Children's Books

QUILLWORKER, A CHEYENNE LEGEND, A Cheyenne Legend, by Terri Cohlene, illustrated by Charles Reasoner, Watermill Press (an imprint of Troll Associates). 48 pages, paperback. $3.95 US, $4.95 Can., 0-8167-2358-3

Though as usual Cohlene cites no sources, this one was copped from American Indian Myths and Legends, edited by Richard Erdoes and Alfonso Ortiz (Pantheon, 1984). There it is reported this story was told to Erdoes at Lame Deer, Montana, on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation, by members of the Strange Owl family in 1967. They called it "The Quillwork Girl and her Seven Star Brothers."

Had Cohlene been a bit more diligent in perusing the source she copped her tale from, she would have avoided making the dumb mistake of naming the youngest brother (the story's hero) Wihio. In her glossary, Cohlene reports that Wihio "means one with higher intel- ligence." Actually Wihio is an evil and stupid spider spirit, whose name now is a Cheyenne slang pejorative name for "white man." In Erdoes' book, the Rachel Strange Owl tells another story, one about Veeho: "Veeho is like some tourists who come into an Indian village not knowing how to behave or what to do, trying to impress everybody," she begins it. "You know, I think you should stop fooling around, trying to impress people with your tricks," she ends it. But Cohlene didn't see this particular story, with its variant spelling of her hero's name, so she doesn't know she's given a pejorative name to her young young hero, and somebody or something gave a totally wrong definition for her glossary.

Other aspects of cultural ignorance creep in. Since Cohlene doesn't understand that four is a sacred number, hence Native storytelling conventions usually award success only on the 4th try, she shortens the episodes with the hostile buffalo who demand the seven brothers give up the girl to them from four to three. Similarly, the children do not escape the buffalo herd into the sky until the youngest brother has made 4 shots with his magic arrows, pulling them higher -- but again, Cohlene truncates this to 3 shots, because 4 isn't a sacred number for her, so she sees no reason to keep repeating the episodes. Gratuitously, she makes "Wihio" bcome the Pole Star, but in th Cheyenne version, Quillworker and her 7 brothers bcome the 8 stars of the Big Dipper (one is a small satellite), and the youngest is last on the "handle." There's a different natural history legend about the steadfast north star around which all the rest of the night sky revolves, but not in Erdoes and Ortiz.

The non-fictional history section contains the gratuitous and racist insult of describing the Sand Creek massacre of a peaceful, encamped band of Cheyennes as "Native Americans lose battle of Sand Creek."

--Paula Gise

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

Last Updated: Sunday, August 18, 1996 - 7:22:15 AM