An Indian Cinderella? It seems faintly ludicrous -- the idea of a Native-told tale like that -- what? cruel stepmother and envious step-sisters? The Fairy Godmother with fashion-sense, access to pumpkin-model 12-mousepower Mercedes coach? Prince Charming? The elaborate, expensive, magically-provided ball gown and jewels? The glass slipper? The whole thing seems to have nothing to do with any uncorrupted Native culture. Nevertheless, there are several versions of Cinderella retold in the mid-19th century by Mi'kmaq storytellers of Hantsport, Nova Scotia, and others told by Maine Passamaquoddies. These were peoples who were acculturated for more than 200 years, but are among the poorest and most "Native" -- often d described by the tale collectors as requiring interpreters. There were also some educated, literate tribes people who wanted to preserve these surviving bits of knowledge. So, before the end of the 19th century, many of these stories were collected.
Contrasting what Native storytellers did creatively with the European Cinderella myth -- and looking more closely than kids do at the values underlying that durable myth -- will provide insights about Native cultural survivals, showing what values may still survive. It helps to show how those values survive, too, by adaptations, by creative modifications.
A whole literature of Native storytellers' creative interactions with European folk-tales is mostly ignored, excluded, by anthropologists and ethnologists, hell-bent on collecting "myths and legends" of what they want to believe are uncontaminated pre-contact indigenous cultural expressions. They exclude or comment extensively on the effects Christianity has had on the "pure" religion, its mythic expressions. It usually is Christianity -- for instance. ministers and preachers vigorously pushed the "Great Spirit" as the Christian God -- because hardly anybody else was socializing with Indian people telling them their stories, other than preachers.
There's only one area where a lot of European folk-tales, fairy tales, ghost stories, were even heard by Natives. That is the Woodland peoples north of the St. Lawrence, in Canada, and west to the Canadian Plains, and southerly of the Great Lakes in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota. Anishinaabeg peoples, and relatives: Mi'kmaq, Penobscot (and other New England so-called Algonquians), Potawotami, Menominee, Cree.
These people mixed closely with the Frenchmen of the fur trade period. The Frenchmen -- voyageurs, coureurs du bois, loggers, farmers in the Atlantic colonies -- liked to party hearty. They were singers, fiddlers, dancers, storytellers -- not preachers. They intermarried with local Natives to form two unique cultures: the Acadians (who were forced out of Canada, mostly to Louisiana -- Cajuns) and in the west, the Metis. Among the Frenchmen who liked and lived with Indian people of the 17th through 19th centuries were those who told stories to their Indian friends and families. They were not hell-bent on "civilizing" them. Unlike the English, they got along well, they intermarried often.
Mi'kmaq people had an unusually close and good social relationship to an early French Canadian Atlantic seaboard colony -- Acadia. thousands of whose members were forcibly expelled by the English resulting in tragic family separations deaths of at least 1/3 of the people, in 1755. Since this history will be unknown to many, including most U.S. people, you could check out an overview now or wait for another opportunity at the end of the Mi'kmaq Cinderella story page. The unique good relations, for more than 100 years, between the French Acadians and the Mi'kmaq and Maliseet peoples resulted in cultural exchanges without the usual robberies, deaths, devastations.
Charles Leland, a journalist and folklorist, in 1882 amassed a large collection of surviving myths and tales among the Passamaquoddy of Maine, and received manuscript copies of tales collected by others (including some written down by various educated Indians of the time). Leland said he had "enough of these French Indian stories to form what would make one of the most interesting volumes of the series Contes Populaires." but he never got around to it. In the collection he did publish Algonquin Legends, there is just the one tale that he thinks might be "an old solar myth worked up with the story of Cinderella, derived from a Canadian-French source."
In a curious (but very typical of his misreadings) non-review, Canadian children's lit prof (and "Indian lit expert") Jon Stott chastises the 1992 children's book The Rough-Face Girl (by Rafe Martin, gorgeous illustrations, David Shannon):
"Picture books must be culturally accurate. The Rough-Face Girl, a beautiful picture book written by Rafe Martin...is, as the Author's Note states, about an Algonquin Indian Cinderella. Yet the opening sentence sets the story 'by the shores of Lake Ontario', even though the shores of that lake were peopled by tribes speaking Iroquoian, not Algonquian, languages. In addition, the term 'Cinderella' implicitly brings with it the European cultural values associated with the French and German versions of a story familiar to most young readers." Of course, that's exactly what the Mi'lkmaq storyteller wanted -- to play off against the well-known Cinderella.
