Theodora Kroeber,
The Inland Whale: Nine Stories Retold from California Indian Legends
(Indiana University Press, 1959; University of California Press, 2005)

Theodora Kroeber's The Inland Whale is considered one of the leading books on California native folklore. However, the author states that her intended purpose was to be comparative literature, not folklore. I believe the woman was insulted.

Since the primary character in each story is a woman, this book is as much a study of gender among the California natives as of their folklore. It reveals extensive information about how women were treated in their tribes.

The book contains nine stories, a foreword, an introduction, a chapter about the "qualities" of oral native stories and a section that tells about each of the stories. The section about the stories is extremely informative. Of course, it provides the details about when, where and how the story was collected. But it also gives details about the geography of the area inhabited by the tribe, how they relate to their neighboring tribes and what their daily lives were like.

I will use the title story as an example. "The Inland Whale" tells how Nenem, of the aristocratic Pekwoi house, fell in love with a poor boy. He could not afford to pay her bride price, so he offered to work as her father's slave until he had paid for her. But her father refused and sent him away into the wilderness.

Nenem was pregnant, so her father banished her, too. Her lover's mother, Hune, took her in and cared for her like a daughter. Nenem gave birth to a son, whom she named Toan.

When Nenem eventually returned to her village, her family still shunned her. She crept away and began her journey home, but became so tired that she fell asleep beside Fish Lake, where a female whale named Ninawa had been stranded. Ninawa was also a bastard, like Toan, and her heart went out to Nenem as she cried herself to sleep.

Ninawa was a special whale with special powers. She passed some of her powers to Toan, which changed the lives of Toan and Nenem forever.

In the section about the stories, we learn that this story comes from the Yurok, who live along the lower part of the Klamath River and the sea. The Yuroks based everything on wealth and had a far more aristocratic lifestyle than their neighboring tribes. It outlines the foods and natural resources of the region.

The Yurok currency was dentalium shells but they also placed great value on ceremonial items that were handed down from previous generations. Although it was good to acquire wealth, it was much better to have some of it handed down to you because that meant you came from good parents.

The bride price reflected on both families and brought honor to the couple and their descendants. The Yuroks were puritanical in their aristocracy and had an extensive code of conduct. Basically, everything a person did was regulated. If you broke the rules, you were evicted from the village and shunned.

So goes the explanation of this story, for several pages. The author relates her experiences with the man who told her the story and his mother, his building of a tsektseya -- an altar for a person to sit within a semi-circular stone wall, facing out to the ocean, and meditate -- and the anecdotes he told of persons and events.

The author supplies details about the locations and the route traveled by the heroine, relating that it could be walked in the time related in the story. All points of the story are realistic and verifiable except the part about the whale and the explanation of how the natives kept whales from becoming stranded in inland waterways. Yet the story is fiction.

The Inland Whale is an excellent read with thrilling and heartwarming stories. Whether you classify it as comparative literature, gender studies or folklore, it is great reading -- an informative volume on the culture and beliefs of the native people of California. Kroeber has a marvelous narrative style that keeps readers picturing the story. She provides exhaustive detailing so the readers fully understand the foreign culture.

The Inland Whale will appeal to a wide range of interests, not just Native American. These stories will delight persons of every age, race or gender. Do not miss this classic of native California literature.

book review by
Alicia Karen Elkins

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