Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Gail Haley's TWO BAD BOYS

[Eds. Note: This review used here with permission. It may not be published elsewhere without written permission of Beverly Slapin and Gayle Ross.]


Haley, Gail E., Two Bad Boys: A Very Old Cherokee Tale, illustrated by the author. New York: Dutton (1996). Unpaginated, color illustrations; grades 2-3; Cherokee

Let me first say two things. I don’t tell this story publicly. It’s part of the long creation story that is told in ceremony every year at Green Corn time. An elder once told me that the Earth needs to hear these stories, but how, when and to whom they are told must be respected.

The second thing is that, in order to tell a good story, you have to know that the story is alive. You have to make it comfortable in your interior landscape. Most Native stories that find themselves wandering around in the psyches of non-Native storytellers and writers would be in a place as foreign to them as Mars would be to the average Earth-dweller. That’s where you’d find something like Two Bad Boys.

Gail Haley’s retelling of our sacred story about Kanati and Selu mirrors the Christian myth about Adam and Eve, the Garden of Eden, and how work came into the world.

In Haley’s version, First Man (Kanati, the Hunter), First Woman (Selu, the Corn Mother) and Boy lead an idyllic life, until Boy’s reflection in the river springs to life and becomes Wild Boy, Boy’s alter ego and trouble-making playmate. Wild Boy tempts the well-behaved Boy into mischief, involving freeing all of Kanati’s game animals from a cave and discovering Selu’s secret source of vegetables. And because of the two bad boys’ disobedience,

Since that time, people have had to hunt for their meat, plant their vegetables, and work in this world.

All of the major review journals praised this “cautionary tale about two bad boys whose actions change the world forever.” Publishers Weekly, for instance, called it “conscientiously researched,” and from Kirkus Reviews:
The transgression of moral authority and the dual nature of existence are themes which have echoes throughout western literature; this Cherokee legend confirms the universality of human nature.

But Two Bad Boys is not, in any way, at all, “a very old Cherokee tale,” nor is it, in any way, at all, what our story is about. There are layers and layers of meaning in this most sacred story that are contained in essential elements that Haley did away with in order to make it a “children’s story.” The entire process of eliminating what makes the story sacred is what makes Haley’s version a desecration. Two Bad Boys is the cultural equivalent of retelling the Easter Story and leaving out the crucifixion. It’s that insensitive.

“Sge, sge! Sge, sge! My story rattle has sounded; it is time to begin!” Haley begins. Turtle shell rattles are not green, blue, yellow and white—and our turtle shell rattle is not a story rattle. It is carried by our traditional healers, one of whom was Yunini (Swmmer), who told the story of Kanati and Selu to anthropologist James Mooney. Haley probably saw the photo of Yunini holding his turtle shell rattle in Mooney’s book and figured it was a “story rattle.”

Throughout Two Bad Boys, Haley changes our story to reflect her own Christian values. For instance, in our traditional story, the two boys spy on Kanati while he is hunting. They see him release the animals from the cave, and know how he always manages to find game. But in Haley’s version, Wild Boy, knowing the answer, asks Kanati where he finds such good meat, and Kanati responds:
Ah, my son…[I]t is the way of the Hunter to know the secrets of the four-leggeds and the winged ones. It is the proper way of young boys to accept what they are given and not ask so many questions.

The Christian concept that “children should be seen and not heard” is not an aspect of traditional Cherokee culture, nor is it in our stories.

From the very beginning Haley homogenizes and sanitizes all of the essential elements of our story. She glosses over where Wild Boy comes from. In our traditional story, Wild Boy is born from the blood of a piece of game that Selu was washing in the river. In Two Bad Boys, Haley has him just coming up out of the river to play with Boy.

In our story, Kanati and Selu catch Wild Boy and adopt him. Haley says in her story, “Ku! We all wish they had not; for although they had captured him, they could not tame him.” That’s editorializing and it’s not Cherokee. We would never say in a story that we wish something had or had not happened. The story is as the story is and it explains several important things.

