Ex Libris: Folktales of the Native American

By Margaret Clay

“The Indians knew that life was equated with the earth and its resources, that America was a paradise.” 

― Dee Brown, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee

I have always found folktales, legends and lore from different cultures fascinating. It takes foreign visitors beyond the surface of a culture down to its very roots — the beliefs and traditions upon which all the other aspects of the culture were built. In Folktales of the Native American, Dee Brown — author of Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee — compiles 36 tales from various American tribes, from the Cherokee to the Cheyenne. It is intriguing to see the different flavors of each surface through their stories, and yet their universally shared values shine through as well. Brown organizes the tales into different categories, such as Before the White Men Came and Tricksters and Magicians. There is even a section of Indian ghost stories. 

The Girl Who Climbed to the Sky, an Arapaho-Caddo tale under the heading When Animals Lived as Equals with the People, tells of an ambitious and beautiful young girl named Sapana who is tricked into climbing a tree all the way into the sky by an ugly old man, who, incidentally, can change into a porcupine. Sapana is trapped there and forced to work in his garden, but one day she discovers a particularly large turnip whose roots grow deep and make a hole in the sky. She then gradually makes a long rope out of leftover buffalo sinew and finally attempts to escape back home. 

However, her rope is not long enough, and she is left dangling over the Earth with the porcupine-man threatening her destruction above and hurling stones at her. Just in time, a buzzard circles beneath her and offers her passage home. Because of her relative weight, a hawk helps and takes turns with the buzzard in flying her down. In recognition of their kindness, Sapana’s tribe thereafter always left one buffalo for the buzzard and hawk to share after a hunt. 

Under the Heroes and Heroines, Brown retells the narrative of Red Shield and Running Wolf from the Crow Indians. It resembles Romeo and Juliet as the Sioux and the Crows were bitter enemies, but Red Shield, daughter of a Sioux chief, and Running Wolf, son of a Crow Warrior, still fall in love. Red Shield hears of Running Wolf’s accomplishments and spunk through the reports of an older Sioux woman who was once held captive by the Crow as a servant. When Running Wolf leads a raid to steal Sioux horses while the warriors are out hunting, Red Shield bravely faces him as she tries to keep the horses together. In spite of her anger, she is only further captivated by him. She then refuses to marry any of her Sioux suitors, and her father finally consents to her traveling to the Crow to see if Running Wolf will have her. He is further impressed by her courage as well as her beauty, and their subsequent marriage brings a generation of peace to the two tribes. 

This Folio Society edition’s vibrant illustrations by Caroline Smith are stunning, and they successfully capture the essence of the tales. Because of her art, this edition was a finalist for the Best Book Illustration at the V&A Awards in 2013, by the Victoria and Albert Museum. 

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