EARTH MAKER'S LODGE: NATIVE AMERICAN FOLKLORE, ACTIVITIES AND FOODS, edited by E. Barrie Kavasch, Cobblestone Publishing: Peterborough, NH, 1994, 159 pages, paperback oversize, $17.50. ISBN 0-942389-09-3

In the late 70's I had a book by Kavasch (not cited among her pubs in this volume, and long- lost) that dealt with Native American uses of wild plants for medicines, and especially foods. I remember it as being quite impressive, and thus expected more of the present book than was delivered.

The food section is actually OK. Except for occasional "camping out" activities, traditional (pre-contact) native methods of food preparation cannot be done in today's homes and city apartments. She has a "fish baked in clay" campout procedure which is doable (but you should put some herbs inside the fish first. For the rest, the recipes use various Native-introduced foods such as corn, beans, chocolate. To make "today" recipes, using traditional stoves and refrigerators. There's a strange vegetarian "pemmican" that contains no meat. There's no fry bread, bannock, or posole.

The book is organized in 5 thematic sections: Stories, Dreams and Spiritual Objects; People, Places and Legends; Projects and Crafts; Puzzles and Games; Recipes.

The biggest problem with this book is that much of it seems to be the dumped contents of a clips file that goes back to the 70's, with activity descriptions, stories, etc., that appeared in ephemeral publications such as school newsletters. Citations or credits are rarely given in full, and most of the originals couldn't be found anyway. But where I was able to find some of the source-credited stories, with ready-to-hand sources like Erdoes and Ortiz's collection of legends, I found that the already brief and smoothed-down stories there had been subjected to a meaningless copy-editing, to shorten them, to dumb down the vocabularies. Some stories are not by Native writers, some lifeways fictions are common-sense impossible, much less any cultural considerations. Judgement about both editing and story selection is unreliable.

Some of the crafts activities are presented in such telegraphic fashion, with no, or one inadequate diagram that making them becomes trial and error. This seems testimony to their having come from unedited clips files, where such inadequate presentations are very often found in 'teacher newsletters". The teacher figured out something clever to do, but can't really write it up for anyone else, because she can't write, can't draw prep diagrams and doesn't have enough newsletter space anyway. Example: Make a Net Market Bag. Other activities just plain won't work, and weren't tried by Kavasch or anyone else. Example: Bullroarer made from tongue depressor. Certain "activities" are straight-up Nuage, masquerading in Indian guise: Example: Seneca Stone Reading ("Color--Sparkles -- is called star rock. It means you have lofty ideals, charm, and charisma; Black--You are seeking the light (understanding)....")

My heart just fell when I came across "Story Beads." This is an oldie but baddie. I encountered (and tried it) when I was 9 or so, it was in the Sunday newspaper funnies kid thingies feature. You cut and glue-coat a long, triangular strip of paper and roll it around a pencil, so the point ends up on the outside center of a long "bead" whose rolls bulge slightly in the center. You paint or shellac them, but you cannot "sand them when they are completely dry" or if you do it's not going to result in beadlike "beads" and most likely will fall apart. These things are unspeakably ugly. This is an ancient (as these things go) example of TrashCraft, and it's an example of where Kavasch got all too many of the recycled activities in this book: from ancient kidtrashcraft mss, buried under rocks, where they should have stayed.

Story beads are small carvings, usually animals, usually of various shells and stones and sometimes turquoise. They are separated on a long (sometimes multi-stranded) necklace usually by small chunky turquoises, but decent-looking beads can be used since turquoise is expensive. Little packets of storybeads can be bought at most beadcraft shops. The "story" of the resulting necklace is ad lib made up by the necklace-wearer for her kids, with episodes relating to the little figures, as she goes around the necklace. These necklaces are called "fetish" by traders (racist designation using a term meaning psychopathological sexual obsession), but they were actually invented by Indian women modeled on rosaries. Storybead necklaces are fun to make and use (to tell stories to little kids with, and encourage them to tell you stories about) and the materials to do it right really don't cost all that much. And now, back to Kavasch-crafts.

Simple unworkable trashcraft: Kavasch suggests kids tie knots in magazine pages and take them camping to use as "firestarters." Claycoated magazine pages are singularly useless as kindling, and require a brisk fire to burn entirely just for trash disposal. (They aren't wanted by paper recyclers either). At least some part of the camping experience is to learn to live (a day or two) in the woods without lugging in a lot of crap, such as a big bag of paper "knots" to use as "firestarters." Not only is the idea fundamentally wrong-headed, but she doesn't mention bringing this big bag of trash back out of the woods, when you find it doesn't work.

There are problems with "cultural info" features. For example, "marking the months" purports to be an Indian calendar of "moons". The author of this chose to take "names" (given in English, no Indian words are used) from 9 entirely different tribal cultures, Hopi to Okanagon, although for January, August, September, no tribal sources are given, and September "harvest Moon" seems more like the settlers' than any tribal designation. The mish-mash months calendar doesn't let the teacher -- or child -- correlate this to anyone's regular seasonal round.

A little piece on "Navajo Code Talkers" perpetuates the misinfo that the World War II Marines code talkers simply spoke Navajo to each other, thus frustrating Japanese eavesdroppers and cryptanalysts. Not so. Most military info -- coordinates, numbers, operation names, etc. -- could not be communicated clearly in the Dine language, and some aspects of the language that were dependant on clear hearing couldn't reliably be communicated by radio especially if a battle was going on. The Navajo expert recruits made up a usable code based in part on Navajo words, and using Navajo words to replace "Able, Baker, Charlie, Dog..." (but without the alphabetic correspondences) used by radio operators when spelling for exact clarity was required. Other codes represented numbers, placenames, etc. Normal pronunciations had to be modified so as to be hearable over unreliable radio reception and when battles were going on. It was a lot more complex and intellectually demanding than "talking Navajo to each other." After the codes had been devised, all the code talker recruits had to learn them. Because they weren't speaking Navajo; they were speaking a code that Navajo people had devised based on their own language. Ot-nay ust-jay ome-say ig-pay atin-lay, either.

You can't follow up on this sort of thing via references cited to the actual, uncombined or undistorted or uncondensed info. There aren't any, the reference section is self-referential, to other parts of Kavasch's book.

Kavasch's is the best of a bad lot of imitation Indian imitation art-crafts books, but only because the sheer volume in comparison to the size of most of them gives her some good hits, amidst the bad, the trash. So it's a question of whether you care to pay $17.50 for a mixed bag of some interesting, workable (with a little trial and error) stuff buried in a large amount of trash.

Me, I'd rather spend the $17.50 on getting some good beads.

--Paula Giese

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Native American BOOKS, text and graphics copyright Paula Giese, 1996

Last Updated: Tuesday, October 29, 1996 - 12:53:47 AM