BOOKS: Native American Animal Stories

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, July/August 1993:

Native American Animal Stories, told by Joseph Bruchac,
Fulcrum Publishing (350 Indiana St., Golden CO 80401, 800-992-2908), 1992, 135
pages, softcover $11.95.)
Every culture has stories to teach
children about the world and the creatures
in it. If these native American stories
occasionally evoke memories of the
Grimms’ Eastern European folktales, it’s
because their respective cultures had more
in common with each other than either has
with modern industrial society. Yet,
though we raise our children on myths of
science and technology, something about
fairy tales transcends time and culture to
fascinate each new generation.

In this collection, the simplest
tales are the most accessible, especially for
younger children. “The Woman Who
Married a Frog” and “How The Butterflies
Came to Be,” for instance, could be fairy
tales from any culture. Others, like the
Apache tale, “The Boy and the
Rattlesnake,” portray a more realistic
approach to nature, not necessarily unique
to Native Americans. In this story a boy
finds a half-frozen snake and, in pity,
warms it to life against his skin. When the
snake recovers, it bites its rescuer.
“Why did you bite me?” the boy
said. “You said you would not bite me if I
picked you up.”
“That is so,” said the snake, “but
when you picked me up, you knew I was a
The Welsh singer Tom Jones told
essentially the same story in a ballad about
25 years ago. The major difference was
that the human in the ballad was an adult
woman, not a boy.
Most of these stories are much
more complex and require some under-
standing of Native American beliefs. The
original format, Keepers of the Animals:
Native American Stories and Wildlife
Activities for Children (Fulcrum, 1991),
included considerable cultural background,
but even then it’s doubtful whether chil-
dren could comprehend the spiritual signi-
ficance of a tale like “Salmon Boy.” To
many children, the story of a boy who
insults the fish he eats, and then is trans-
formed into a fish, would evoke the cruel
and frightening monsters of ancient
European tales, with their theme of trans-
gression and punishment. The Haida tale,
on the other hand, was meant to reassure
children who were raised in the belief that
souls were continuously recycled through
all aspects of nature.
How, too, to explain to modern
youngsters the rationale for hunting por-
trayed in the Cree Story, “How The People
Hunted the Moose”? In a culture that
believed animals were braver, stronger and
more intelligent than humans, it seemed
reasonable to assume the slain animal
must have permitted the hunter to catch it.
And, therefore, if the hunter wanted to
succeed in the future, he must respect that
animal’s sacrifice. The Cree story is more
typical of aboriginal beliefs than another
selection, “The Alligator and the Hunter,”
in which the alligator’s advice uncannily
resembles the philosophy of 19th
European wildlife management.
In the foreword to this book,
Vine Deloria Jr. warns that, given modern
children’s ignorance of wild animals, such
stories “are fraught with the possibility of
misunderstanding unless some effort is
made to provide a context in which the
stories take place that is true to the natural
setting and behavior of the animals.”
Given the tendency of 20th-century chil-
dren’s writers to anthropomorphize ani-
mals in a fashion totally opposite to Native
American depictions, I’d add that children
need at least some exposure to native spiri-
tual beliefs if they’re to understand the
lessons embedded in these tales.
––Cathy Czapla
(Like Native American Animal Stories
author Joseph Bruchac, Cathy Czapla
belongs to the Abenaki tribe.)
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