come into the water you will be dry like this."

He thinks, "If I go into the water I will be drowned.”

She said, "You see how your mitten is, all dry. You will be like that too. Watch me and see how I swim."

So he tried this and floated in the water and went to his wife.

He said, "You can't do what the human does, so I guess I will change into a beaver."

So she said, "Only if you change to a beaver, that's the only way you can marry me." And afterwards, he changed into a beaver.

“The way you make the beaver houses that's not the way it is going to be I'll change things around." He said, “The houses do not have many doors, and that's why you get killed by trappers."

So he started making beaver houses, and he made doors where they can escape when someone is after them and breaking into the beaver house.

And he put lots of sticks on top. And that's why beaver's are busy all the time, because the boy stayed with the beavers. They are building doors.

The people had never seen beaver make houses like that, and they told the boy's older brother about this.

So he said he would go see his brother. He knew that he was staying with a beaver woman.

The older brother thought, "I guess it’s going to be hard to kill beavers because of his staying with them."

So he took a couple of men and went to see his brother.

They found the house and broke into it but he was not there.

He found another one and knew that his brother was in there.

And the brother knew that his older brother was after him, breaking the beaver houses in.

So he said to his wife, "Where I swim, you'll swim, too."

He had made a beaver house a long ways off and that's where they were swimming to. But the older brother conjured to find where they went.

While they were inside his brother came and put sticks all around so that there was only one door.

The younger brother heard noises on the top, so he told his wife to go.

She tried to go out by the doorway and someone hit her on the head.

The older brother started breaking through the house and talked to him from the top, "You see how hard it is when you live like the beavers. Come on out."

So he came out and went to his wife. She was lying down, dead already.

So the younger brother was going to stay with his older brother again, and the older brother was going to look after him.

So he went with his older brother.

The older brother took the dead beaver to cook it.

So he was going to eat his sisterinlaw.

His brother wanted him to eat female beaver but the younger brother told him he wouldn't eat a female beaver, only a male.

So he traded with his brother, and the older brother thought, "Why doesn't he eat the beaver? Why is he doing that?"

All the time the younger brother had stayed with the beaver, the older brother had had a hard time killing beavers, and he was kind of mad.

So he thought that he would tell his younger brother something to make him eat his wife. So he went out and killed some beaver, but he didn't cook them.

He cooked the female that he had killed.

So he told all the men that he stayed with to eat beaver.

So at the feast they gathered around the tent and started eating, the young younger brother too.

So the younger brother said to his older brother, "This female beaver I said I wouldn't eat you'll see what it will be like after I've taken a bite from this beaver.”

So the younger brother cuts a piece and takes a bite and swallows it.

He went running out and they heard a noise like thunder.

When the older brother heard the noise he ran out they were near a river and he saw open water (this was midwinter).

He saw his younger brother way out in the river, swimming.

And the younger brother called to his older brother and told him, "Don’t ever bother me again."

And he dived under the water and they never saw him again.

The older brother still tried to beat him, but he couldn't, he never found him again.

The younger brother swam around under water, and hid under a stone.

Then he went out into the water, way out into the bay.

People say there 's a man way out in the bay and that's the man.

The younger brother turned into a beaver.


Now that we have the English text in front of us, with my approximation of pacing the segments, what do we do? With a respectful appreciation of hermeneutical theory, we ask what steps will best approximate the way a Cree storyteller would understand and communicate the story. We have seen some winks; now let’s try to go into thick description, to a wider context or gestalt of persons and relations, and finally toward epistemology, or ontology, or probably better-stated, to a Cree spiritual counterpart to guiding our actions and discerning our fundamental categories of knowing and being.

From winks and girlfriends, thick description takes us to a youth’s misinterpretation of marriage and his transformation into an anomalous creature. Other recorded versions of this myth favor the English title “The Beaver Wife” and focus on the winks. But behind the winks lies an interpretive story of gathering misfortune, where a birth is precipitated and perhaps contaminated by a cannibal monster, and the life course leads the orphan to parricide and marriage to a non-human, and then his own transformation into a large beaver-like person who becomes a widower and cannibal of his wife, and is finally ostracized from humans and from other animals in the perpetual solitude of an anomalous, monstrous person.

There seems to be something approximating a blend of destiny, fate, and tragedy in this story of interferences in marriage relationships, and their consequences. The boundaries of relationships are fundamental and crossing them invites the reorganization of the world in unexpected ways, a task better left to Trickster. By looking for the implications of these events, we are shown something approximating a Cree ontology, balancing personal autonomy with social responsibility or respect for others, and both with environmental necessity, comparable perhaps to the Ojibwa ontology described by Hallowell, and to other subarctic cultures.

