Friday, July 20, 2012

What The F!#& Should I Read Friday: Indian Tales

What the F!#& Should I Read Friday: Books to Make Your Weekend Weird & Wonderful

Aw man, you guys, this is a special one. I'm sorry it's so late in the day. I suck at posting in a timely manner. It's already totally Saturday if you're on the East Coast, and I even managed to not tell you that I have a guest post up at Tossing It Out today! Arlee, who runs Tossing It Out and several other swell blogs, not to mention being a major host of the A-Z Challenge, decided he wanted some of his readers to hijack his blog for a month or two, and the result has been some super-awesome posts. I am very honored to be a recipient of such generosity, because Arlee is sharing his hard-earned and extremely kind-hearted audience and it's a pleasure to put my work in front of them.

So this book! This book is so wonderful. It's also very weird if you come from traditional Western culture and you think children's stories are supposed to have princes in them. William Carlos Williams called Jaime De Angulo, who wrote this book, "one of the most outstanding authors I have ever encountered," and that's, um, no small peanuts in the praise department, guys. It's kind of a poem and kind of a folktale and kind of a...well...maybe you have a few questions?

1. Who the f!#& wrote this book?
2. What the f!#& is it about?
3. Where the f!#& should I read this book?
4. When the f!#& is it set?
5. Why the f!#& should I read it? 

1. Who the f!#& wrote this book?
The guy who wrote this book was named Jaime de Angulo (was, because he's dead.) He led the kind of life that itself should have been a book: moved to California to be a cowboy right before the 1906 earthquake, survived a self-administered throat-cutting, and went on to become a linguist who worked with several Native American tribes. He was also an early contributor to the field of ethnomusicology, because, you know, he was cool. And then after a family tragedy he stopped doing research, moved to Big Sur, wrote crazy fiction, and hung out with Henry Miller, as is detailed in a book I will probably use for an eventual WTFSIRF, Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymous Bosch. (The name alone...but that's another post.)

Jaime de Angulo with Achumawi
medicine man Old Blind Hall. Via
Syukhtun Editions
He lived with several Native American tribes in the 1920s, and his time with the Pit River people is the major contributing source to this book. He was not Indian himself (he was born in Spain) and the book is not a direct rendering of the Pit River people's mythology. Full disclosure: I have Native ancestry (none too ancestral, neither ) and I usually get a pained expression on my face when people bring up books by white dudes (or ladies) that are imaginative interpretations of Native culture, folklore, spiritual life, or experience. (Or just, you know, put real Native tribes in their f!#&ing moronic vampire fiction. Stephanie Meyer, this is still not okay.) This book is not like that. Jaime de Angulo isn't trying to convey an "authentic" Indian folklore; the book is the result of his own experiences in storytelling and language. As he says, "When you find yourself searching for some mechanical explanation, if you don't know the answer, invent one. When you pick out some inconsistency or marvelous improbability, satisfy your curiosity like the old Indian folk: 'Well, that's the way they tell that story. I didn't make it up!'

2. What the f!#& is it about?
Oh, Indian Tales. What are you about? Three people, back when the world was younger and animals and humans weren't quite so separate: Bear, his wife Antelope, and their son Fox Boy. (And baby Quail, but she's too young to talk.) They go over the mountains to visit their family. You could say it's a children's story, but it's not nicely plotted like a fairytale; there are several stories wound together, and none of them are neat and tidy the way we like things here in the West. There's not any native wisdom, if that's what you're looking for (although hopefully I've snided you out of that by now.) It's a lovely story, a good story for camping and adventures, for being outdoors and walking on trails. It's about people being people, visiting family, flirting and fighting, telling stories. (Fox Boy's tantrums are my favorite. He gets the HA-HAs.) The language is clean and beautiful - and funny. Reading it is not like reading a book; it's more like listening to a great storyteller talking. It comes out of an oral tradition, that's clear. (And indeed de Angulo originally invented the stories as tales for his kids, and read them aloud over the radio on KPFA before they were ever published in book form. Another reason why they're not like most Indian stories written by non-Indians.)

Hawk Chief and Coyote Old Man, from the story Coyote tells
Fox Boy about how Weasel burned the world. Weasel is kinda
the Sauron of the story. Hawk Chief took his beads, and so...
Via Kater Murr's Press (such. good. poems. Eat it, Gary Snyder.)
In a very strange way there is, for me, a kind of similarity to Tolkien - no, don't laugh! I do have Lord of the Rings on the brain because of Puttin' the Blog in Balrog, but I can't actually remember a time when I didn't think this in some level. Maybe feel would be a better word - it doesn't make too much sense, really, but there's the same thing of a huge mythology kind of wandering around in the background, and a journey through a changing landscape, and the songs! Many songs! There's not the same kind of doom or threat hovering in Indian Tales, but the characters have an odd similarity - you almost expect them to be goofy and two-dimensional, but instead they each have their particular kind of humor, their own kind of temper and impatience and quirks. Maybe I'm making it up. Would somebody please read it and tell me if I'm crazy?

