Children's Books

KA-HA-SI AND THE LOON -- AN ESKIMO 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 0-8167-2359-1

As usual, Cohlene cites no sources for this story. There are no "Eskimo" people; that is a pejorative name meaning "raw meat eaters" applied to people of the Arctic by other tribes. Inuit is the preferred name for those of the Central Arctic (Canada, Greenland). Inupiat is often the name preferred by those of the Yukon and parts of northern Alaska. Yupik is the self-name for those of western coastal Alaska, and Aleut those of the westward-stretching island chain and mainland peninsula. I cannot find this alleged legend in any of the sources I found.

I think it is another mish-mash, concocted mainly from Tlingit-Haida sources, where there is a heroic figure often called Blackskin, whose deeds fit parts of Cohlene's construct. Of course these people don't live in snow houses, seals, walruses, kayak hunting etc. -- trappings of Cohlene's construct -- are no parts of their culture. I think she went through some cokeyed reasoning like "Alaska=cold=Arctic, therefore Alaska Natives=Eskimoes" and laid the igloos, parkas, and such onto Alaska Tlingit-Haida Blackskin tales she'd found.

Her story doesn't fit the cultural givens of any of the Arctic peoples. A boy who slept all the time, awakening only to eat would be thought too sick to live, a drain on scarce resources in the harsh survival environment, killed -- left far out on the ice or walled up to smother and starve in a snow house.

The non-Arctic Haida hero Blackskin, on the other hand, does do something like this. He sleeps all day -- so soundly no one can waken him when his skin chars from sleeping too near the fire -- while he secretly gains strength, not from some mystical loon (Cohlene's version), but secretly exercising at night, longer and harder than the other young men do -- building their strengths by training in daytime. Blackskin, in daytime, sleeps, awakening only to eat. In the much richer, more survival-favorable world of the Northwest coast, this behavior is mocked, but tolerated.

After Cohlene's Kahasi has shown his strength by conquering walruses by hand (he wrestles them around, he doesn't spear them), and wrestling a giant challenger brought to his village by another tribe, Cohlene has him push "attacking mountains" back from the seacoast. This is incredible as an Arctic legend. Lands of the Arctic circle were under heavy glacial ice, quite recently as geological time goes. They're ground down flat. Cliffy shores are revealed only where lingering glacier is now retreating, rocky areas which do not support human, or much other, life. However, the Haida hero Blackskin does tear a huge sea lion apart with his bare hands (to revenge an uncle whom the bull had killed), and it would at least make geological sense for a Haida-Tlingit hero to push seacoast mountains back into place, though I've found no such Blackskin tale. None of Kahasi's deeds make sense for an Inuit hero; most of them have analogs in Tlingit Blackskin tales.

Cohlene ends her story by having Kahasi, who is now a supernaturally strong character, hold up the earth, like the Greek Atlas. This notion makes no sense for any Native culture. The idea the earth needs holding up from beneath comes only from cultures who discover -- as the Greeks did -- that it is a sphere in space.

Cohlene's mini-history is more than usually inaccurate. although there is a map showing the common culture area of the Arctic Circle, encompassing Canada, high Arctic islands, and Greenland, her discussion and important dates concerns only those in the U.S. area of Alaska. In the brief note about "Eskimos today" doesn't mention that in land claims negotiations, begun in 1973, the Canadian Inuit people have obtained rights over a huge land area called Nunavut. The entire history of Greenlandic people, who obtained Danish home rule in 1979, is ignored. As for Alaska Arctic Natives, why is there no mention of the U.S. Atomic energy Commission's gonzo plan to excavate a deepwater harbor with nuclear weapons, blowing up the Point Hope community? It was their opposition to this which eventually led to all-tribal court actions and the entire Alaska Native Claims settlement. She mentions only that "the (U.S.) government has allotted certain lands to them individually and as villages."

There is no mention of the circumpolar alliance of native people (including Arctic culture Natives from Russia, white-skinned Arctic peoples called Sami from Finland and Sweden). that is representing the rights of all of them in the United Nations, and forwarding their environmen- tal concerns, which are acute, as north sea high-tech resource development moves into full swing. North Sea petroleum discoveries are bringing crucial changes to peoples of the far north, with a great many more to go, as development there gets into full swing.

None of that's in her "history" it's Nanook of the North and MUSH, you huskies! all the way.

--Paula Giese

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

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