Haley’s delineation of the two boys as good and evil with the evil boy always leading the good boy astray is not in our traditional story either. In our story, Wild Boy makes suggestions and the boys go off together and do their mischief. The moralistic tone Haley inserts in order to make the boys the focus of the story is completely at odds with our traditional story. Over and over again, she does this.
In our story, when Kanati discovers that the boys have released the game animals, he goes into the cave and kicks the covers off four jars. The boys are immediately covered in swarms of bedbugs, flies, lice and gnats, and they get stung. Then, Kanati says to them:
“Now, you rascals,” said he, “you’ve always had plenty to eat and never had to work for it. Whenever you were hungry all I had to do was to come up here and get a deer or a turkey and bring it home for your mother to cook; but now you have let out all the animals, and after this when you want a deer to eat you will have to hunt all over the woods for it, and then maybe not find one. Go home now to your mother, while I see if I can find something to eat for supper.” [1]

Haley’s version:
“You two bad boys did not heed my words,” he shouted. “Now I must go away. And you will have to track the animals and bring them down with bows and arrows. This you have brought on yourselves.” And he strode off to the Western Land of the Darkening Sun.

In our story, the boys go straight home to their mother who feeds them with corn and beans while they await Kanati’s return. Instead, Haley has the boys “cold as well as hungry,” having to “hunt every day to find enough meat just to stay alive.” During the long hard winter, they spend “many hours staring into the fire and regretting what they had done.”

The final part of our story—that Haley so desecrates here—is the hardest part to talk about. In our traditional story, when the boys see Selu making food from her body, they are horrified. They immediately decide that she is a witch and that they must kill her. As soon as she comes back into the house, she sees them and knows their minds. She allows the boys to kill her and sacrifice her body into the ground. She gives them detailed instructions on how to do this so that the corn will always grow and Selu will always continue to feed her people.

The whole rest of the story—Selu’s death, the preparation of the ground, how the corn grows from her blood—is very, very sacred. What happens after Kanati comes back and finds Selu gone is incredibly beautiful and powerful. This told story can—and often does—go on for hours.

The blood, the pain, the very real elements involved in two sons’ turning on and killing their mother—all of this represents a very sacred powerful aspect to the reverence in which we hold corn. Corn is never taken for granted. Corn is alive.

But here is how Haley disrespects and trivializes our story: After the “two bad boys” figure out how Selu produced the food, they do the same.

But when they came down the ladder, Selu was waiting for them. “You two bad boys,” she cried. “Because you have helped yourselves, our lives must change forever.” With a wave of her hand, the building pulled loose from the earth and flew away to the West.
“The corn and beans in your basket are all that you have left. From this time on, you must dig the earth, plant the seeds you hold, then tend and harvest the plants when they are ready,” she told them.

Then Selu flew away to join her husband in the Western Land of the Darkening Sun. Since that time, people have had to hunt for their meat, plant their vegetables, and work in this world.

A children’s book about the Easter Story, in which the author has left out the crucifixion because it is too bloody, would have been thoroughly trashed by professional reviewers. No question about it. Yet Haley’s superficial, Christianized, abominable retelling of what is without doubt one of the most powerful and sacred stories we hold, went unchallenged; and in fact, was highly praised.

No one has the right to do this. This review was a very painful thing for me to write.

—Gayle Ross

[1] I am quoting from our story of Kanati and Selu as told by Yunini (Swimmer), a traditional Cherokee healer and storyteller, to James Mooney, who published it in 1900 in Myths of the Cherokee. All of the stories that Swimmer told to Mooney are the most complete, the most detailed, of any in Mooney’s collection.

1 comment:

The Local Crank said...

Thank you for pointing out the misuse of this very sacred tale which my family just recently shared at Selutsunigististi. This book is yet another example of the strip-mining of Indian culture in order to provide "cute" and "quaint" local color for non-Indians.