Children's Books

SONG OF SEDNA, by Robert San Souci, illustrated by Daniel San Souci, Bantam Doubleday Books for Young Readers, New York: 1981. 27 pages, paperback, ISBN 0-440-40948-9

All the circumpolar Arctic peoples were entirely dependent for survival in the harsh environment on sea mammals: seals, walruses, narwhals, and whales. Few plants, and no woody ones, no trees, grow above the Arctic circle. Driftwood and usable stone are rare. Bone and sinew were the most important animal parts for the tools of survival. For light, warmth in winter homes, and very small amounts of cooking, sea mammal fats in stone dishes with moss wicks were used. Sinew and hide formed most clothing, and the hulls of the one-man Kayaks from which sealing and fishing was done during the few months of the year that were always daylight and (from April to August) ice breakup occurred and some water was open. For both summer kayak or winter ice hunts, waterproof overgarments of animal intestines were a necessity.

Thus the sea mammals were the basic necessity of life for the people of the Arctic, who call themselves Inuit, the largest group (Inupiat, Inuvaluit, Yupik, Aleut are other self-names). It means the same as the self-names of just about all Native tribes: "we, the people." "Eskimo" (what the San Soucis call the people of their story) was a pejorative name meaning "raw meat eaters" applied by Natives of the sub-Arctic.

For all the Arctic peoples there is a story like the one of Sedna (this one comes from Greenland) that the San Soucis have travestied. Some aspects differ: the girl is sometimes an orphan thrown callously overboard to lighten a load, for example. What is common to all stories is the betrayal by close kin, the murder, by throwing the girl into the frigid waters. And by chopping her fingers off, first at the topmost joints, as she clings to the edge of the craft trying to save herself from a death that is certain, by hypothermia, within three minutes. As she tries again to cling with bloody part-hands, her father, relatives, fellow villagers, mother chop off the finger-stumps down to the knuckles, and she sinks to bottom of the sea.

The bloody finger fragments become the sea mammals on which the people depend for every aspect of life and survival. Her cold, dead, but animated body beneath the sea is their controller. She is the controlling spirit of these sea mammals, the most powerful and dreaded of the entire Arctic pantheon of spirits and deities (most of whom are hostile or at least malicious).

She hates all of humankind, the people who betrayed and murdered her. She wants revenge. She wants the death of all humanity. When this desire becomes strong, when she remembers what they did to her, she sends away her former bloody finger-joints, and the people starve, freeze. Their only hope, then, is that an angkok, a man of spiritual power (these fellows weren't very nice either) will send his spirit underwater and cause the woman to relent. In some versions he does this by killing a variety of monsters that are her underwater companions. In more gruesome versions, she is plagued by small undersea crustaceans, eating her cold, dead flesh. Because of her clubbed, fingerless hands, she cannot pluck them off herself. The Angkok plucks these things off her and saves her from the intolerable pain and fear of their eatings. In temporary gratitude, she may bring back her sea mammals, and the people may survive. Or she may not and they may not. Small winter camps of the dead were sometimes later found: all starved.

Surviving marginally in the harshest environment human beings have been able to inhabit, the people did not see the forces of nature -- arbitrary, uncontrollable and dangerous -- as in any respect kindly or benevolent. There was no formal worship; spirits were feared and propitiated. Stories for entertainment featured lots of bloody violence, often for reasons that seem humanly as arbitrary as the potentially fatal forces of nature seemed.

To make culturally accurate children's stories out of the myths and legends that helped peoples live in this environment is not possible if these children's stories must somehow feature kindly or benevolent creatures, forces, deities. Nature is Not Always Nice. An unrealistic niceness is what publishers, educators, parents in the modern world want of all children's stories.

Thus the San Souci brothers have produced a total travesty of Polar cultures with this children's book. This Sedna is, to be sure, flung overboard by her father when she has fled a husband that she learns is a powerful (and presumably malignant) spirit, who sends a storm after their umiak, as they are fleeing him. But he doesn't chop her fingers off -- the necessary and universal element of the human betrayal that creates the sea mammals. The sea mammals already exist. They and some handy nice cold-water guardian spirits escort her to an underwater throne, where they tell her to Be Nice in her new power. She proceeds to do so, which pleases a nonexistent deity of justice, made up by the San Souci brothers as "the most powerful being of all," and the brothers end with an alleged joyful song of Sedna which is actually a hunter's song.

The illustrations travesty the environment and the real culture of survival in it. Trees -- both evergreens and huge deciduous ones -- are shown flourishing in the snow -- here above the tree line! Sedna has dreams of romantic love -- why she refuses local suitors and settles on a handsome drop-in who fits these dreams. Romantic love is a completely alien concept in most cultures, and never more so than here, where a woman is an economic necessity for the survival of the hunter.

The deserted spirit-husband chases escaping Sedna and her father riding a scaled sea-serpent which, more than anything, resembles (except for breathing fire -- another alien concept) the prow of a Viking warcraft. The father's umiak (large, open multi-passenger and cargo boat) is shown with sail. Sails were not used. There was nothing to make them -- or masts -- of, and Arctic winds were not dependable for maneuvering among ice floes and complex currents around rocky headlands.

Clothing, facial and bodily conformations of the supposedly Arctic people (who are short, round-faced) makes them physically resemble the people of the warm, wooded northwest coast. A totem pole and northwest coast style formline fish on prefatory and title pages reinforce these culturally alien lifestyles, imposed on the Arctic people, who had an entirely different artistic style in their art of bonecarving and did not build totem poles (indeed there was no wood for it).

The New York Times Book Review called the illustrations -- which are the least realistic part of the book "realistic illustrations [which] complement the haunting text and contrast well with the mythical quality of the story."

This sort of cultural travesty -- distortions of supposedly up-for-grabs cultural heritages by any story miner -- is the general rule for commercially concocted stories-about-Natives for children. What is most noteworthy of this book is that (in addition to various other awards by educational bodies) the U.S. National Council for Social Studies has designated it "A Notable Social Studies Book." This is supposed to mean that the book in question is one from which children can learn real facts about the history and culture of the people whose story is told -- or retold, reworked, remodeled. That cannot happen with a travesty like Song of Sedna.

Fifteen years of sales success for this book is a strong indictment of the total cultural and historical ignorance in the U.S. (and Canada, where it is also widely distributed) of publishing, educational, reading, and reviewing authorities across the board. One can only hope that its use in libraries and schools (who must have great quantities of copies) will be tempered by some pointing out that this isn't an "Eskimo story" because (a) Eskimos don't exist and (b) some indication of the cultural wrongnesses sketched above.

--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