If you want to know a people, know their stories; I don't know if anyone ever said that to me, or it was just something I came to, but what I do know is that it's a truth that's proven itself to me time and time again. About fifteen years ago, I was interested in finding out more about Native American cultures and people and started to do a lot of reading.
The first thing I realised was there was no such thing as an "Indian Culture" in the way we would define it in terms of our own people. What is true for one Nation is not necessarily true for another, and even within Nations, things can be done differently from one village to another. However, that doesn't stop stories from offering universal insights into how people lived. In spite of language and other cultural differences, people who lived in the northeastern part of North America shared many life experiences that were expressed through story.
In his wonderful book The Manitou, Basil Johnson, an Ojibway from Northern Ontario, gathered together stories about the good and bad spirits that had been told by his people for countless years. The majority of the stories were of the life lesson variety, and were used to instill in young people an understanding of what it took to live a good life, and what it took to survive.
Of course, there were other kinds of stories that Native people told each other, and we are heading into the time of year when this alternate form of storytelling is permitted: the earth is asleep during the winter and there is less chance of being overheard by those who you might want to mention in a story. If you talk about a spirit in a story when the earth is awake, you might as well just invite him back to live with you for eternity.
Now anybody can tell you a story, but not everybody is a storyteller. I don't know about you, but if I'm going to listen to stories in the middle of winter, I'm going to want to hear somebody who can do a good job of it. Which means we're all in luck because one of the best in the business, Joseph Bruchac has just released Wabi: A Hero's Tale through Penguin Canada.
Joseph Bruchac has been telling stories for years now and has published over one hundred books of story compilations, or as in the case of Wabi, stand alone novellas. His major focus as a storyteller has been on educating his own people, specifically young people, about their cultural heritage and through that instilling a positive message about being native.
In the case of Wabi, a word that means "brave one", the story concerns being proud of who you are, and maintaining your identity no matter what the circumstances. Our lead character is indeed named Wabi, who in this story is an owl able to understand all the other creatures, and talks to his great-grandmother in human language, making the question of identity very important.
Before anybody makes any wild guesses, some evil sorcerer or witch did not turn him into an owl, he was born an owl. Nor was he taught the other creatures' languages by his great-grandmother, he was born with the knowledge. He must have inherited it from someone he thinks, but who? He also wonders why he's so interested in the human village that lies within his hunting range. He figures it can't be normal for an owl to sit in a tree and eavesdrop on humans during the day when he should be sleeping. But he figures since he does have these special gifts that he might as well put them to good use.
He appoints himself guardian of the village and protects it against the evil beings that still roam the earth. For a while, he is content with that role, until one day he realizes he has fallen in love with one of the young women of the tribe. As long as he's an owl, he knows that he will never be able to be with her, and his daydream of having her join him on his branch is completely unrealistic.
He seeks out his great-grandmother again, and asks her why he is able to understand human speech, and this time she explains all. Her mate had been a man who had turned into an owl, and Wabi's mother had also been a human and had actually only just become an owl a short while before he had been born.
Of course, all this is very fantastical, and the story is a fantasy, but what's wonderful about it is the way Bruchac never once makes a big deal about it. The magic and the real, the fantastic and the ordinary blend to form a very realistic world where it seems perfectly normal for all this to coexist and provide the catalyst for the action of the story. Part of the reason why it all works so smoothly is that Bruchac has a fine ear for descriptive writing.
His descriptions of the various locales that Wabi travels to, from lush forests to desolate wastes, serve the reader well in providing us with visual references to place the action in. The good storyteller is able to tell his or her tale through a virtual slide show that is created by their words. Joseph Bruchac is an excellent storyteller and not only is he able to illustrate his locations, but even moments of action come to life in the reader's minds eye.
In theory, Wabi: A Hero's Tale was written for teenagers, but as far as I'm concerned people of all ages will gain from reading this book. Not only will it provide you with a good introduction to the world of Native American mythology and storytelling, you might actually learn a little about self-identity on the way. No matter what "body" you're wearing, you are who you are and that can never be taken away from you.