Thirty Indian Legends of Canada by Margaret Bemister. Illustrations by Douglas Tait. Vancouver, British Columbia: Douglas & McIntyre. 1997. 160 pages.
In her preface to Thirty Indian Legends of Canada, dated September 15, 1912, from Winnipeg, Margaret Bemister notes that many of these stories are printed for the first time, while others are “adapted from well-known authorities.” She mentions one tribal name on her list of sources (“the Okanagan chief, Antowyne”). Other than this single reference and some names (Chippewa, Cree, Iroquois, Osage, Ottawa) and geographical places (Assiniboine River, Manatoline Islands, Lake Huron, Missouri River, Niagara Falls) sprinkled among the stories, there is little to help the lay reader understand where they originated, how, and why. Canada covers a lot of land from east to west and north to south, and embraces many cultures, but that diversity is sometimes lost in this collection.
Not surprisingly, animals and plants—or what appear to be animals and plants—figure strongly in many of the tales. It may be a dormouse, which was “once very large;” butterflies that carry messages from whispering grass (not suburban lawn grass, but tall grass deeply rooted in prairie soil); bears, squirrels, birds, and three animals that evoke the northern wilderness—beaver, lynx, and wolverine. As you would expect, manitous and magicians appear and sometimes disappear.
More notably, a few stories feature giants and fairies. Most of us can picture a giant or fairy as portrayed in western literature, but what were these entities to Canada’s first peoples? One can only imagine from descriptions such as “He saw all around him queer, little fairies, each one with a tiny war club. They peeped from out the bark of the trees, from amidst the grass, and even from out his pouch” and “At the call of Weeng his sleep fairies had come forth, and now with their clubs were knocking their enemies on the head.” Clearly these aren’t the ephemeral winged sprites that a Victorian girl may have doodled in the garden. The problem here may be time and translation. How do you convey ancient, alien concepts in a language that was never meant to express them?
While there are villages and large families (for example, the ten brothers of “The Giant Bear” and the ten daughters and husbands of “The Fairies’ Cliff”), some stories have a lonely, isolated feel. In “The Daughters of the Star,” hunter Waupee (the White Hawk) lives in a deep forest and one day reaches a wide prairie, where “no trace of footsteps was to be seen.” In “The White Feather,” an old man and his grandson are so isolated on an island that the boy “had never heard any one but his grandfather speak.” “The Lone Lightning” evokes shades of the Grimm Brothers’ Hansel and Gretel; a “lonely little boy” is raised by his uncle, who intends to stuff him with bear meat and fat, then kill him. His sad, lonely fate “may be seen in the northern sky on autumn nights.”
Some stories tell of beginnings, like “The Five Water-spirits,” whose play gives rise to Niagara Falls, where in the “sunny spray you may see their sandals and their wings.” “The Stone Canoe” addresses grief, the afterlife, and the idea that you cannot stay in the “Land of Souls” until your work is done and your life is meant to end.
I wish I knew more about these stories, how they arose, and if they were influenced by outside cultures (ponies make an appearance, as does a cabin built and abandoned by white men). Without context, phrases like “laughing like girls on a holiday” (“The Five Water-Spirits”) sound oddly English. What would that simile mean to the people who told it and heard it told? Thirty Indian Legends of Canada left me feeling isolated and lonely and wanting more—more legends and more knowledge of the peoples who brought them to life.
6 July 2017
Copyright © Diane L. Schirf