Throughout his recent book, Native Americans in Children's Literature, Stott shows almost total blindness to Native cultural values, as well as inability to read plain text (or anyway to report accurately what is said) and inability to see what a picture plainly shows. Stott is either unaware or considers it unimportant that the European Cinderella tale was raw material for the Mi'kmaq storyteller, he probably isn't aware of the actual source. (He pays attention to actual Native sources only if it fits his model of (Joseph) Campbell canned chicken soup myth-analysis.) Too, it doesn't matter where non-existent Algonquians (this is a pejorative term -- "bark eaters" -- applied by Mohawks to some enemy tribe or other) lived.
The Native storyteller might just be doing a "far away" conventional placement of the story's locale. Since the Mi'kmaq opening phrase about the locale is actually given parenthetically (in the original source) we'll see there's more to the question of where this story takes place. That it's not part of some traditional old myth, but a 19th-century revisioning of Cinderella is not only indicated by Leland's remarks, but also by the fact that in other actually traditional tales, Mi'kmaq storytellers begin with a conventional phrase, "N'karnayoo -- of the old times" which isn't done with the Cinderella re-fit.
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Mi'kmaq Indian Cinderella
Perrault's Durable Myth
The 19th-century Mi'kmaq storyteller plays against the splendid lies of the durable Cinderella myth. The storyteller turns nice, docile Cindi inside out and kicks her in the satin pannieres. Little Burnt One has no Fairy Godmother, no personification of the magic of money visits her and works short-term magic of the Right clothes, Accessories, Makeup, and the pre-auto period's equivalent of Chauffeur-driven Limo.
There's no traditional spiritual help for her either -- none of those wise, helpful animals, no sky-borne advice or revelations. Although "it may be some spirit inspired her" to run the village gauntlet of hoots, laughter and jeers. to try her luck at seeing the Invisible One, what the storyteller emphasizes is her own resolution, her determination. To honor those she will visit, she doesn't want to go in her customary rags and barefoot. She makes her own crude costume attempting to replicate long-unused traditional soft buckskin in birch bark -- which would be rather like a tunic, skirt and pants made of cardboard boxes, as the storyteller certainly knew. The healer-sister of the Invisible One does not help anyone attract his attention; she tests all the girls who show up at his lodge to see if any of them can really see him, but until Little Burnt Girl, none can.
Little Burnt One is a cruelly abused child, ignored by all, given the mocking name of Little Burnt One by the indifferent villagers. Her burns are noticed -- but ignored -- by her father, whom she has probably told what was done to her (elder sis calls her "a lying little pest"). She can change her grim situation only by taking action herself.
Cinderella merely has to compete in a beauty-and-charm contest with all the other belles of the land to be the one found most desirable by the ruler's son, the prince, The Man. In Little Burnt One's story, the Invisible One has no interest in the women who constantly show up on the snag at his lodge in idle curiosity about him, His sister is a guardian who sets a test to see if any of the women actually deserve her bro. All they have to do is actually see him, see who he is, see what is hidden usually. Can they see him, or not? If not, they are after him for the wrong reasons, so they are sent away.
In the positive or romantic interpretation of this story, which I don't think is correct, Little Burnt One -- alone of her village -- is in tune with the beauty and powers of nature -- and none of the others are. She, therefore, can see what others -- who guess at commonplaces for Invisible One's gear -- cannot: that he is a nature spirit being. Therefore, she gets him, through her superior character, in tune with the old ways all the rest of the town has lost, able to perceive, as they cannot, the awesome beauty and real character of Nature-personified, invisible to all but her.
