Children's Books

LITTLE FIREFLY -- AN ALGONQUIAN LEGEND, Terri Cohlene illustratd by Charles Reasoner, Watermill Press (an imprint of Troll Associates). $3.95 US, $4.95 Can. 1990, 48 pages paperback, illustrated, map, timeline, glossary. 0-8167-2363-X

This is one of a series of 6 similar retellings of legends, all published to a formula, by Cohlene and Reasoner for the Watermill imprint. All books in this series have certain characteristics: Cohlene never identifies her sources except in the most general terms, in this instance, not even the correct trribe, not even a tribe at all. This legend was published in 1884 by Charles Leland, as collected earlier from a Canadian Mi'kmaq storyteller by Rev. S.T. Rand. Cohlene may have gotten it from Leland's book, from the later collection of Mi'kmaq myths, legends, and tales Rand puboished in Canada and London, or from its Viictorian-filtered version used in The Red Indian Fairy Book of 1914. Leland (with Rand's early manuscripts) is the original source for all of these. But since neither Leland nor Rand incorrectly identified the teller as merely "Algonquian," Cohline may have re-written her tale from the Red Indian Fairy Book

Including a history/culture section on the tribe whose myth or legend is being retold -- here it is the last 16 pages -- is a good idea. But Cohlene's histories are scattershot with so many inaccuracies that they detract from possibilities of real learning by supplying alternate bits of true and false info -- making none of it reliable. In this case, since she failed to focus on the actual tribe of the storyteller -- Canadian Mi'kmaq (she uses the older non-Indian spelling, Micmac) the entire history is unreliable. To start with, "Algonquian" comes from a Mohawk pejorative word "bark-eaters" applied to enemies. There is no Algonquian tribe. Mi'kmaq ("We people") is a genuine tribe.

Cohlene also tries to present that odd kind of unhistorical history where somehow the pre-contact peoples -- with mostly-invented presumed cultures -- are mixed up with post-contact ones. Since the Atlantic coastal tribes were the earliest contacted and subjugated, very little -- mostly generalizations -- is known of their pre-contact lives. With their usual penchant for wrong notions about Native people, anthros picked "Algonquian" as a word to characterize a large related-languages group of the northern woodlands and Great Lakes, west to the Rockies.

Sos Cohlene mixes in Ojibwe people, and even has on her timeline of significant historical events "1857, White Earth created, largest reservation in Minnesota.". Not only is this completely irrelevant to Canadian Mi'kmaq people (or any Natives of the north Atlantic coast), it fails even to state the significance of White Earth. It was to have been a concentration camp -- a sort of much smaller Oklahoma Territory -- to which all tribes of the upper midwest U.S. were to be forcibly removed. The few surviving Mi'kmaqs, Penobscots, other new England Indians, were not involved.

Because of her ignorance of history, her timeline (and discussion) does not include significant features of Mi'kmaq interactions with Europeans. The Canadian coastal area -- parts of what's now Quebec, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, and Nova Scotia provinces -- wasarly settled by peaceful, cheerful, religious French farmers, who got along well with and intermarried with the Mi'kmaq peoples, whose economy was based on tidal and river fishing. They called their land "Acadia" (after the Latin Arcadia, a kind of legendary non-Christian paradise).

Mi'kmaqs allied with the French in the so-called French-Indian wars of the 17th - 18th century, i.e. wars for whose empire -- England's or France's -- was to control North America. After the Treaty of Pari --, where France ceded most of its territory to England -- The English, forcibly rounded up all the French Acadians (including their Mi'kmaq families and many friends) and dispersed them along the southern Atlantic seabord colonies, Many who survived (about 1/3 of the deportees died) made their way to Louisiana, forming the Cajun culture there.

Some returned to seek families that had been separated; one Mi'kmaq Reserve in Nova Scotia is still called Acadia, and there are several thousand of the French-speaking Acadian culture people living in the Maritimes now.

Like other Indians of the northeast area, Mi'kmaqs very early (in the 17th and 18th century) were acculturated into the fur trade. This changed clothing, hunting, cooking and many other lifeways. The biggest change -- aside from the usual massive deaths from the new diseases -- was the introduction of alcohol. Traders found the Indians would take only what they really wanted or needed; they would not undertake massive trapping, to bring in large amounts of beaver hides, disrupting their orderly lifecycles of hunting, farming, fishing.

So a trade item -- the addictive and dangrous alcohol -- was introduced for which there was an unlimited native demand. To get it, native men were required to spend most of their time trapping, which forced much greater dependence on the trading posts for supplies. By the late 19th century, when the tale Cohlene distorts was told, game and lands are mostly gone, and the Mi'kmaqs, like other Natives of the Maritimes, lived in wretched poverty in small communities near white towns that had been trading centers. They did not live in wigwams; they did not wear buckskin. Crafts that survived were for the "curio" or tourist trade. The old lifeways were 250 years gone when the storyteller first told this sad tale of th abused child in th indifferent village, with an Invisible One whom nobody could see symbolizing th old ways of beauty and independent life of the woods and waters.