What do we need to know in order to find the deeper, idiomatically Cree implications of symbolic expression in this story? The focus should be on the characteristic actions of persons and the character, respectful, interfering, or otherwise, of the relationships between them, and the consequences of their actions. We are limited in the resources we can bring to the task, by the limits of using English language and the limits of a lack of knowledge of Cree semantics. But we can provide some of the wider context, and through this, some apperception (i.e.: perception of inner meaning, relating new events to events already known) of what is going on in these events. In the rest of this chapter I will provide a start.

Being birthed by an unwitting but monstrous person has, through the younger brother’s life, unwitting and monstrous results. So we need to know more about the effects of contact with monstrous persons. The cannibal atoosh comes to the woman after an ominous warning by her husband, about her laziness. Preparing to eat the woman, the atoosh cuts the woman open in an unusual way, not a typical cut down the center of the abdomen, but two parallel cuts, one to each side of the center (significantly, missing the foetus). This special treatment is also described in the Chou-a story when starvation is broken by the kill of a beaver that is ‘provided’ by the man’s mistabeo spirit. In 1964 I saw these parallel cuts done with a first kill, and the fur singed off before the skin is removed from the carcass, although I doubt whether the young man, a residential school graduate, knew of a reason beyond its being a traditional practice.

Being suckled and kept by mice means that we need to know more about how mice nurture their young and how they act as they grow more mature. We know only that mice live in enclosed spaces with shredded wood for bedding, steal their food, and conceal themselves for protection from numerous predatory species. The story describes their having a small tipi, their theft of food from the father, and their concern to conceal themselves. These characteristics set the stage for the younger brother’s safe and comfortable living and his flawed morality in taking not only food but also his older brother’s toy bow and arrows. The mice have their own characteristic autonomy, and they do not alter it for the sake of the human child. In order to have his brother’s company, the mice-parents persuade the older brother to join in the deception of their father. We can guess ahead in the story, how the sequence of lies told to their father would lead to bigger and bigger mis-behaviour, although we would not be likely to see their parricide as a likely outcome. We need to understand how wrong/disrespectful actions can get out of proportion, then out of control. and so lead to tragic consequences... for this story, for all its humourous winks, is existentially tragic (although we need a Cree gloss for ‘tragic’).

The younger brother was reared naïve, secretive and disrespectful, and ignorant. This is curiously close to the character of the Trickster figure. The younger brother grows with increasing trickster wisdom derived from making a series of wrong choices, some of them very damaging. He was not a fast learner, but he eventually was a fairly good learner, and after trying all those girlfriends he chose the best choice among non-humans to be the wife for a human. So we need to know about the personal character of the Trickster, especially the East Cree Trickster, who often appears as a wolverine.

Trickster is everywhere fundamentally emblematic of the world’s ambiguity, shifting boundaries, and complexity. He is the radically autonomous anti-hero of mythic morality stories, whose selfish or even mindless pursuit of gratification stands in stark contrast with the primary importance of respect relations. And like (or as, in the East Cree case) a wolverine, he can be clever, dangerous and willfully damaging to others. His casual brutality is comparable to that of an atoosh. Tricksters, specifically Wolverine-Tricksters, and their relations with humans, offer guidance in how predators may try to outwit and gain power over their prey, but not on how to live well with people. Wolverine also exampled an unfriendly self-centeredness that led to the dissolution of his family and community of animal persons, a characteristic later found occasionally in some shamans.

The father’s choice of marriage to a lynx and its success with many children of this union has something to do with the personal character, the hunting strategies and the meat diet (and litter size) of a lynx. This was no arbitrary choice from whoever might be available; it was a good and informed choice. Lynx, too, have their own characteristic autonomy. They are secretive and rarely seen by hunters, yet they are tolerant of the presence of humans in their areas. This is a good fit with the secrecy of the marriage and the proximity to the camp where the sons are living. Lynx are fairly solitary, nocturnal hunters, and so the visits to his wife by the father come conveniently at the end of the Lynx-woman’s hunting time and the beginning of the man’s hunt. A lynx pregnancy lasts two months and the litter size is an average of 4, but may be as low as 1 or high as 10, when hares are plentiful. From the number of children indicated in the story we can assume that the marriage lasted for some months, but not as long as a year, before they are killed by the brothers. Females raise their young alone, as she does in the story, and the young are not sent off on their own until they are about a year old.

