Children's Books

HOW THE SEASONS CAME: A NORTH AMERICAN INDIAN FOLK TALE, Retold and illustrated by Joanna Troughton; Peter Bedrick Books, New York; Blackie Children's Books, London; 1992; 25 pages oversize, hardbound; $14.95; ISBN 0-87226-464-5

Because of the big double-page spread of a sad Daddy-wolf viewing with dismay his sick cub, a pic that appears to have been painted with sugared whippedcream instead of oil pigment binder, I could almost forgive Troughton. The aesthetic experience of liking sugary- sentimental pix is rare with me. It ain't enough, though.

North America's a mighty big place, Troughton, a whole continent, and there are still some 500 Nations on the part north of Mexico with unique languages, histories, etc. As it so happens, this is not "a myth that comes from the Algonquin Indians of the north east U.S.A." It comes from the Ojibwe Indians in northern Minnesota which I will note in geographical reference is "near Winnipeg," if that helps.

A dozen or more versions of this tale were collected in my home state, here, by William Jones -- who was a member of the linguistically-related Fox tribe who had become a student of Franz Boas, and tripped around northern Minnesota in 1903-1905. While the publication (William Jones, Ojibwa Texts, American Ethnological Society, 1917, was a bit delayed, copies of the hard-to-get material have been circulating among Native curriculum developers in Minnesota and Wisconsin (Wisconsin is not so near Winnipeg, but not that near to Toronto, either) since the early 1970's. There are thus quite a number of children's versions, some of them in our language, some in English, some in facing pages of both.

Some have even fallen into the hands of non-Indian story-miners and it seems most likely it is one of these Troughton actually cribbed her tale from. Since the Algonquian "tribe" is an invention of ethno-linguists (it is a pejorative word meaning "bark eaters" applied by the Iroquois to some of their enemies), it's hard to imagine how "they" got credited with it, but in the story-mining industry anything is possible. One thing characterizes all the versions I've seen (none attributed to "the Algonquian tribe of northeast North America" to be sure): they don't begin with Daddy wolf seeking help for his sick son. That seems to be something Troughton has added for kid appeal (Daddy Wuffums wants to help widdle Wuffie, and so do all the other animals!)

This also is not a "myth"; we distinguish those (major religious import, creation stories, major moral and ethical) from "little" teaching stories which (like this one) answer kids' "Why?" questions.

In this story the "birds of the seasons" were always above the sky, it was always winter.

Nope, they were captured. Some say by a village of grizzly bears. The animals do plan to free them, and Fisher (Odjig, an animal made almost extinct by the peltry trade, because its hides were worth twice the price of a beaver hide) is their leader. In most versions, the animals do not jump up toward the sky; they travel a long way and cross a lake. Fisher leads the animals -- in good war-band leader fashion -- to bite holes in the canoes and paddles of the villagers who have captured the birds of -- not 3 seasons -- but only summer. After releasing the birds -- they are hidden in birchbark makuks, boxes, Fisher is nearly caught but escapes into the sky, where he becomes the constellation generally called the Big Dipper. Sometimes he's hit by an arrow in the tail, just as he's reaching freedom in the sky; the arrowpoint through the tail is then Polaris, the North star.

In Troughton's version the birds are of 3 seasons, and are in budgie-like cage confinement somewhere up above the sky. The animals all try to jump up there, but only Fisher is "long and skinny" (fishers are kind of like weasels) so he makes it, does the job, but gets shot by some really ugly people who come running up and are called "the Thunderers." Animkeeg, thunderbirds, never take human form, and don't socialize that much with people or animals. In their cages, like so many canaries or budgies, the birds sing various poems roughly based on Navajo chants, particularly the Blessingway. For miles and miles and miles around Winnipeg, we of the exclusive little North American Indian Tribe sing those all the time, traditionally. Dinetah or Navajo country is rather farther than that from Winnipeg, to be sure....

Troughton's Fisher dies up there above the sky, his body falling across the hole he punched in it jumping up there, his corpse blocking his entry hole, so the birds can't fly back Upstairs. The corpse turns into some kind of stars-or-other, thus dumping the astronomy part of the teaching story -- a particular constellation and (arrow version) conceptual explanation of the observed natural phenomenon: Dipper/Fisher and whole night sky seem to revolve, nightly, about the pole star (because it's all pinned through right there by the arrow, see?). Not for Troughton's version. Wuff and Little Wuffie look up at some blurry stars or other, sad scintillant memory of Fisher's self-sacrifice, bringing warm weather that let Wuffie get over his ailment, The End.

Oh, well, probably most Indians never noticed the skies except for a few quaint little legends. Science (beginning with careful observation of invariances and changes in natural phenomena) is something they knew nothing about; we all know that. (Except somewhere around Winnipeg, maybe, though definitely not so far around as London.)

There is not a great deal of cultural learning or validity in this fantasy version done out of library-discovery in England.

She's done another folk tale called "How Rabbit Stole Fire" from the exclusive little tribe of North American Indians. (I hope I don't have to review this, cuz I fear it's another one of ours!), and several others from places in North America whose geographical relationship to Winnipeg cannot at present be determined. There's "a folk tale from the Amazon" (this is in south America, quite far from Winnipeg), a Finnish folk tale (about the same latitude as Winnipeg), an Eskimo folk tale (quite a ways north of Winnipeg, but there is a big potential longitudinal range all round the Arctic Circle), an Australian Aborigine folk tale (quite, quite as far from Winnipeg as you can get), an India-Indian folk tale which has the totally mystifying title "The Wizard Punchkin." Boy, I thought I knew a little about Injah (from reading). I would of thought something with that title was maybe an English traditional folk tale, newly-discovered junior opus by C.S. Lewis or Tolkien, say. Must be from the Days of the Raj, ehwot, some folkish Memsahib's litr'y leavings, wot? Awfully far from Winnipeg that, got its own subcontinent, that, Injah. Fellow got lost some time ago, looking for it.

Hey, this lady's a whole international kiddie mult-cult industry. Better you should buy books written a bit closer to Winnipeg or Minnesota, if you're looking for North American Native type culture. Pip-pip, as they say, cheerio.

--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