Cindi must be passive, dependent, wait for some supernatural help, in order to fill her role of Good Girl, behave as a proper young woman, do nothing, be docile. It would never occur to Cindi to try to improvise a ball gown on her own, or make her own way to the palace. It does occur to Little Burnt One to do these things, and in the face of jeers and hostility, she does do them. Through her own efforts she tries as best she can -- no materials are available to her except the unsuitable birch bark from trees nearby -- to improvise an old-style costume to honor the beings she will visit, instead of wearing her ordinary rags. She gets no glass slipper, just an oversize, worn out moccasin, which is beyond repair, so as not to make the visit barefoot.
Clothes, shoes, coach, servants -- these are unimportant. Her perceptiveness, coupled with determination to continue through the town of mocking hostile idlers, wins out. She sees, and therefore marries, the Invisible One, and presumably lives happily ever after. The Mi'kmaq storyteller is very taciturn about this aspect of her success, dwelling at far greater length on the magical healing she receives at the hands of the Invisible One's sister-guardian. This is the interpretation of both the recent modern children's stories that were mined for commercial processing as children's books from Leland's 1884 publication. (The only other occurrence I know of appears in a book I've never found -- The Red Indian Fairy Book -- of 1914.)
This image is a small, and partial image from a gorgeous 2-page spread in the children's picture book, The Rough-Face Girl which follows the romantic interpretation. Little Burnt One on her way to the Invisible One's lodge walks in her crazy garments tiny in more scenery off to the left through a land, mountains, forest, sky that is personified for her (here by the artist using eagles for eyes, a rainbow to suggest a nose, and rocks' edges to define the outlines of a face made of nature's beauties). Of course he is not invisible to her, she lives and walks these beauties -- at last, away from the squalid village, the tortures and indifference. The happy ending is also supplied by the artist. After the laconic remark by the Invisible One that they have "'been found out.'...And so they were wed," the artist ends the modern children's picture book with a full page scene of the girl and her supernatural lover, now become an ordinary warrior-type fellow, canoeing off into the sunset, the visual equivalent of the European traditional story ending, "lived happily ever after."
Unfortunately, I don't think that's the real story. When I first read it, I thought she was the bride of death, i.e. she saw the beauties of nature personified for her, once beyond the edges of her dysfunctional, hostile, indifferent village, but you can't live on rainbows or stars. She escaped, and her perceptiveness let her at least die happy, I thought. Here's why on first reading, ignorant of the modern children's books that mine what I don't think is any legend, I thought that -- thought that her village was the 19th-century equivalent of AnyIndianTown -- Winner, SD; Gallup New Mexico; the one a few blocks from me in Minneapolis; the areas away from the agency towns on most reservations and reserves.
The sisters -- especially the eldest -- are completely motiveless in their cruelty. The youngest is small for her age, weak, sickly. They can bully and torture her with impunity, and the eldest does so. The eldest is not otherwise characterized as especially evil; her actions seem rather ordinary in a lifeless and dysfunctional setting. No one cares. The other villagers mock her burns and scars with the name they call her -- they know what's going on but are indifferent. The father inquires vaguely about it but is put off by a trivial lie weaker even than those told nowadays by women who bring into clinics and ER's their children beaten and burned by drunken boyfriends. Old widower Pops just doesn't really care much about it, a transparent lie easily satisfies him and he goes on ignoring the situation of his youngest.
Although Prof. Stott spuriously criticized the modern Rough Faced Girl for placing the village on the shore of Lake Ontario, the fact is that from the Mi'kmaq words included parenthetically at the beginning, the Mi'kmaq storyteller placed the village in a swamp, nameskeek'. That's a Mi'kmaq cognate to the Anishinaabemowin muskeg, a word that's even entered the English language (unabridged dictionaries anyway). It's a swamp, a northern woods swamp, not a picturesque lakeside. The swamp locale is a metaphor for the dysfunctional, despairing Indiantown located there.
This village is inhabited by idlers, mocking an abused child, not helping her, and by persons who do motiveless acts of cruelty -- as vicious or angry drunks often in fact do. This village, told about in the late 19th century, might be Indiantown in Winner, S.D. in the late 20th century, or Gallup NM, or Indian neighborhoods -- with their handy bars -- in LA or Minneapolis, or Shubencadie, Nova Scotia (the only Mi'kmaq reserve I have any direct knowledge of) or found in parts of most any reservation or reserve. Not only did it feel familiar when I first read the story, but that locale makes perfect sense of the motiveless cruelty and indifference to which Little Burnt One is subjected by all. That's how it is, in those places, then, as now. Drinking doesn't have to be mentioned by the 19th century storyteller, just as Perrault didn't have to mention the economic motivation -- dowry and inheritance -- for the step-family's desire to disappear Cinderella.
