Tuesday, December 11, 2012

James and Joseph Bruchac's RABBIT'S SNOW DANCE

Have you heard Joe Bruchac tell a story? He's got a terrific voice for telling stories. As I read Rabbit's Snow Dance, I was able to play that voice in my head as Rabbit says:
"I want snow," he said. "I want it, I want it, I want it right now!"
Rabbit's Snow Dance is by Joe and his son, James. And, I gotta say, it is absolutely delightful!

Rabbit's Snow Dance is absolutely delightful!

Rabbit, you see, wants the tasty leaves and buds at the top of the trees. He can't reach them, but he knows that if there was a lot of snow on the ground, he could stand on it and get those tasty treats. He knows a snow dance, too, and thinks he'll sing the song and do the dance, even though it isn't the right season to do it...

The combination of the Bruchac's storytelling and Jeff Newman's illustrations works perfectly. Here's the cover:

On the cover, Rabbit is playing a hand drum. Notice the drumstick in his left paw? Newman obviously did some research, or, maybe he knows from experience that Native peoples do not play a drum with a bare hand. So many illustrators get that wrong! Newman got it right.

Rabbit's Snow Dance, we learn on the title page inside, is a traditional Iroquois story. Back in 1993, Betsy Hearne developed a Source Note Countdown as part of her article, "Cite the Source: Reducing Cultural Chaos in Picture Books, Part 1." In model source notes, we'd learn just where the story came from, when and how it ought to be told (its cultural context), and, how the teller changed it from the version he or she heard/read it from. We don't have any of that in Rabbit's Snow Dance. Joe has provided it for other books. I wrote to a storyteller a couple of years ago. He told me that publisher's don't want to give authors space for that information. If that is the status of model notes right now, I think we're all losing out. There are, for example, six different tribal nations within the Iroquois: Onondaga, Oneida, Seneca, Tuscarora, Mohawk, and Cayuga. Do they share this story? Or, does it belong to one in particular?

That said, I do think Rabbit's Snow Dance has a lot to offer as a read-aloud and highly recommend it. I'll look around for some source info and share it when I get it. Perhaps you can print it out and insert it yourself.

Rabbit's Snow Day
As told by James and Joseph Bruchac
Illustrated by Jeff Newman
Published by Dial, in 2012.

Order it from your favorite independent bookseller right away so you'll have it for the snowtimes that are upon us---not because of Rabbit's dance, but because its Wintertime. Snowtime!

Update, December 20, 2012:

Thanks to Beverly for writing to Joe to get the background of the story...  It will appear in the subsequent printings of the story. Here it is:

"Rabbit's Snow Dance" is a story that I first heard more than 50 years ago from several different Native elders. The first of them was my friend Swift Eagle, a Pueblo/Jicarilla Apache artist and storyteller (whose own life would make an interesting story) who lived in Schroon Lake, New York and spent many years working in a tourist attraction called Frontier Town. Swifty had been in the movies, friends with Jim Thorpe, traveled all over the country and seemed to know just about everyone in Indian country, including many Iroquois folks of his generation. There are more than a dozen Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) stories that Swifty often told, including this one, the story of how Bear Lost his tail, Turtle's Race With Bear and others. I heard him tell that story when I was a little boy visiting Frontier Town in the early 50s. (Swift Eagle also was known as a Pueblo culture bearer. He is mentioned in at least one ethnologist's work as perhaps the first Pueblo person to produce artwork as a painter. In 1955, Swifty recorded THE PUEBLO INDIANS IN SONG STORY AND DANCE for Caedmon.)

I also heard a version of the story from Maurice Dennis/Mdawelasis, an Abenaki elder who lived in Old Forge, N.Y., also working in a tourist attraction called The Enchanted Forest. (By the way, a book should be written about Indians playing Indian for tourists in such locales during the middle decades of the 20th century.) Maurice also knew the Abenaki snow dance and famously performed it one snowless winter for the town of Old Forge to help the economy by providing snow for the trails to attract snowmobilers. It worked and a storm swept in that blanketed Old Forge, the only Adirondack town with deep snow that winter. It made the national news that year of 1980 and the town of Lake Placid then tried to hire Maurice to do the snow dance for the Winter Olympics. But he refused, saying he did it for his town and couldn't do it for money. (That dance, by the way, was given the people by the rabbit or snowshoe hare, who is a very important figure in other Abenaki traditional tales.)