Nothing of this shows up in Cohlene's minihistory, which is based on ignorance of U.S. history, too, and an amazing insensitivity. All her timelines repeat the "important date" of 1890. This, she says was when "Native Americans lose Battle of Wounded Knee, ending major Indian wars.". Well, the U.S. Army called it a battle, when handing out medals for the slaughter of 300 unarmed women and children -- hunted down as they fled -- of Bigfoot's band, which an Army detachment was bringing in to Pine Ridge agency. Everybody else -- even pretty racist white historians -- calls it a massacre. Other dates on Cohlin's timeline include the one she usually puts last: 1968 "Indian Civil Rights Act gives native Americans the right to govern themslves on their reservations.". Wll, tribal councils and reservation business entities were set up as a rsult of the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934, but actual self-governance, sovereignty, an out-from-under the deadly wardship of the BIA had to be fought for, and the Indian Civil Rights act affected little but the theoretical right to some religious freedom. All of this is in any event irrelevant to Canadian Mi'kmaqs.

In her non-history, Cohlene says (ungrammatically) "Like most Native Americans, reservation lands were set aside for the Algonquians. Today, many still live on thse lands, though few keep to all th traditional ways." Well, to begin with in Canada, the lands ar called Reserves, not reservations, but the eastern seabord natives are not covered by Canadian treaties, which were mostly made from 1850-1899. The last treaty, Williams (1923) covered Ojibwe and Missisaugua along and north of Lake Ontario. There are many small Reserves, but their legal status is precarious, as have been the lives of the people.

The "Cinderella" reworking (from some French-Canadian storyteller) was told by a Mi'kmaq storyteller about 1870, i.e. after the tribe had been subjugated and acculturated for about 250 years. It does not begin with the Mi'kmaq storytellers' formula phrase "N'karanayoo -- Of Old times". because it a story about a victimized girl in a despairing, disrupted, dysfunctional village.

Cohlene has no interest in any of this. The story -- which appears to hav ben a parable about the disrupted, dysfunctional village of drunks and idlers, with motivless malicious child abuse (oftn found among drunks) and indifferent adults -- is transformed into a woodsy little tale. Cohlin makes major changes in the original story which you can read here. The two girls are given a motive for cruelty (they deliberately burn the girl who is not known to the original as anything but Little Burnt or Scarred One, i.e. Little Firefly is a Cohlene invention). Thir father wants them to teach her the skills of a woman befor he will allow them to marry. But in the original tale, no one teaches anything, and no one really has any skills. The community is dysfunctional. In Cohlene's story, she complete omits the villagers hooting and jeering at Little Burnt One, aftr she makes her very odd old-fashioned dress of birchbark, and tries to repair some old mocassins. Cohlene also omits the fact that attempting to see (and hence marry) The Invisible One who lives just outside of town has become a fad among the idle girls of the town.

In the Mi'kmaq storyteller's parable, this represents a bad-faith pretense of getting back to a more traditional lifestyle in harmony with nature, and able to se the beauties both of nature and the old lifeways. None of them can actually do this; none of them really want to.

Cohlene has put in all sorts of details not found in the original, which change the story in fundamental ways. In the original, there is no dream of guidance from a spirit of her mother, and her making of garments from birchbark instead of her ordinary rags is an attempt of desparation, since birchbark is no more suitable for clothing than cardboard box cutouts would be. Cohlene also adds a great humbleness to the girl's character, when in the original what characterizes her is determination, resolution, courage to try. It is quite clear in the original that all the village is hostile and indifferent to Little Burnt One. Cohlene makes the sisters the only villains, indeed the only villagers.

In the original, the girl expresses awe and reverence, but also fear, when she sees the rainbow and Milky Way as parts of the Invisible One's gear. These are beautiful, but they are also religious symbols of death. Cohlene doesn't know this, and so just has her character remark on how handsome the Invisible One is. Since h does not represent the powers of nature, and the vanished old lifeways, she fels no reverence nor fear, it's like meeting a famous rock star. The Invisible one has no " love flute" this is an invention of the Plains Indians, Cohlene jams into her story. In the original, Invisible One is rather reluctant about the whole thing, "We are found out!" he tells his sister, when Burnt One proves she can see him. He doesn't declare his love, it appears that the storyteller intendd her ending to mean that Little Burnt One was able to maintain some kind of contact with tradition and nature, to pass on to the next generation.

As with many white writers who mine old printed versions of Native legends, myths, and storis they have no understanding of, but perhaps more than most, Cohlene has treated the original Cinderella-inspired story -- as parable of limited survival in the face of universal tragedy -- with complete disrespect. Her ignorance shows in many small details besides her lack of knowledge of birch bark. Dresses -- Firefly dreams of and gets one -- are not made of rabbit-skin, for example, because the hide is too fragile; it can only be sewed to heavy backings (for a parka) or cut in strips and woven for a furry blanket. There's no indication any maple sugaring was done in the dysfunctional village. While maple sugar-candy was a valued gift among Ojibwe people because of all the work it required, if the Mi'kmaqs did have any, Little Burnt One would be no more likely to have any of it than to have good clothing, it was valuable stuff.

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

Last Updated: Tuesday, July 02, 1996 - 4:57:30 AM