Children's Books

THE PRINCE AND THE SALMON PEOPLE, by Claire Rudolph Murphy, illustrated by Duane Pasco, Rizzoli International Publications: New York, 1993. 48 pages (oversized, hardcover); map, photos. ISBN 0-8478-1662-1

Duane Pasco is a Seattle artist, carver, and art teacher of Haida ancestry. His work was part of the rediscovery of traditional art that began to take place in the 1960's as younger artists strove to revivify the dying traditions, from the last few remaining artist-elders, and intensive study of museum pieces. His large black and white drawings are aesthetically interesting, realistically accurate and (despite children's love for color in books) will generally hold the attention of the 10 - 12 year olds for whom this book is intended.

Murphy, who has lived in Alaska for 20 years, says she took the model for this story from one collected "in the early 20th century by recordings made by anthropologists Franz Boas and William Beynon." This actually seems to mean the Franz Boas Tsimshian Mythology published by the Bureau of American Ethnology in its 1916 Annual Report. Murphy combines elemnts taken from a number of unrelated stories into one smoothly-told narrative; of course the purposes of the originals are lost in this process.

Murphy is motivated by environmental concerns in this, as in others, of her children's books. "Overfishing, concrete dams, polluted rivers, and hatchery fish contributed to the lowered numbers of North Pacific salmon." She apparently believes -- feebly hopes would better describe it -- that in some fashion modern industrial culture (which is responsible for all these environmental problems) may be derailed by assimilating cultural values in this old teaching story, common to several northwest cultures. This aim has led to a certain wrenching-about of the traditional story's content. She adds characters -- like a slave boy and the inevitable wise old "shaman" -- present in no versions (in some there is a younger brother who is told to put the salmon bones in the river but is careless). She wants the boy-prince to be a hero; it wouldn't do to have him greedy and selfish, so he steals dried salmon from his mother on behalf of a hungry young slave -- a noble motive, rather than personal greed.

Murphy's villagers -- via that wise old shaman -- know they are supposed to perform various cermonies, and to return salmon offal to the river. But they forget! They get involved in other things! As -- nudge, nudge, hey reader-- we have forgotten! But the original stories are mythic telings of how these kinds of knowledge first came to the people, not metaphors for cultural change under industrial capitalism. And those metaphors don't work anyway. So -- since the villagers forgot the ceremonies, kind of like, er, forgtting causes industrial pollution, big dams, The salmon stop coming for the villagers because they aren't honored. As the pollution, dams, overfishing, etc., has led salmon to stop coming, that gets awfully strained, forcing one culture's mythic traditions valid within its lifeways when they functioned, to serve as metaphor for an entirely different culture's environmental sins, which have totally different causes.

It dosn't work at all, despite all the Procrustean wrenching-around. Modern industrial capitalism has to make its own cultural survival myths -- if it can. It cannot recycle myths and legends of Indian cultures. All that is accomplished is to remove the possibilities of cultural learning from the re-worked myths.

The original stories are double-faceted teaching stories. On the one hand, there are spiritual and moral values of the culture: showing respect to the important food-fish, the salmon, sharing, not being greedy and selfish. On the other there are practical lifeways matters. Return of salmon bones and offal to the river has practical value (village sanitation) and not holding dried salmon more than a year is practical also: it may spoil -- salmonella (which will infest any oily food, such as mayonnaise unrefrigerated in hot weather) is named after its discovered origin in spoiled salmon).

Murphy either has no sensitivity to these practical lifeways teachings, or considers them unimportant in view of her larger environmental intentions, irrelevant in the age of flush toilets, sewers that make it all vanish -- into lakes, rivers and watertables, and modern canning and refrigeration. Nowadays, throwing a lot of salmon garbage into rivers would itself create an environmental problem. And I can easily imagine some kids rushing off to do it too, emptying cans of salmon from bridges. "We're showing respect for the salmon," they would innocently tell passers-by. "It's a Native American environmental tradition we studied in class."

(Once I took 150 8th graders on an overnight St. Croix River "ecological canoe trip" whose purpose was to record the state of the river -- which we later testified about. Toward the end of the voyage, the kids got into a food-garbage fight. When I finally got the attention of the naval gunnery and asked them to take a look at the floating garbage they were responsible for, there was a great self-justifying wail that unlike all the crap we'd been cataloging, this was organic, suitable garbage to join the organic riverine environment. We spent quite a few hours gathering it all up nonetheless.)

Murphy's story is smoothly told and makes good reading. The photos (mostly of Tsimshian art objects from several museums) add cultural value and considerable interest to the book. A large, clear map at the end identifies traditional territories of northwest coastal tribes.

Claims on the publisher's jacket notes to the contrary, this doesn't really seem to be a "thought-provoking story about the interdependence of humans and animals." It is pieces of half a dozen different legends fitted together and treated as raw material to construct a single narrative story which has no actual application to any of the environmental problems affecting the salmon (or anything else) that Murphy says she wrote this book to help remedy.

All the northwest coastal Native tribes are heavily involved in modern high-tech commercial salmon fishery, for instance, following the Washington Boldt decision in the lawsuit brought by all the western Washington Treaty tribes, that treaties preserved the right of commercial exploitation of the traditional fish harvest. This simply means Indians, instead of being left out of all benefits, get some share of them from fish exploitation processes begun by whites on the northwest coast in the 19th century. Many of the tribes also operate the hatcheries she complains of and all either operate or are getting into canneries. Much of the ocean overfishery is by high- tech trawlers that are not even American (or Canadian) in national origin, but Asian or Japanese. Overfishing is a world necessity, because of the total population, now, that must be fed.

River dams are outside the control of Native people generally, and so is industrial, urban sewage disposal, and farming-caused water and air pollution. "Respect and honor for the salmon" isn't going to have any impact on (or relevance to) the political-economic-world population causes of these problems, though it is a favorite theory of New Agers that various shallow imitations (often with some homegrown shaman presiding) of ancient Native ideas, thoughts, stories, rites -- trivialized and distorted -- can substitute for more difficult and less interesting long-range commitments to political action that, coupled with scientific research, might eventually actually have some effects. Cultures, traditions, oral literatures, these should be studied for their own sake, not wrenched into tortured forms to serve some other pur- pose.

--Paula Giese

File: ch70

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

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