Children's Books

DANCING DRUM -- a CHEROKEE LEGEND, by Terri Cohlene illustrated by Charles Reasoner, Watermill Press (an imprint of Troll Associates). 48 pages, paperback. $3.95 US, $4.95 Can. 0- 8167-2362

This is another one Cohlene copped without credit from Erdoes and Ortiz, where it is titled "Daughter of the Sun," rewritten from James Mooney, a 19th century ethnologist, who compiled Myths of the Cherokee. The title is significant because although the story became mythic -- an explanation of the permanence of death -- it probably also records a real historic drought, followed by relentless rains, an ancient environmental disaster. Unlike Cohlene's version, the original has the Sun's daughter's house at the zenith of the sky (not somewhere she goes during the night). It is at the zenith the Sun appears to pause and hang for an endless period of daily heat. In Cohlene's version, the daughter's house is located in the Twilight Zone.

In the original, but not Cohlene's story, people can't smile at the Sun, as they do the Moon, because they can't look directly at her without squinting -- she is too bright, a natural phenomenon. In Cohlene's story, the people simply "twist their faces when they look up at the sky" for no particular reason.

Cohlene, true to her formula, creates a young hero -- Dancing Drum -- to carry out the actions, which in the original are carried out either collectively by the people, or by individuals chosen by them collectively. She gratuitously posits a wise "shaman" (who is made to be a woman). In the original, there is no such figure; the Little Men are the possessors of knowledge. All the people (not a solitary hero) ask them for help.

The sacred number 4 turns up in the original: 4 people are transformed into snakes by the Little Men's medicines. The first 3 fail in various ways, that supply origin-explanations for some characteristics of various species of snakes. The rattlesnake, who mistakenly bites the Sun's daughter through impatience, now doesn't bite unless disturbed, and gives warning by rattling, first. Since this is meaningless to Cohlene, she simply eliminates it. Dancing Drum becomes the only snake, bites the Sun's daughter by mistake, and the Sun's grief turns to endless cold.

That New Age favorite the wise shaman pops up with advice again. In the original, all the people go to the Little Men, and, advised how to bring the Sun's daughter back from the dead, "the people chose seven men to make the journey."

When the spirit of the dead woman escapes from the basket in which she's being brought back to the land of the living, she turns into a redbird (a sacred bird), and the original story explains that bird's sacredness: "So we know the redbird is the daughter of the Sun. And if the party had kept the box closed as the Little Men told them to, they could have brought her home safely, and today we would be able to recover our friends from Ghost Country." Cohlene isn't interested in this or any other of the sacred mythic aspects of this story, so she omits them.

Cohlene's ending continues her process of starring a single hero: Dancing Drum, now a sort of prehistoric rock star "began playing his own song" which attracts the Sun's attention and cheers her up, providing the happy ending. The original story has all the people trying to cheer the sun, when they've failed to return her daughter to life. A "drummer suddenly changed the song" (which undoubtedly reflects a drumming change that would have occurred in the ceremonies accompanying this myth cycle), which captures the Sun's attention.

Cohlene has here changed an ancient, interesting ceremonial nature myth -- which provided explanations of many natural phenomena -- into a formula children's story, by ignoring and eliminating everything that doesn't fit her formula.

--Paula Giese

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

Last Updated: 8/18/96