But this marriage results in the death of all the human-lynx family, at the hands of the survivors of the father’s first family. It seems that these anomalous marriages are mutually exclusive in an existential sense. In a brief interlude, while the brothers are living together, a frog tries to sleep with one of the brothers. This might have resulted in the frog’s transformation into a human-like creature, that could deceive the human partner and lead to disaster. So it was important that it was thrown out of their tent. And it may not be trivial that the frog itself is a transform from a tadpole water person, and as an adult is similar to a beaver, in living both in and above the water.

The first and then the final choice of the younger brother is the most human-like of the animals, and is also very good food for humans. Beavers differ from lynx and wolverines in that they are not predatory, and they are not solitary. Beavers eat available vegetation, but may also adapt to eating meat. Like the beaver woman in the story, they care for their appearance, grooming and oiling their body and sometimes grooming others. The adults live with each other as families in a relation of friendly non-interference and domestic composure, stay in strong lodges through the seasonal cycle, keep their children until they are fully mature, show their young affection, and show the will and ability to work in independent coordination, and to live well together. They play and talk to each other, from whimpers and moans to sounds of delight or gossip. They take easily and well to domestication with humans and easily become pets.

Of the possible choices the younger brother tries, only the beaver woman is a water-and-land person. We all recognize water as the source of life…but not as a viable environment for humans after they are born. And the magic of a human somehow going to live in the water is a claim of transcendence of a radical environmental constraint comparable to, say, flying with the geese. It is crossing an impossible boundary, and once crossed in our story, in order to satisfy the autonomy of the beaver woman, the change works out to be irreversible.

Caribou, porcupine and whiskeyjack women are simply not important to the story beyond showing the naivete of the younger brother. Caribou are vegetarian herd animals that, from the Cree hunting song’s point of view, appear to be almost erotically eager to give themselves to humans. They are migrators and have no shelter, and are a major food source. Not a good marriage prospect. Porcupines are also vegetarian, and while she debarks the tipi poles, there seems little else to recommend this choice of a mate. The whiskeyjack is the most unlikely choice of all. She is neat in appearance but far too small to do women’s work, and has a reputation for thieving. Each of these types of creature has a distinctive, autonomous character and each has a characteristic insider’s view of the world they live in. Perhaps they cannot, or would not wish to conceive of how a human would fit into their world.

The other person of importance is the older brother, who survives the guilt of parricide and matures unshakably human. He uses his conjuring power to find and retrieve his wayward younger brother until, seeing his appearance so transformed, he tests him by giving him meat from his beaver wife to eat. The act of starting to eat his wife is cannibalistic, and he is transformed into an atoosh with the appearance of a very large beaver, just as the world around them is transformed by an impossible mid-winter breakup to allow his escape. When it is suddenly clear that his brother can no longer be human, he tries to kill the monstrous being, but for all his conjuring power he cannot match the power of his brother. In the end, he has killed his father and failed in his attempt to kill his transformed brother.

This is a story about marriage. But more, it is a story about boundaries of who a person may marry, and behind those boundaries, about the risks of transformation. Here we are getting close to the spiritual center. Trickster chooses to dance on the edge of chaos, and some shamen are able to risk some kinds of temporary transformation. But the great majority of persons are well advised to keep a self-disciplined personal respect for stability and autonomy of their personhood and that of all the others around them, and not risk misfortune or even chaos in trying to change who they are. When people are responsible for their self-discipline of choices and actions, the world is less likely to step in with external, punishing discipline. For example, the discipline of attending carefully to tracks enables a hunter to locate and follow his prey, and in this way reduce the chances of failing in the hunt. Respect for the prey is the conscious feeling that goes with this attention to visible clues, and into the hunting songs that invite the response of the prey. Prey means food for humans, and emphatically not their mates and mothers of their children. Food is first – primary – but a food-person is not permissible as a mate. And humans are emphatically unthinkable food for other humans – that way lies the chaos of transformation into an atoosh. Disciplined respect for others is the best way to minimize the chances that contingencies may get of hand and be damaging, and the best way to hold, even in dire hardship, to deep hope for the life that we know is possible, even when it is not visible.

No wonder that anomalous births were regarded as dangerous, and that new-born infants with distortions of human form were let to die. Risk of transformation is always present, and especially so in the generation of a new life. Stories of full term pregnant women who are suddenly scared by seeing nearby an unexpected animal (a beaver, bear, or a seal), and then give birth to an infant with a misshapen face and body hair, and who then choose to let the baby die, are cautionary lessons. And it would be very undesirable to allow such an infant to mature and eventually marry, for then humans would become less human.

