THE PATH OF THE QUIET ELK: A NATIVE AMERICAN ALPHABET BOOK, written and illustrated by Virginia A Stroud, Dial Books for Young Readers, division of Penguin Books USA, 375 Hudson Street, New York, NY, 10014, 800-253-6476. 1996. hardcover, 32 pages, $14.99 (US), $21.75 Can. Ages 5 - 9
Stroud, a well-known Cherokee artist, has taken a different tack for ABC books. Although this is structured as an alphabet book, it's really a story, for older children able to understand somewhat abstract philosophical concepts, with one of Stroud's charming, highly stylized illustrations on every page. The publishers recognize that it really isn't a learn your ABC's preschooler's book, and call it verbal mnemonics, 26 ways (one for each letter of the alphabet) for the child to "connect to nature"
A medicine woman, Wisdom Keeper, takes a little girl, Looks Within, for a learning walk on a path that is shown them by an elk, but is really "a way of looking at life" not a particular forest path. Stroud says she learned these various teachings from such nature walks over a 6-year period with an unidentified Medicine Woman. Some things she really didn't learn right.
We don't briskly ask a cedar permission and start snapping its branches; cedars are very sacred. Someone gathering cedar will pray at length, bury or sprinkle or burn tobacco, and often give the cedar some other gifts of respect. Burning cedar is not an "I-is-for-incense that helps our prayers ascend" (if anything, that's tobacco smoke); it is a smudge that purifies people and premises before or at the start of ceremonies (the smudging might be the only ceremony, a cleanup).
I got kind of upset about M-is-for-medicine-wheel, which the publisher even features to illustrate the catalog page for this book. This is a tipi-sized circle of small stones they happen upon in the woods. Wisdom Keeper tells the child it's a Medicine Wheel, she can sit in the center of it and perhaps have a vision. Actual stone medicine wheels are very large constructions up on high, barren places of the Northern high plains and Rockies. They were solar and star-rising observatories. Some later became memorials to honored dead chiefs. Small circles of stone found all over the prairies are tipi rings, just left when no longer needed to hold down the tipi covers against the high winds of open camps. They have no spiritual significance, and there are no tipi rings in the woods anyway.
If you find some kind of odd stone construction out in the wild somewhere, and you don't know who built it or why, you might sprinkle some cedar to purify it, but should not try to pray there. Good altars are disassembled when done with (so they won't be defiled or used for bad medicine).
I still remember all the grief that some obviously non-Indian people caused us a couple of years ago when they had found in the woods our old sweatlodge frame and fire pit. They conducted some kind of ceremony there for themselves. They had assembled a sort of stone construction which had a lot of fake Indian symbols painted on the rocks (bright yellow and blue enamel). We had taken some teenage kids there for a sweat that visiting Canadian elders were going to conduct. Instead, they made us clean up the place, singing and praying fiercely all the while, in purifications (smudgings, prayers, offerings) we all took part in, for 3 days. The 4th day we had to go quite far away and build a new lodge. If not for those stupid rocks, we would have just purified the place as usual and gone ahead, I think.
These perhaps are quibbles -- basically I liked the book and loved the artwork (I'm a big Stroud art fan) -- but Wisdom Keeper's philosophy unfortunately is a mixture that seems rather more Nuagey than Native, at times. Probably part of this is due to a certain strain caused by trying to shoehorn a story into the alphabet structure. It might have been better to forget the ABC idea. This would avoid oddities like "K-is-for-(corn) kernel," HEY! what is a corn kernel doing lying on the ground in the woods? Y-is-for-yarrow -- but, uh, yarrow is an herb that's an immigrant, medicine from Yuropean Tribal lore. Well, she could have, um, lessee, Y is for Yupik (no relevance), Yonder, Yow, Yellow maybe. Yep, ABC's is a very difficult form of literature. Reviewed by Paula Giese
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Native American BOOKS, text and graphics copyright Paula Giese, 1996
Last Updated: Friday, April 05, 1996 - 4:27:18 AM