Nobody cares much about anyone or anything. Drinking aside, there's nothing to do. The villagers idly pass their time. Why should all the girls try to snag this Invisible Guy -- who knows, maybe he's some kind of monster? He's no prince, he's invisible, not handsome, not rich, no ruler or ruler's son. Well, it's something to do, to go over there and make an idle try to snag him, casual sexual curiosity, indifferent sex, being common forms of passing the time in disrupted, despairing, heavy-drinking Indiantowns. If you flunk the guardian sister's test, maybe you still might see him when he -- so some girls "remain all night, as many did." But even then they don't see him. Invisible, he is.
When I first read it, I thought the ending meant she died, the Little Burnt One. She goes to the end of town, out of the swamp of squalid shacks, away from the idle drunks. Yes, her perceptiveness shows her the beauties and spiritually awesome powers of the natural world all around outside the squalid town. She expresses awe, reverence -- and fear. The beauties she sees as parts of the Invisible One's gear -- the rainbow, the night sky road of stars -- they are magnificent. But chasing rainbows is a symbol of futility, they can't be caught. And that spirit road, the Milky Way, is actually the Ghost Road, the road spirits of the dead take.
She has grit, resolution, determination to leave her situation of being an abused child in a village of idle, indifferent drunks -- but she's little, weak, sickly, with no tools and no forest survival skills. Deep, ugly scars can be healed only by magic in pre-plastic surgery days (ancient powers of natural healing to Nuagers), but deep scars do dissolve if not with death, then with decay of the dead. Leaving the squalid village, where she was an abused child, she found beauty in the deserted forest beyond her home -- then died there, bride of death. The Ghost Road glittering across the night sky is beautiful, but only those in hopeless despair are in any rush to travel it.
Partly because of Tomah Joseph's postscript, which is in a long footnote by Leland that so annoyed me I paid little attention to it until recently, I now think she survived -- as far more Indian women than men do -- and had a child. Invisible One was the father, all right, that happens to a lot of Indian women, as the men desert, don't provide, are off drinking, in jail, die in a senseless barroom fight, die in an accident drunk-driving on bad roads.
But she survived and so did her son, until he reached adolescence, the start of what many Indian women mothers, grandmas, and aunties call "his burning years" for Indian youth. Burnt One's son by Invisible One becomes blind in adolescence, as most Indian youth do in their burning years. What may live of tradition, or of nature, that can sustain the spirit, they cannot see. Alcohol is first and foremost a spiritual poison.
Youth and man, until their thirties (if they survive till then), their lives during their burning years are drinking, violence, jails, prisons, constant trouble pours from that bottle and its way of life. When his burning years have passed, he can see again -- the beauties possible to a traditional life, or one more in harmony with nature, perhaps. Naturally, his ma does not believe he has regained his vision, and tests him, with the same tests of perception she herself passed in her youth -- and one more.
(Leland interjects one of his idiotic comments about this -- that his mother fears he is seeing only by clairvoyance, ESP, not physical sight, hence the tests. Actually the tests test more than mere literal vision. Can you see certain powerful , beautiful, remote parts of nature as parts of your father's everyday hunting gear?)
Now grown past his burning years, the no-longer young man is able to tell his mother he can see the rainbow and the ghosts' road among his father's gear. But she asks him a non-traditional question, one she wasn't asked: what's he bringing home on his toboggan from his trap line? Her son sees it's a beaver the Invisible One has brought home. He is now able to see the practicalities of survival in the natural and human world -- food (or beaver hides for money) for everyday living as well as its natural beauties and spiritual aspects. So: at last, his burning years over, her son can see again.
When I first read this story, it seemed pretty realistic to me in relation to various Indiantowns which must have been much the same 150 years ago when this story was told, for those who had been conquered -- but remained Indians -- for almost 300 years by then in the Northeast. They were offered the same mutually unacceptable alternatives as came later, farther west: Assimilate or die. Saying No to both meant for them a long dying, a long suffering.