The earliest published version of Rabbit making it snow appears to be the one in STORIES THE IROQUOIS TELL THEIR CHILDREN by Mabel Powers (American Book Company, 1917). It is titled "Why the Hare Has a Split Lip and Short Tail." The Hare sings:

Ah gon ne yah--yeh!
Ah gon ne yah--yeh!
dah gen, dah ton
Ah gon ne yah--yeh!
Ah gon ne yah--yeh
which is translated as;
Snow, snow, snow
How I would run if I had snow
Snow, snow, snow
How I would run if I had snow

Powers was not Native herself, but cites 23 different Iroquois storytellers as sources, including their names, Indian names, tribal nation and clan. (Many of them would later be mentioned as sources by Arthur Parker in SENECA MYTHS AND FOLK TALES (Buffalo Historical Society, 1923) Her book also included a Foreword endorsing her tellings and signed by Chiefs from all Six Iroquois Nations.

The next published version can be found in the Seneca artist J.J. Cornplanter's LEGENDS OF THE LONGHOUSE (J.B. Lippincott, 1938) and titled "Rabbit and Pussy-Willow, a Seneca Just-so Story." Written in the form of a letter to a friend, it includes that same song, as well as commentary about the place of such stories in Seneca life. 

My own first published version of the story is in my book IROQUOIS STORIES, published in 1985 by the Crossing Press. There have been other published versions since, such as the one called "The Rabbit" in TYENDINAGA TALES (McGill-Queens, 1988) collected by Rona Rustige. 

The telling that James and I chose to do is both drawn from and different from those previous versions. It came to be as a result of both of us telling that story to audiences over the years. In my case, more than 40 years of telling it (first to Jim and his brother Jesse when they were children). In Jim's case, more than 20. 

Before I go further I should mention that it has become increasingly clear to me over the decades how much and how often stories travel. . .not just within a tribal nation, but beyond its traditional boundaries. It's impossible to count how many thousands, perhaps millions, of people have heard or read versions of this one story alone over the last century. It's sometimes hard to know when (and where) a traditional tale was first told unless it deals with very specific historical events or cultural practices. 

Animal stories--like those of Aesop (the Greek Ethiopian)--may travel the best. Here in the northeast, a number of our Wabanaki stories have clearly been influenced by Iroquois traditional tales. And vice versa. And the Algonquin peoples and our languages have roots rather deeper than those of the Haudenosaunee, who migrated into our region a thousand or so years ago. It means that sometimes we have new or different insights into a story. For example, one thing I have heard from Abenaki people--such as Maurice Dennis--was that the tree which holds those pieces of Rabbit's tale are not pussy willows at all. The pussy willow is a short bush, not the tallest tree in the forest that would stick up above the deep snow. Instead, it is the poplar, a tall growing tree that produces catkins that fall to the ground in early spring.

That is why in our telling we used an Abenaki language version of the song and say near the end "Since then, at the time of year when the snow goes away, you can see those little furry pieces of Rabbit's tail stuck on certain trees. Some call them pussy willows, but those who know about Rabbit's snow dance know what they really are." Honoring the tellings of those in the past and bringing our own voices and experience into this version which is not wholly traditional, but our own, unique retelling. 

There's a lot more that could be said, but this tale of a tale of a tail is already too long, so

I'll cut it short here,


Debbie Reese said...

Beverly Slapin is unable to make the comment interface work. She asked me to post this on her behalf:

"Apparently, “Azikanapo!” is Abenaki for “It snows foot wrappers!,” a descriptor of very large snow flakes. It would seem that Joe and Jesse worked carefully with the illustrator to make sure the cultural details were accurate. And each of their other children’s books published by Dial, How Chipmunk Got His Stripes (2001), Raccoon’s Last Race (2004), and Turtle’s Race with Beaver (2003), contains an author’s note that sets the story in the context of source, time, place, language and culture, something that Joe is always careful to disclose. In my workshops, I’ve stressed the importance of knowing the source and the other attributes of a story, so it puzzles me that this information was left out of Rabbit’s Snow Dance."
--Beverly Slapin

Debbie Reese said...

More from Beverly Slapin:

"The front matter labels the story as a “traditional Iroquois story, and the description (written by the publisher) says that Rabbit uses “a traditional drum and song, to make it snow”—yet the word is an Abenaki expression, not “Iroquois.” And I may be wrong, but “I will make it snow” does not sound like a traditional song, either. It sounds like something Rabbit might sing, but it doesn’t sound “traditional,” which may be the point of the story. Just a guess."

Jill said...

Thanks so much for posting this! I am a children's librarian at a public library, and I was looking for those notes, too. This book is delightful! I immediately brought it home for my kids, who are "too old" for picture books now but still are happy to curl up with a good one when I bring it home. They both loved the humor in this one.