Friday, 4 January 2013

On Reading: Puffin Books 3 - the Lost Tribes

 In the early 1960s Puffin Books published a number of books focussing on Native Americans and their traditions and practices. By then, of course, the genocidal devastation that had been dealt to the Indian tribes of North America since the arrival of the 'White Man' in the fifteenth century was almost complete and it was far too late to turn back the tide. Two of the books described here are based on true stories about children, a boy and a girl respectively, who were the last members of their tribes. The names of these tribes were once legion, and it is the names that are often all that is left - in places such as Biloxi, Cheyenne, Delaware, Illinois, Iowa, Miami, Missouri, Omaha, Susquehanna) or in the name of a recreational vehicle (Winnebago), which is an horrific appropriation when you come to think about it. This tragic history is well described in all its horror in Jon E. Lewis's book, the Mammoth Book of Native Americans, which I am currently reading. But Lewis endeavours to be even-handed and he also includes writings that demonstrate the wisdom and spirituality of native peoples. This is the focus of these Puffin books, too.

Ishi, Last of his Tribe is a non-fiction book about the man (which is what Ishi means) who was literally the last member of the Yahi people of the Yana tribe of northern California. His ancestors were wiped out by gold prospectors in the 1860s but for a time, he and his sister, parents and grandparents managed to survive. When Ishi was found alone in 1911 his memories were recorded through the intervention of staff at the Museum of Anthropology and Ethnology of the University of California. The Museum Curator was Alfred Kroeber and his wife Theodora Kroeber is the author of this book. (An interesting side note is that the Kroebers are the parents of the author Ursula Le Guin.) Although this is a desperately sad book to read, it is also hauntingly beautiful. As the introduction says, "Everything Ishi did and knew belonged to a tradition which had been built up over thousands of years... Life was grim and sad for them in many ways, and it became more so as the years passed. But they could still find happiness in each other, in the trees, hills, animals and birds which they loved, and in following the way of their ancestors... It's a story of tragic destruction  but one which leaves us grateful that we've been able to preserve some knowledge of the Yana, and with the hope that something of their wisdom may have come down to us too." There is more information about the true story of Ishi here and here. A film of his story was also made in 1992 and can be watched free on-line here.

Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O'Dell is a novel about the Lost (or Lone) Woman of San Nicolas, who survived alone on an island off the coast of California for eighteen years. The story contains fascinating detail of how one resourceful human female preserved her life using the traditional knowledge of her people, the close connection she was able to establish with her environment, and her companionship with a wild dog; even though these same dogs had killed her brother. A film of this novel, which won the Newbery Award for Children's Literature in 1960, was made in 1964.

Antelope Singer by Ruth M. Underhill is a novel about an encounter between a white boy, Tad Hunt, on the wagon train to California and a sick Paiute boy, Nummer, who has been left behind by his family. Nummer helps Tad's family to survive the winter, eventually rediscovering his own family who share their food and some of their traditions with the Hunts. Underhill was an anthropologist and lived on Indian reservations for many years. Her novel confronts the prejudice, distrust and bad feeling between the two peoples then shows how respectful encounter can bring a new understanding. And, as is common in children's novels of this period, it is the two boys who show the adults the way, mainly because they haven't fully learned the prejudice and mistrust in the first place. (As the song from the musical South Pacific goes, you've got to be carefully taught to fear and hate*.) At the end of the book, Tad's Pa says " 'If I was writing advice to pioneers like some fellows do, I'd tell every last one of them to spend a winter with Indians before tackling the wilderness. Half the trouble and starvation they go through now just wouldn't happen. And they wouldn't need to take half the stuff they do. They could learn to make most things out of sticks and stones.' 'They could,' Ma said. 'Anyway, I'm glad I've learned.' " It is the boys Tad and Nummer who have taught the adults a new way. When it comes for the time for the two families to part: "They all stood silent. Tad understood now why Indians didn't say good-bye. It would be only a fluff of words. The two groups stood looking at each other. Between their hearts went the thoughts they had no language to express. You have done much for us. Now our lives will be different. We thank you. We thank you. We will never forget."

One final book I'd like to mention, is The Incredible Journey by Sheila Burnford. This was not published by Puffin Books but it is of the same vintage as the others, 1960, and was also made into a popular film by Disney in 1963. The film is now much more famous than the book but running through the original words of Burnford's tale about three animals who travel thousands of miles to return to their home is a deep love and knowledge of the North American wilderness. At one point the animals are desperately hungry when they come across an Indian camp fire where they receive food and kindness.

Burnford devotes nearly a whole chapter to this scene of 'warmth and brightness', where "The scent on the evening breeze was a fragrant compound of roasting rice, wild-duck stew and wood smoke." As the animals depart, "Only the woman who had first befriended (the old white dog) called out softly, in the tongue of her people, a farewell to the traveller... That night they became immortal, had they know or cared, for the ancient woman had recognized the old dog at once by his colour and companion: he was the White Dog of the Ojibways, the virtuous White Dog of Omen, whose appearance heralds either disaster or good fortune. The Spirits had sent him, hungry and wounded, to test tribal hospitality...He had been made welcome, fed and succoured: the omen would prove fortunate." It is disappointing that this scene did not make it into the movie.

It would be easy to criticise these books for being somewhat nostalgic for a lost world when it was safely too late to reverse the trend. But it is to be hoped that they contributed at least in part to bringing an awareness of the wisdom of these traditions to a generation of children growing up in the 1960s and 1970s in order that, like the families in The Antelope Singer, we too will never forget.

 *You've got to be taught
To hate and fear,
You've got to be taught
From year to year,
It's got to be drummed
In your dear little ear
You've got to be carefully taught.
You've got to be taught to be afraid
Of people whose eyes are oddly made,
And people whose skin is a diff'rent shade,
You've got to be carefully taught.
You've got to be taught before it's too late,
Before you are six or seven or eight,
To hate all the people your relatives hate,
You've got to be carefully taught!

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