If you are not familiar with this kind of life, you will find my interpretation of the old Mi'kmaq story quite incredible. If you are a white person, you are not likely to know these realities. You have probably never been to an Indiantown (even if there's one in your city), never known anyone who has lived there, probably. You may read about the arrival of those realities of poisoned dysfunction in the 1960's at Grassy Narrows Reserve in Ontario, in a book called A Poison Stronger Than Love. Dams and paper mill mercury pollution poisoning the fish caused the Canadian government to move the people from scattered bush communities to one town. The new town started having a lot of contact with the white world, it was more accessible than the bush communities. This brought the poison, not mercury (which just killed bodies) but alcohol. Idleness, drunkenness, indifferent cruelties. These in-family cruelties led the Grassy Narrows people to describe the new town in interviews, expressing misery and despair as the book's title has it. A poison stronger than love, a most horrifying poison to societies structured on kinships, where family ties and love, sharing, are especially strong and supported by ancient traditions.
In this environment of indifferent despair and constant drinking, the story of Little Burnt One seems more like an everyday report than a legend. As a Native-retold European fairy tale, it is different, it has a certain truly mythic dimension. That is, like all real myths, it is ambiguous. It contains many meanings, including opposites. Good and Evil are present in myths, myths are supposed to reconcile that fundamental dualism in all human enterprises. Your interpretation will differ from mine, no doubt, if you don't really know any of the real inhabitants of AnyIndiantowns.
Te-ahm the Moose-spirit made a passing appearance in the old Mik'maq tale. In the Minneapolis daily newspaper, the day I started to write this, a moose made another appearance -- in a federal court conviction of a White Earth Tribal Game warden, for "moose harassment" as the reporter called it. I want to tell this story as exemplary of what happens when the European-style Fairy Godmother waves her wand and brings the enchantments of easy money, big money, to a whole reservation, not just a magical-monetary costuming of some chick to attract The Man. That enchantment, in this local case, is the casino, financed with Mafia money out of Philadelphia on White Earth Ohjibwe 200 miles north of where I sit typing this.
The paper's front pages were still full of the shameful, embarrassing clown show being put on by officers of the tribe to amuse white people with what happens -- vice, corruption, heartless behaviors to the tribal helpless, idiocies like flocks of Mercedes on the poorly-paved (except for the tourist routes) roads, or those that lead to supermarkets and other enterprises owned by the tribal chairman and his friends.
This bunch got convicted a few days ago in federal court on comparatively minor federal financial malfeasance charges, but were holding office anyway in the face of an electoral defeat which occurred during their trial. The front-page clown show was various factions with in-pocket judges holding disqualification hearings on each other and babbling about sovereignty (the convicts) and the need for governmental efficiency (the new regime), with minor background choruses of those either not on the take or minor beneficiaries lamenting that needed structural changes to prevent this typical corruption were not in the cards.
What happens when today's Fairy Godmother waves her wand is economic enchantments: the rats turn into Tribal Councilors (or waved-at Councilors become newly visible as rats) and Tribal Money-handlers, instead of those horses and coachmen the Fairy Godmother turned those rats into for Cindi. Nobody wants those funky old coaches Cindi got from a pumpkin, the transmogrified rats get fleets of Mercedes. Old people, still living in shacks in remote locations never seen by tourist-visitors approach the transmogrified rats for winter heating help and are turned away. Successful mimics of success in the white man's heartless corporate world. These are the everyday evil magic of ordinary civilized life.
The moose story was buried on inner pages in the metro court news section. The story begins "When the White Earth Indian (Ojibwa) Reservation authorized the killing of two moose in May, 1995, to get meat for a powwow, a tribal conservation warden helped from a rented plane. Federal authorities claimed that John Stone Jr. did more than that. They say he harassed a moose during the hunt, which is illegal under the Airborne Hunting Act. And on Tuesday, the jury agreed, finding Stone guilty of a misdemeanor charge of moose harassment."
