[Note: This review may not be used elsewhere without written permission of its author, Beverly Slapin. Copyright 2008 by Beverly Slapin. All rights reserved.]
Note from Debbie: I haven't read this book yet. In her review, Beverly references Berk and Dunn's source notes. It sounds like they used the same archived collections that Pollock used for her (deeply flawed) story about Turkey Girl. I wrote about that book in the January 2007 issue of Language Arts. When my copy of Coyote Speaks arrives, I'll post my thoughts.
Berk, Ari, and Carolyn Dunn (Cherokee/Muskogee/Seminole), Coyote Speaks: Wonders of the Native American World. Abrams, 2008, grades 5-up
An Ojibwe friend and colleague who is a storyteller and linguist has said that it takes a roomful of people several generations to know a story. By this, she means that to know a story, you have to know the language and lifeways and history and cosmology from which it originates, you have to know its purpose, you have to know when, where, why and how to tell it, you have to know that it’s alive and may contain spiritual power that has to be respected. And you have to know that, if someone tells you a story or you see a printed version of it, that doesn’t mean it’s yours to retell. As Cree-Métis elder and storyteller Maria Campbell has said (and I paraphrase here), just because we offer you a cup of tea doesn’t mean we’re giving you the teapot.
Traditional stories and spiritual power are not something to play around with. I cannot say this strongly enough: Many aspects of the world of the spirits are frightening and dangerous; those who work with spiritual power don’t talk about it in public. Moreover, there are powerful stories—including some now in print—that were never meant to be shared with the public. They’re dangerous. Because they’ve been previously published doesn’t make them safe to “retell” publicly. If you misuse this power, if you tell certain stories at the wrong time or in the wrong context, you’re inviting illness or imbalance in yourself and/or the world.
According to Berk and Dunn’s source notes, they gathered and rewrote stories, mostly from material published in the early 1900s, that would “greatly benefit from sensitive retellings.” In doing so, their stated goal was to “return some sense of poetry and orality to these stories.” This is an oxymoron: you can’t restore orality to something that’s in print by publishing a more “sensitive” version.
Beyond this, Coyote Speaks is an odd mixture of travelogue (“imagine…ancient objects, amazing journeys, mysterious symbols, and magical stories”), sweeping generalizations (“[M]any Native American tribes note the passing of years not numerically, but by recording and remembering important events and ideas symbolically.”), trivialization (“Crows and ravens frequently appear in many Native stories as tricksters and shapeshifters.”), speculation (“Representations of birds take many forms in art and artifacts and can sometimes hold similar meanings in tribes of the various regions.”), conjecture (“The soul catcher was the most important item used by shamans during curing ceremonies.”), illogical comparisons (“Hunger and power were the same.”), and weak analogies (“Unlike grocery shopping, hunting was a dangerous business!”).
Accompanying Berk’s and Dunn’s retellings and other textual matter are reproductions of centuries-old objects, mostly from the Werner Forman photographic archives. Many of these objects are sacred and need to be returned to their rightful owners. One of them, in full color, is a medicine mask, accompanied by a full-page description and interpretation of its use, all in the past tense. In 1995, the Haudenosaunee Confederacy publicly issued a policy on False Face medicine masks. It states in part, that “there is no proper way to explain, interpret, or present the significance of the medicine mask,” and that to reproduce, photograph or illustrate a medicine mask contributes to the desecration of its sacred image and violates its sacred function. To see the medicine mask and the other sacred objects represented here gives me the creeps.
Carolyn Dunn is an accomplished poet and writer, and her poems in this book are beautiful. And there is luminous art in a variety of media by contemporary Native artists: L. Frank (Tongva/Ajachmem), Roxanne Swentzell (