Native American Classics

Native-American-ClassicsThe 18 entries in this anthology were originally written by Native American authors in the early 19th and 20th centuries, and they are adapted here by contemporary authors and illustrators with various tribal affiliations. The poems, stories, and folklore retellings vary in length from a single page to 16+ pages. There is also great variation in colour scheme, tone, artistic style, and the effectiveness of the adaptations. However, this anthology does serve to establish the legacy of early Native American authors, as many will be previously unknown to readers. The collection also crosses “invisible” borders by including authors from Canada and the United States.

Each piece of writing is placed in context in the “About” section at the end of the book; background information about the original authors, their tribal affiliations, and their work is presented along with similar profiles of contemporary retellers. Though I was glad to have this information available to me, I would have appreciated a different format that included the background material alongside the stories and poems so there would not be a constant need to flip pages.

The book is dedicated to one of its featured artists, Robby McMurtry (Comanche), who was killed shortly after finishing his illustrations for the story “On Wolf Mountain.” Joseph Bruchac’s (Abenaki) adaptation of Charles Alexander Eastman’s (Sioux) classic tale is told from the point of view of a wolf, framed by the inclusion of a human storyteller in homage to Eastman’s role in founding the Boy Scouts of America. McMurtry’s illustrations are one of the highlights of the anthology; they seem to bound off the white, snow-filled backgrounds to bring the story to life and spotlight the relationships between wildlife, the people of the land, and the settlers who try to tame it. The reappearing tiny vignette of the storyteller’s face—deliberately resembling Eastman’s—is interwoven throughout the pages, layering over the panels and reminding the reader that the story is being told orally as well as visually.

The texts of classic poems have not been adapted for contemporary readers, and for the most part, they are effectively presented in the comic book format. One of my favourite poems is “The Cattle Thief,” by the renowned Canadian poet E. Pauline Johnson/Tekahionwake (Mohawk). Here, it is vividly and realistically imagined in warm shades of browns and blacks by Weshoyot Alvitre (Tongva) and highlights the courage of a young Cree woman as she protects the body of her fallen father. Alvitre’s use of facial expressions and body language is particularly evocative and mesmerizing.

Cartoon-like illustrations are also included in this collection. I particularly appreciated the light tones, bright colours, and joyful caricatures of Pat N. Lewis’ illustrations for the trickster tale “The Story of Itsikamahidish and the Wild Potato” by Buffalo Bird Woman (Hidatsa) as told to anthropologist Gilbert L. Wilson, adapted by editor Tom Pomplun—it was a gas.

The final offering is a contemporary tale by Joseph Bruchac (Abenaki), adapted by Richard Van Camp (Dogrib Dene) and illustrated by John Findley. “Two Wolves” tells the story of an Abenaki teen who fought in the Civil War and has returned home, only to find he is expected to kill a wolf that is stealing sheep in the area. The story’s protagonists, both man and wolf, have been traumatized by their experiences. Their friendship, established through mutual respect, allows both of them to move forward emotionally and physically. Meticulously and realistically depicted in blues, greens, and golds, Findley’s artwork successfully draws the reader into the campsite, one-sided verbal dialogue, and non-verbal acceptance. There is promise here, and so much hope, thereas a grand means of concluding this collection.

Not all of the pieces are as satisfying to me as the ones I have highlighted here, but much of that has to do with my personal preferences regarding illustrative styles and editorial selections. Overall, I would recommend this anthology for all public and school library collections.

Native American Classics
by Tom Pomplun, Joseph Bruchac, John E. Smelcer, et al.
Art by various
ISBN: 9780982563069
Eureka Productions, 2013
Publisher Age Rating: 12+

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