Earnest Gouge,
Totkv Mocvse/New Fire:
Creek Folktales

(University of Oklahoma Press, 2004)

Craig Womack, in his foreword to Totkv Mocvse (in the interest of preserving the reader's sanity -- and tonsils -- I should point out that "v" in the Muskogee alphabet is pronounced as "a" in English "ago") notes that Earnest Gouge, the Muskogee (Creek) author of these tales, was not an ethnographic respondent, although he worked with John Swanton, the ethnographer who collected folktales and stories of the Southeast Indians. (Swanton never published Gouge's stories; Womack believes this was because of the difficulty of translation.) Gouge, rather, was a participant in the Muskogee literary tradition, which Womack notes as one of the richest of native North America. Regrettably, Womack does not treat the origins of Creek literature, so that one is left with the question of how extensive literary traditions can be in cultures that, until the arrival of Europeans, were largely preliterate.

Jack B. Martin's introduction discusses, among other things, the translators' attempts to retain the flavor of Gouge's renderings, in which they seem to have been quite successful: readers who are familiar with collections of North American myths, legends and folktales will find these stories subtly different from most offerings. The direct, unadorned style of the native storyteller is here, as well as the matter-of-fact rendition of bizarre and fantastic events common to all folktales. There are other elements that these stories share with other traditions: the younger child who is successful after older siblings have failed in a task, or the restrictions imposed by authority -- a parent, a spirit, a mysterious stranger -- that one violates with disastrous consequences. In comparison to other collections of American Indian folklore, Gouge's stories have a more finished quality than the ethnographic accounts we are used to. There is a narrative, "literary" quality usually lacking in other collections.

The translators also have retained several devices of the Muskogee storytelling tradition, most notably the phrase "he said, it was said," noted as a device to impart both distance and universality to a tale. The use of this phrase, usually at the end of the story, creates a layered effect, as though the story, itself very direct and immediate, existed both in the "now" and the "then," a device which, to the non-Indian reader, offers a novel and extraordinarily effective alternative to the European "once upon a time," with the additional fillip of occurring at the end of the tale, rather than the beginning. The story takes on a larger dimension, and one wonders if this might not be a parallel to the teaching story of the Plains traditions, or if, indeed, the teaching story is a constant in North American native traditions.

The stories also show some African influences, not surprising considering the origins of the Muskogee in areas marked by slaveholding. These include lions (not the Florida panther, but lions demonstrably from across the ocean) and a variation on "Brer Rabbit & the Tar Baby" as part of a tale of Rabbit, the Trickster who appears in stories from other North American nations as Coyote or Raven (and who, indeed, appears in almost every folklore, making him a true mythic archetype).

Aside from its value as a work of Muskogee literature, Totkv Mocvse offers in this translation what seems to be the genuine "feel" of the Creek story -- the rhythms and repeated phrases almost give a sense of a narrative half spoken, half chanted, while the unadorned presentation imparts immediacy within a larger context. The addition of the thoughtful and very informative introduction and the equally illuminating prefaces to each story, often pointing out parallels with other tribes and nations, make this volume a must for anyone with an interest in Native American folklore.

- Rambles
written by Robert M. Tilendis
published 7 May 2005

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