Children's Books

CLAMSHELL BOY -- A MAKAH LEGEND, by Terri Cohlene illustrated by Charles Reasoner, Watermill Press (an imprint of Troll Associates). 48 pages, paperback. $3.95 US, $4.95 Can.,ISBN 0-8167-2361-3

This story, like all Cohlene's others, is uncredited as to source. It follows her usual formula, of creating a single hero, a young person. It appears that Cohlene copped -- or rather made a mishmash of several -- collected by Lutsheed schoilar Vi Hilbert, who collects a number of Basket Woman (Ogress, child-eating cannibal) stories in Haboo, Native American Stories from Puget Sound, University of Washington Press, 1985.

These Puget Sound tribal ogress stories have a common theme. Adults do not believe in these child-eating cannibal ogres, but tell the stories to children to enforce self-discipline on the childish curiosity and heedlessness of young children which can get them in real and fatal trouble, if they wander too far. In none of these stories is there an overt defiance of adults by the children. In most of the stories, the boy is one of the children, not a mythic figure who emerges magically to help worried adults when the children have been carried off. In most of the stories, the character flaw that causes the children's capture by the ogress is not disobedience but greed and selfishness -- refusal to share fish with the crippled boy.

In Cohlene's version -- found in none of the originals -- it's th children's overt defiance of elders' cautions that gets them captured by Basket Woman, the Ogress. The children are also lazy, stupid and subject to her flatteries. They climb into her basket to get a free rid home, and help her "clear my bad name" with the people.

In all the real stories, the children collectively escape without the help of either adults or supernatural interventions. By refusing to panic, they are either able to collectively push the ogress into her own cookfire during a moment when she stumbles in her triumphant pre-meal dance, or to trick her by flattery. This, too, is a lesson aspect that Cohlene, with her supernatural hero-boy who rescues the hapless children simply ignores. "Kids, if you happen to be captured on a child-slaving raid by a hostile tribe, if you keep your wits about you and stick together, maybe you can escape."

In Cohlene's construct, Clamshell Boy appears magically in response to tribal grief at the kidnapped children, and effects the rescue through his own cunning and strength. H then frees the trapped children, who are completely helpless.

The real stories emphasize that greed and selfishness cause trouble -- near-fatal trouble for the selfish children, and true fatal trouble for the ogress -- if the kids can stick together and keep their heads. Collective values are emphasized, not individual heroism, natural or supernatural. Since hostile raids to capture children for slaves were a fact of life in the pre-contact Northwest Coast, the real stories teach that although there is actual danger of captivity, there may be a real possibility of escape with refusal to panic, sticking together, and exploiting captors' weaknesses. Neither the moral nor the practical survival lessons survive in Cohlene's construct, the cultural meanings are gone.

The mini-history at the end here makes no mention of the long struggle of the Native peoples of Washington State (including the Mahkah, from whom allegedly this story -- actually a multi-tribal mish-mash -- is taken) for land and fishing rights, guaranteed by treaties. It presents the Makah in terms of "long ago" and suddenly says nowadays they exist around this area and celebrate "Makah days" to remind themselves of a vanished culture. While (down the coast at the Ozette archaeological site) digging "brought a cultural Renaissance to Neah Bay" in the form of 50,000 "artifacts."

The real cultural rebirth grew out of political and legal struggles marked by the Boldt decision (U.S. v. Washington) a lawsuit brought by the treaty tribes of western Washington (including the Makah), which determined that Native people retained rights to fisheries and resource gathering activities, including commercial use of salmon. Decades of fish-ins, arrests, beatings, shootings, raids on homes, preceded this, and followed it too, because of differences between people who lived by traditional fishery and tribal governments intent on commercial development. No hint of this tumultuous and important history appears in Cohlene's canned fishy catfood one.

--Paula Giese

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

Last Updated: Sunday, August 11, 1996 - 7:22:15 AM