Also, there are amazing pictures. Jaime de Angulo drew them and they are awesome.

3. Where the f!#& should I read this book?
I talk a lot about books I think should be read aloud. I think reading aloud is a vanishing joy in our society and it should, um, not vanish? And this book is especially good for reading aloud, because, like I said, it's not written like fiction but like a story that wants to be told. It comes alive when it's read aloud. I should know; it was read to me when I was very young. And like I also said, it's great for traveling, for hearing by a fire at night, for woodsmoke and the smell of pines and the open sky. It's especially good for California, maybe, because that's where it takes place. But you could read it under any stars and it would still be wonderful. (And at home, too - but you might want to take a walk after. It's the tras . . . . tras . . . .tras . . . . up the trail, tras . . . .tras . . . tras . . . .down the trail that does it.

4. When the f!#& is it set? 
The mythic past, in the parts of California where Jaime de Angulo got to know the Indians, maybe? Not that he met them in the mythic past. (They were wearing overalls, come on. He's not a Noble Savage writer. Do you really think I'm that much of an embarrassment?) I mean the mythic past of the peoples that he met, in the landscape of the people that he met. Don't try to make too much sense of it, or see it symbolically, or try to understand it logically. Animals were people and people were animals in Indian stories in a way that there is simply no equivalent for in European storytelling.

5. Why the f!#& should I read it?
Trying earnestly to sort out stereotype from reality? The
American Indian Library Association can help! They've
put together this handy guide. Hint: the site from which
I sourced this image is doing it wrong.
"Once you get interested in these primitive Indians of California," Jaime de Angulo says in his preface to the book, "you will read more and more about them. It's too bad that most of the literature [on the California Indians - remember, this is the early 1930s] is of a technical nature, published in scientific journals. On the other hand, good, readable, interesting accounts or tales, such as are sometimes found in the ordinary magazines, are usually not only inaccurate, but give a false idea of the Indian background. What they give you is the orthodox mixture of romantic and picturesque elements that is the usual conception of the Indian by the average white man."

Wait, he said primitive! That's not cool, right? Well, he was being a little tongue in cheek, there. He's very well aware - yes, even in the 1930s! - that "primitive" thinking is complex and nuanced, and what seems like foolish superstition to the white folk comes from an unwillingness to be unsentimental about wonder, strangeness, mystery. We can't approach it without a lot of hand-wringing. But here's what else he has to say about primitive thinking, and it's the best reason to read this book that I can give:

When he first went among the California Indians, he says, "As soon as you listen and don't ask too many fool questions, and especially as soon as they feel that you are sincere in not looking down on them as inferior brutes, they accept you as another human being. Then you discover a lot of very interesting things about primitive thinking. Living among them, sprawling under the oak trees, watching the clouds or a procession of ants, or a hawk perching on a dead pine, you gossip, you talk about so-and-so and what a liar he is, or two men start arguing about who made the world, and a young fellow tries to reconcile his knowledge of motors and the electric spark with Indian ideas of medicine and religion. Pretty soon you find yourself drifting into their lingo, and even their ways of thinking. Then you catch yourself with a start; you remember you are a white man, and supposed to be a scientist; and you wonder whether you are playing a game with yourself. You try to explain thought to yourself. You feel puzzled. You wonder whether you are dropping back into childhood, and the wonder-time of stories, and fairies, and miracles, and marvelous things. And then you listen to another story of when the animals were men..."

You know. Listening. It's pretty f!#&ing awesome.

Here's a last offering from him for you, and if you don't like it, I don't know what the f!#& to tell you:

you who walk the trail in broad daylight
contemptuous and haughty

you who unseen follow people on the trail
curious and shy

which of you
last night
uttered that long cry
so full of longing

(berkeley 27 feb '50)

poem via Kater Murr's Press


  1. Hmm... sounds kind of like Anansi Boys but not.

    1. I'd say emphasis on the not, there. First of all it's not a novel, it's a story. Secondly, it doesn't borrow other people's mythology for a Western form of fiction. I like Anansi Boys okay, as books go, but it's a white dude book. Nothing inherently wrong with that; I don't mean it as a slur, just an observation. This, not so much a white dude book. You have to suspend your desire for narrative convention, and not in an obnoxious post-modern way, in a rich fabulous alive poetic listening-to-stories way.


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