In summary, boundaried personal spiritual autonomy combines practical action, traditional knowledge, and mystical experience. It is not set in isolation from the rest of the world, but is embedded in experience and knowledge of the great community of persons (of many kinds) that live in the world, less a matter of spirit-oriented contemplation than it is known intuitively, and repeatedly tested against experience. The practical action is characterized by fortitude and hope. The traditional knowledge combines the social reservoir of memory culture and the techne of knowing how to use this knowledge in action. And mystical experience, normally requiring solitude, requires open receptivity to new knowledge that is more often than not unanticipated in the course of daily events. Transformation is a spiritual as well as physical and social event, and, because it is approaching chaos, is potentially damaging in the lives of all but the exceptionally powerful, and perhaps even them as well.

At the deepest level, we find ourselves facing the possibility of chaos and dangerous and perhaps monstrous events. In his we have a parallel with Barre Toelken’s deepest level in the Trickster myth he so profoundly depicts for us, of witchcraft and other dangerous powers. But it is a parallel, not an identity. As the Cree idiom of experience faces the possibility that the familiar form of the world may become something beyond the contingencies already characterizing the hunter’s life, there is a sense of urgency to protect the stability provided by the respect relations within the great community of persons. In our story, it is a younger brother who has never known his human mother that throws the world into disarray. In life, it could be an act of witchcraft that compares with Toelken’s Navajo idiom, but it could also be something else, including the mistake of simply nurturing a monstrous infant to adulthood. And it could be acts of disrespect that have unanticipated consequences, as Trickster teaches us. And it could be something we have no knowledge of, and may not be able to prevent. And so, at a fundamental level, we have an ultimately mysterious, contingent world that all persons must try to live, and live well, within. And that is the spiritual lesson that this younger brother is teaching us.

Last reflections on theorizing Cree literary form

Back in the late 1960's, I asked Chris Wolfart about what linguistics could tell me in relation to the meanings I was trying to discover in Cree narratives, and he wished me good luck in finding anything at all. The answer finally came in a booklet that Chris sent me thirty years later, Robert Bringhurst’s Prosodies of Meaning: Literary Form in Native North America, reissued in 2008 as part of The Tree of Meaning. Sapir is there, and a roster of other luminaries and others who, unfortunately, missed their chance to be luminaries. Early on, he indicates what may be lost in culturally skewed translation, and in the end pages, what may be gained in a good translation. In a useful way, it may be seen as a theorizing of what Barre Toelken is telling us about the Navaho Coyote story, and what I am trying to tell you about the Cree Younger Brother story.

Basically, we find in Prosodies of Meaning a theorizing parallel to Sapir’s concept of drift in language and culture. Drift is the dynamic of society as unconscious artist. As Sapir conceives the unconscious patterning of behaviour in society, these processes are form-giving according to a universal cultural algebra.

In parallel with Sapir, Bringhurst sees (and knows experientially) a pan-human structure of stories and thought, and of the not-quite-told and not-quite-thought. When the stories are heard, both the idiom and the deep structure of rhyming intuitions of thought/events shine through, for those who have ears to hear. It is an unconscious recognition of natural (ecologically discerned) patterns of events/meanings that may become known consciously through intuition and thence into cognitive appraisal and emotional attachment, and then may be set into word form (Robert Frost, in a letter to Louis Untermeyer – suggests that for him, a poem starts as a lump in the throat or a tug at the heart…).

Once performed in an aesthetically appropriate word form, other storytellers may replicate the performance so that the capable listener can hear it, from the winks all the way down into the intuited and finally unconscious recognition of the grammar of events and meanings. I wish you a good journey.

Suggested Readings:

Bringhurst, Robert

2008 Prosodies of Meaning: Literary Form in Native North America. In, The Tree of Meaning: Language, Mind and Ecology. Berkely, Counterpoint.

Preston, Richard J.

2002 Cree Narrative: Expressing the Personal meanings of Events. 2nd edition. McGill-Queens University Press.

Sapir, Edward

1949 Selected Writings of Edward Sapir in Language, Culture and Personality. Berkeley, University of California Press.

Toelken, J. Barre

1981 (with Tacheeni Scott) Poetic Retranslation and the “Pretty Languages” of Yellowman. In, Karl Kroeber (ed.) Traditional Literatures of the American Indian: Texts and Interpretations. University of Nebraska Press, pp. 65-116.

1987 Life and Death in the Navajo Coyote Tales. In, Bryan Swann and Arnold Krupat (eds.) Recovering the Word: Essays on Native American Literature. University of California Press, pp. 388-401.