Stories travel – through both time and space. By which I mean that when one looks at traditional Native American stories, some story plots appear among numerous tribes across a broad region (such as stories about Women Who Married Stars), while others seem very local (Loon Woman, known from a handful of northern California tribes).
About the ‘Woman who married stars’ stories I remember having that conversation long ago with Dell Hymes. He pointed out to me that variations on the story of women foolishly joking about marrying stars while sleeping outside accidentally bring down star men whom they marry, is a story found across a vast swath of North America.*. There are two versions of this story recorded from Coos Bay (one told by Jim Buchanan in Frachtenberg’s Coos Myth Texts and one by Annie Peterson in Jacobs’ Coos Myth Texts). According to Hymes, the likelihood that the further a story plot is found, the older the origins of the story. This would mean that the ‘Marry Star(s)’ story is probably thousands of years old. Which is quite possible as recently scholars have realized Australian aborigines had stories handed down from generation to generation for 10,000 years about islands long lost to sea level rise after the last ice age.
I got to thinking about this because I noticed how some story plots seemed very popular and were recorded from numerous tribes. Other stories seemed rather unique – or perhaps alternate versions were never recorded and were lost after the epidemics killed so many people, and survivors were often herded on reservations where traditional storytelling was often repressed. Melville Jacobs (the University of Washington based scholar who worked with many Northwestern Indians, including Annie Miner Peterson) once estimated there have have been a million stories in the Pacific northwest.
One that has long stood out to me is a dramatic story about Grizzly and Black Bear. Annie Peterson told one version of it to Melville Jacobs. Grizzly and Black Bear each had two cubs. Their husband (Cougar) left, and never returned. The women provided for their families, but over time Black Bear worried about Grizzly. Grizzly kills and eats Black Bear, which Black Bear’s cubs discover. They avenge her by tricking Grizzly into eating her own cubs. The Black Bear cubs escape, rescued by their uncle, who killed Grizzly Woman. When I first read it, I had never seen it elsewhere before but I soon found it was actually a widespread story in the west. When I studied linguistics I once took a Klamath language class where we had to translate some stories. I was startled to discover that one of the stories was familiar – the actors were slightly different (Black Bear and Antelope versus Grizzly and Black Bear) but point for point the plot was the same.
According to anthropologist and Jacobs’ scholar William Seaburg, variations of this story are also found among the Upper Coquille, Tolowa, Yurok, Karuk, Takelma, Santiam Kalapuya, Kathlamet Chinook, Clackamas and Lushootseed. Other partial cognates are found among other tribes in Washginton and along the Columbia River. Recently I spotted a version of this story that takes place in Yosemite Valley (“The Story of the Two Fawns”) told by the Yokuts people of central California. So this story is found among peoples separated by many hundreds of miles, indicating that this story is likely quite old as well. Maybe not quite as old as the “Women Who Marry Stars” stories, but pretty old.
If ever there was a cultural universal, it is the love a well told story. Native people took their stories with them whenever they were in a new community – whether through migrations, intermarriage, trade, visiting to play games or for ceremony. Generations of storytellers carried these stories with them, and, as they say, the tale grew in the telling. And it is our responsibility to keep the stories alive for the next generation.
*For example, two from tribes far to the east of us (Ojibwa and Arapaho) are recorded in Stith Thompson’s collect “Tales of the North American Indians”.
Frachtenberg, Leo J. 1913. Coos Texts. Columbia University Constributions to Anthropology 1. New York, NY.
Jacobs, Melville. 1939. Coos Narrative and Ethnologic Texts. University of Washington Press, Seattle WA.
Kroeber, Theodora. The Inland Whale: Nine Stories Retold from California Indian Legends. University of California Press. Berkeley, CA.
Latta, Frank F. 1999. California Indian Folklore as told to F. F. Latta. Brewer’s Historical Press. Exeter, CA.
Seaburg, William, ed. 2007. Pitch Woman and Other Stories: The Oral Traditions of Coquelle Thompson, Upper Coquille Athabaskan Indian. University of Nebraska. Lincoln, NE.
Thompson, Stith. 1966. Tales of the North American Indians: Selected and Annotated by Stith Thompson. Indiana University Press. Bloomington IN.