Review of American Indian Genesis: The Story of Creation. By Percy Bullchild. Berkeley, CA: Seastone, 1998. Hard bound. ISBN 1-56975-156-0. Pp. xv + 92. $17.00.
by Jim Vandergriff
This is a beautiful book, both for the story it tells and the art work that heads each section. The art work is no big thing -- its creator is not even identified -- but beautiful in its simplicity and obvious inspiration in Native American art. The simple figures in black and red could easily adorn pottery or desert petroglyphs.
The story is also beautiful. As the Preface and Introduction tell us, this story is Percy Bullchilds rendition of the Blackfeet creation story. Though Im not an expert on Native American mythology, I have studied Native American literature under Scott Momaday. So, I was struck by the resemblances to some of Kiowa stories Momaday used to tell in class, particularly the Hole-in-the Sky story. He once told a sort of foreshortened version of the Kiowa creation story which has the Kiowa coming into this world through a hollow log. The resemblance to the Blackfeet story should not be surprising, I guess, given that Momadays Kiowa were once a Northern Plains people, too.
Perhaps what strikes me most about this story, though, is how much it resembles the Old Testament creation story (and how little it resembles other Blackfeet creation stories). The publisher tells us in an "about the authors" blip at the end that Bullchild spent many years collecting the stories of his people. Apparently the story Bullchild presents is his own synthesis of stories current among the Blackfeet during his lifetime. Unfortunately, we dont know when that was, so I would like to see some anthropological apparatus in the book. From whom did Bullchild learn which stories? (We know the names of some of his informants, but need much more.) When? In what context? In what language did he learn them? What texts did he learn? How much of these stories are from his teachers and how much his own? Are these stories widely known among the Blackfeet people? There is, at www.montana.edu/~wwwbcc/legend.html another Blackfeet tale that purports to be the "Blackfeet Creation Tale." It has little in common with Bullchilds version, though it, too, was told by a Blackfeet: "Chewing Black Bones, a respected Blackfeet elder, told Ella Clark the . . . creation myth in 1953." I also found Chewing Black Bones story linked to the official web page of the Blackfeet Nation, suggesting that it is the "official" creation story of the tribe. I take no side on the issue of who best represents the Blackfeet world-view -- Chewing Black Bones or Percy Bullchild -- but I would like this book to deal with the problem.
I gather from the bio mentioned above that Bullchild is no longer living, but my efforts to find out more about him via the internet led nowhere. I think we need to know much more about him beyond the fact that he was a full-blooded Blackfeet and respected as an artist and storyteller among his own people. (He also authored The Sun Came Down: The History of the World as My Blackfeet Elders Told It [Harper & Row, 1985], but I found nothing about him as an artist.) I would like to know about him and the world he lived in -- the individual, personal world, not the generic one.
One problem resulting from the lack of interpretive apparatus is that it pushes us toward the kind of reading Franz Boas and his followers struggled against -- the tendency to read Native American myth through a Eurocentric lens. As Karl Kroeber argues in Artistry in Native American Myths, also reviewed in this issue, individual tellings of myths is the point. The artistry lies in that very individualization. To judge Bullchilds artistry, though, we need to know more than this book tells us.
Furthermore, Native American myths are oral narratives; print versions cannot reflect the nuances of tone and gesture essential to meaning. The language of this text reflects some awareness of that problem, but not enough -- whoever transcribed these stories seems to have tried to stay faithful to the spoken language in some respects. For instance, the substitution of past tense forms for past participles, characteristic of many English varieties, is maintained in the transcriptions. But, such lip-service to spoken language is not a reasonable substitute. Print versions at best are very weak reflections of the real thing. They demand that we have knowledge of teller and context.
Without such apparatus, I dont think the book is of much value to folklorists. However, I believe it is a nice addition to the Native American literary canon. It is a beautiful story engagingly told. It fits well, for instance, with Scott Momadays novels and essays, as well as with Richard Erdoes and Alfonso Ortizs American Indian Myths and Legends, and John Bierhorsts Sacred Path: The Spells, Prayers, and Power Songs of the American Indians, and others. That is, it adds something to what we already know of Native American literature.
Finally, whatever else it is or isnt, its a beautiful story. I recommend it to students of Native American literature and to everyone who appreciates a beautiful, well-told story.