Bertrand N.O. Walker (Hen-Toh), |
Tales of the Bark Lodges
(Harlow, 1919; University Press
of Mississippi, 1995; Nabu, 2010)
Tales of the Bark Lodges is a collection of 12 Wyandot stories written by Bertrand N.O. Walker (Hen-Toh) in the late 19th century dialect of an elderly Wyandot woman telling the stories to her half-breed nephew. The stories feature Fox and Coon, primarily, but often incorporate the other animals of the region.
I felt like I was reading gibberish the first time through and had to read the first two stories twice before I got into the rhythm of the dialect compounded by the bobbled English. It was rough going at first, but once I got the hang of it, the stories were a lot of fun. Like most native stories, they do have morals about how to act and interact with others, but the bottom line is that they are just plain fun to read.
The stories of Fox and Coon playing tricks on each other are hilarious. My favorite of the stories is "A Pre-Historic Race," where all the other animals challenge turtle to a swim across the water to an island. I also especially enjoyed "The Ferryman" in which Wolf decides to have done with that pesky little Rabbit ferryman once and for all. Of course, we must some explanation stories in every collection and this one does not disappoint. Walker includes "Why Autumn Leaves are Red" and "The Hole in the Sky, or How the Summer Became Longer."
The illustrations by Royal Roger Eubanks are gorgeous. They are intricately detailed and bring the animals to life with emotions clearly reflected in their features. They are ideal for this collection of stories.
There was some controversy over the origins of these stories. John Wesley Powell of the Bureau of American Ethnology questioned whether they were indigenous American or African in origin because of their parallels to the Uncle Remus stories by Joel Chandler Harris. Walker asked Professor Powell of the Smithsonian Institute for his opinion and the professor stated that these stories bear more of American Indian origin than Negro. The Smithsonian ruling ended the debate.
Walker offered the following explanation for the similarities: Cherokees and Wyandots are both Iroquoian. At one time they shared stories. Both nations removed from the region of the Iroquois. The Cherokee became slaveholders and the Negroes would have heard the Cherokee stories and absorbed them into their own culture.
Walker was a Wyandot born on the Kansas Wyandot lands to parents of Canadian Wyandot lineage. He attended the Industrial Boarding School near Wyandotte, Oklahoma, and then studied with a private tutor. He became an instructor in federal Indian schools for a decade, then worked as a clerk at various Indian agencies, but mostly the Quapaw Agency. Eubanks, a Cherokee, was an artist, cartoonist, writer and teacher.
Tales of the Bark Lodges might not be the most ideal book for reading aloud to youngsters, but it is one heck of an entertaining read for adults. I commend the publisher for bringing this collection back to life and hope the stories will be preserved intact for another century.
book review by
Alicia Karen Elkins
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