Terri Hardin, editor,
Legends & Lore of the American Indians
(Barnes & Noble, 1993)

As Joseph Campbell pointed out regarding folk tales in a comment on the legacy of the Wilhelm and Jacob Grimm, "where there was a lack, there is now such abundance that the problem is how to deal with it." Collections of North American Indian legends and myths, particularly when the collection is meant to be comprehensive, can quickly turn into a morass of stories and tales that lose any coherence.

The main traditions in North America had what seems sometimes an infinitude of local variations, and each local variation borrowed from its neighbors. And, as Terri Hardin points out in her introduction to Legends & Lore of the American Indians, these were -- and still are, in many cases -- living traditions, often conflating tales that had their origins long before the arrival of Europeans with rifles, horses and trucks. Unlike European folk tales, which thanks to the Brothers Grimm were recorded at a time much closer in psychological terms to their origins, contemporary mythographers and folklorists working with North American material are confronted with mythology in process.

Hardin, in organizing her material, has opted for a regional approach, which, given the mobility of so many North American societies, is chancy. Tales that originated around the Great Lakes are found in the High Plains, butted up against traditions from the Rockies or desert Southwest. Within the regional groups, stories are divided into several categories: creation and nature myths, gods and goddesses (which is a concept that seems only sketchily to apply to North American mythology), core beliefs, tribal history and customs, and tribal legends.

While this might have had the effect of providing some sort of central unity to the stories, given the reality of the material and its origins, it doesn't really work. Add in the fact that in some instances the coverage is sketchy -- the "Core Beliefs" chapter for the great Indian nations of the Eastern Woodlands contains only a story each from the Cherokee, the Chatot and the Onondaga, in spite of what must have been a much richer and more varied set of traditions originating from the Penobscot and Passamaquoddy of Maine through the Six Nations to the Seminole and Miccosukee in Florida, although to grant some grace to Hardin, these are among the first traditions lost. Her coverage is also limited to the continental United States, except for tales from the Pacific Northwest, which makes a chancy framework more than a little arbitrary.

The relation of the stories themselves is sometimes puzzling, particularly in the absence of any elucidatory comments by the editor. A creation story attributed to the Pawnee, for example, seems to contain two variations, one of which may actually come from the related Arikara, but the reader is left to puzzle this out on his own. Nor is there any hint of whether the stories are taken verbatim or rewritten for this book -- in some cases the diction just doesn't ring true, which for those who appreciate the wonderful combination of directness and ambiguity of the traditional storyteller can be disappointing. (It is a given these days that folklore is rendered verbatim, with enough editing to make it intelligible, but not enough to take away the flavor of the original -- another legacy of the Grimms.) The stories themselves are entertaining, for those with an interest in folklore of the Americas, but for those trying to gain a sense of the Indians' worldview, there are serious problems.

Hardin's effort suffers by comparison with the earlier collection by Richard Erdoes and Alfonso Ortiz, American Indian Myths & Legends, which does include not only source citations in the text, but an index of the stories and a fairly comprehensive bibliography of more specialized materials. Erdoes and Ortiz' organization also makes more sense, grouping tales by theme, enabling more refined comparisons of differing traditions, and actually providing finer tuning to the concerns of native storytellers. Erdoes and Ortiz, for example, include a section on "Ghosts and the Spirit World," a major component in native traditions, while, if one is looking for stories in this context in Hardin's book, one will be reduced to skimming first lines or first paragraphs; although Hardin mentions the importance of animals to the Indians, "Animals" is not a category. Add to this the fact that Hardin's book contains no index of any sort, no bibliography and no explanatory or reference notes in the stories themselves, and you have in your hand a collection that is fairly useless for anything but occasional light reading, unless one is a scholar in the field -- and in that case, it is doubtful that there is anything new here.

Hardin's book is nice to have as an adjunct -- there are stories not included in other collections -- but in terms of coherence and intelligibility, there are better volumes.

- Rambles
written by Robert M. Tilendis
published 13 March 2004

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