The Epic of Qayaq:
The Longest Story Ever Told by My People

by Lela K. Oman, Priscilla Tyler, Maree Brooks, Ann Candonnet,
144 pages,
ISBN: 0295975318

The Epic of Qayak:
The Longest Story Ever Told By My People

by Lela K. Oman, Priscilla Tyler, Maree Brooks,
200 pages,
ISBN: 0886292670

The Manitous:
The Spiritual World of the Ojibway

by Basil Johnston,
276 pages,
ISBN: 1550137123

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Urgent Story-Telling
by Beth Cuthand

"We are only one generation away from extinction," says N. Scott Momaday, a Pulitzer Prize winning Kiowa author and oral traditions scholar. "If our stories are not passed on, we will die."

Aboriginal story-tellers are well aware of this urgency. It's all in the stories: history, ethics, world-view, relationships, language, origins. Until recently, it was enough to tell the stories. Extended families still lived close. No television, CD players, video games, or telephones intruded on the stillness of a winter evening. Story-tellers wove the world: a safe, warm cocoon of words, spun in a context that needed no explanation.

Time has speeded up. A world-wide web of words demands that context be explicit, or that we provide our own culturally specific interpretation, which too often skews the intended meaning. Such is the challenge for story-tellers who wish to write stories: How much exposition is enough? How does one make a graceful transition from telling a story to writing a story? The Epic of Qayaq and The Manitous illustrate the difference between stories told and stories written.

The Epic of Qayaq records the adventures of the traveller Qayaq, as he wanders by kayak and on foot through the Inupiat world of mythic beginnings, charged with the task of saving the human race from evil. Lela Kiana Oman, an Inupiat from Alaska, collected episodes of this Inupiat story cycle from several different story-tellers and wrote them down in l947. Through the years, Mrs. Oman told the stories in many different venues but it is only now the stories have been formalized in print.

The result is a somewhat uneven but ultimately engrossing telling of a classic epic, complete with magical transformations, love, jealousy, trickery, and triumph over evil. But these stories lack a cultural and geographic context. We are left to guess at the lay of the land and the value of the cultural artifacts that Qayaq gathers on his quest. We marvel at the village of hawks in human form but we are not given any clues as to the meaning of the hawk to the Inupiat. Given the number of times Qayaq gets married but never has sex, I suspect the stories have been cleaned up for public consumption. Those darn missionaries.

Not so with Basil Johnston's telling of classic Anishinaubae stories. The author of eleven books, this Anishinaubae historian brings a lifetime of knowledge and experience to The Manitous, which includes some stories that have never before been written. For young people unschooled in the subtleties of oral story-telling, this collection is kind and generous. Straightforward explanations of culturally specific details are never patronizing or obscure. The stories are rich in detail and cultural meaning, and quite literally cast a spell.

It's the quality of the writing that separates this book of aboriginal stories from any that has been published before in English. With his knowledge of high Ojibway and his decades of study and practice, Basil Johnston is probably the only person who could have written such a sparkling collection. Characters are fully drawn. Dialogue is engaging and believable. The mysteries who are the Manitous come alive with such intimate detail that the reader must surely believe that Weendigo lurks in the woods and that the Maemaegawaehnse look after little children who lose their way.

In Mr. Johnston's telling, things sexual do happen, and they are told with understated humour. Chekaubaewiss, the dwarf, is astounded when he gets an erection while watching naked giant women:

"Chekaubaewiss's heart nearly stopped in alarm and fright: His poker was stiff and swollen, many times its normal size. This distension was unnatural and inexplicable, and as far as he could remember, no bees had stung him nor had he dashed his instrument against a rock or some other hard object that would have caused it.... so absorbed was Chekaubaewiss by the anatomical phenomenon taking place between his legs that he quite forgot the women....If only the rest of him grew in the same proportion, life would be wonderful."

Pauguk lusts after his brother's wife. A young mermaid lures a boy to the Underworld to be her unwilling mate. The sexual drive of Manitous and humans alike is a powerful motivater in many stories just as it is in the creation and continual re-creation of the world.

If the stories live on, so will our aboriginal understanding of the world. Both these books are honest contributions to our continued survival.

Beth Cuthand is a writer living in Naramata, B.C.


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