The pilot and the aircraft rental agency were also charged, but acquitted. The pilot's defense was he thought Stone was a state (not tribal) game warden and just did as he was told to. "Two witnesses testified that they saw a plane flying low and a moose running across Highway 59 at full gallop, its eyes showing alarm and ears laid back. (Tribal) hunters then shot the moose."
Stone's lawyer argued that it was the hunters who truly harassed the moose, by killing it after it had been driven to them by high money tech traditional hunting skills. "The moose never made it to the powwow. The freezer malfunctioned and the meat spoiled," and so the story ends, another little clown show to amuse local white people.
A few facts either did not come out at trial or the reporter didn't bother with them. There are no "natural" moose around White Earth. Its relatively barren lands -- now thoroughly checker boarded with successful white-owned farms -- didn't even suffer the complete logging off of the northerly forests, whose regrowth woods are not on what is currently reservation land, but are state forests, state parks. These moose were purchased in Canada a couple of years ago by the rats, I mean the tribal council, with some babble about tradition, game restocking, etc.
Actually they could not really survive because the doesn't have the environment for them any more, really never did, not there. The trucked-in moose who did survive drifted over to the state forest, which once was land of course. So even sport-shining them from traditional hunter-fleets of Mercedes -- or expensive 4-wheel drives to try to get further into the woods -- wasn't too successful for traditional transmogrified rats wanting some traditional hunting-sport. The powwow mentioned in the newspaper was not some ancient ceremonial feast being revived, it was an entertainment affair for casino tourists, at which the gimmick was to be traditional moose meat, as well as some buffalo they bought from South Dakota, where some tribes now have small herds raised for exotic meat markets.
Thus the enchantments of the Fairy Godmother, the glamour of big money personified, modern style, when she waves her wand. Few poor people benefit. The spectacle of elders, still living in isolated old cabins, little antiquated trailers up on blocks in the woods, old wooden houses, and being refused winter heating assistance by the Casino Council rats, is not forgotten. Power corrupts, money corrupts. But it cannot be better to be desperately poor, can it? The present tribal leadership, the ones convicted of the big money stuff in federal court last week -- began as young AIM warriors-for-the-people 20 years and more ago.
Most casino jobs go to white, management companies contracted for their operations -- Native transmogrified rats do sit in at the top where the skim occurs. Now and then there's a public clown show courtesy of U.S. federal Courts, or media-dug think-piece show.
In truth, there is little resemblance that can be found to what Nuagers hypocritically take over, market as traditional Native spiritual wisdom, once the Fairy Godmother shows up and waves her rat-enriching magic wand around the poor remaining lands. Some Cindi-girls ride in or even drive (gifts from married-rat-boyfriends) their own Mercedes and dress expensively. (Glass slippers are not fashionable; snakeskin and ostrich boots are often seen.) A few others, somewhat burnt-ones, not too scarred visibly but seeing the scars of various types (some non-physical) still being put on children, and on the land, go to law school.
Some things have changed since that 19th-century storyteller's sad tale of the abused child in the dysfunctional swamp village. In those days, the only casinos were in Europe or in Western gambling bars; Mercedes cars and expensive 4-wheel-drive toy vehicles, snowmobiles, hunters' hired aircraft, night sniper scopes -- none of these existed.
Perhaps, then the myth these old people told more than 100 years ago is now obsolete. There has been progress. The Invisible One is still invisible, to most Indians as well as whites. The Fairy Godmother, waving her magic wand of irresistible big money, and her transmogrified rat-beneficiaries rule it all. Possibly the old Mi'kmaq myth is no longer relevant. Though most Indian women, at any rate, still seem mostly too strong and too smart to buy into modern Cindi deals. As for the men, except for the rats, most real men (if there are any) remain invisible.
If you are non-Indian, puzzled or annoyed at reading this, relax, go talk to some spiritual teacher, some mail-order shaman. Sign up for a low-rate Vision Quest (Vegan food supplied by the sponsors). It's not for you. You will like the pretty picture book, The Rough-Face Girl with "evocative paintings" by David Shannon, who also illustrates for Rolling Stone, the New York Times and Time. Their interpretation is the healing, beautiful, romantically, comforting one, not mine. Every professor, anthropologists and government-funded expert on Indian myths and legends will tell you that one's right, mine's nonsense.
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