I remember as a child having an illustrated history of Canada whose early pages were filled with images of Native Canadian life. One of the images that still stands out in my mind was a picture of a group of Asiatic looking people struggling against the elements as they made their way along a land bridge across the Bering Straight separating Asia from North America. It was the accepted theory in those days that the first people had only been fairly recent immigrants when the Europeans showed up, having only come here within the thousand years prior to first contact.
It has only been in the last twenty years or so that the migration from Asia theory has been seriously challenged, and is now starting to fall out of favour. Of course if anybody had bothered to listen to the stories told by the people living here when the Europeans arrived they might never have come up with it in the first place. There isn't one story among any of the nations corresponding with people crossing from Asia over into North America.
Nearly all the creation stories have them starting life here, not somewhere else on earth and travelling here.
Of course listening to the first peoples was the last thing on the minds of the governments of North America, in fact they did their best to ensure those stories weren't heard by anyone. Generations of children were stolen from their parents in one of the worst examples of cultural genocide ever attempted. Cut off from family, friends, and community they were forbidden to speak the language of their parents and were prevented from learning anything to do with their own people.
It's a blessing that governments are as inefficient as they are as enough people escaped their nets to prevent the complete obliteration of all the stories. Today there are men and women across North America who have taken on the huge responsibility of keeping those stories alive for future generations either by writing them down, telling them like their ancestors did in circles around a fire, bringing them to life in theatre, or using them as the basis for creating new stories.
Joseph Bruchac is one of those people who have made it his life's work to preserve the stories of his people. A member of the Abenaki nation, one of the Algonquin peoples whose numbers also include the Cree and Chippewa nations, Bruchac has published over twenty-five collections of stories that deal with every aspect of Alogonquin life from how to live a good life to the history of the people. He is also in high demand across North America as a story teller and lecturer, and tours schools and universities bringing the old tales to life.
In the early 1990s he began a series of books set in a North America that none of us would recognize; not only is the time period pre-contact, it is far enough back that the land still remembers the ice age. I read the first book, Dawn Land, when it first came out back in 1993 and was very impressed with the way Bruchac integrated traditional tales, and descriptions of what life would have been like at the time into an adventure story. At the time I had no idea he was intending to make a series of these books, and it wasn't until a short while ago that I discovered he had written a sequel called Long River. Published by Fulcrum Books. Long River picks up the adventures of the hero of the first book, Young Hunter, where the previous one left off.
In Dawn Land Young Hunter had headed out on a journey to defeat an evil race of stone giants - known as the Ancient Ones - who would have rained ruin upon his people if given the opportunity. On his journey he discovered many things about himself, not the least of which was that he had some talent for "far seeing",what we would call astral projection, or the ability to send you spirit travelling to check out the surroundings while your body stayed in one place.
In Long River Young Hunter has returned to his village and is settling into life in the community with his new wife Willow Woman. But he doesn't have much time to enjoy the peace of regular life before he discerns a new threat to his people. A pain maddened Wooly Mammoth, injured by a spear that is stuck in it's mouth, is seeking vengeance against any of the creatures who inflicted the damage on it by seeking out their villages and destroying them and all their inhabitants.
Young Hunter at first only perceives a nebulous sense of danger approaching his people, but with the assistance of his people's elders and wise people learns how to hone his abilities until he is able to use them to devise a means of defeating the menace that faces them. Eventually with the assistance of one of the little people, the Mikumwesu, he succeeds but it is a near thing. In fact if it weren't for the assistance of a former enemy - a lone surviving stone giant - the outcome would have been far worse.
While the adventure part of the story is fun, the true pleasure in reading this book is the way Bruchac brings the past to life. It's not just the myths and the tales of his people that he is recounting, it is everything about their way of life that he has recreated. From their means of creating fire, hunting and curing fish, preparing maple syrup, building shelters, to the rituals involved with naming a child. His attention to detail also includes the moral codes that dictate the way Young Hunter's people treat each other, and the world around them.
We're not just limited to Young Hunter's view of the world either as Bruchac switches between his central character, his wife, village elders, and even the enraged Wooly Mammoth, in order to give us as wide a view of the world as possible. While anthropomorphism isn't something we might be comfortable with, it fits into the native belief that all creatures, indeed all living things, possess a spirit and awareness. In Young Hunter's world, where they thank the fish for letting them eat them and the tree for the bark that makes their shelters, it makes sense for an animal to have a point of view on what's happening around him.
Each character's observations on the world around them, and the way they interact with it, all give us a deeper understanding of how people would have lived their lives in pre-contact days. Bruchac isn't just making this up off the top of his head either, as he substantiates almost everything with a story that explains where the belief governing an attitude came from. (Okay there's no story that offers an explanation for a rational Wooly Mammoth - but a little suspension of disbelief never hurt anyone) Something else to consider is the fact that a culture develops based on the needs of the people it serves. This was a culture that depended on the natural world for survival - and so they developed rituals and attitudes reflecting a need to live in accordance to the rules they saw around them.
If you want there to be fish tomorrow you leave some to breed, you don't kill the predator animals because they eat the sick and the infirm creatures among the prey animals ensuring that they stay healthy enough to reproduce in the future, and you never take so much bark from a tree that you kill it, or there won't be any trees left to provide you with bark in the future. The stories that Bruchac has his characters tell or remember in order to help them lead a good life, are all ones that adhere to those tenets.
Long River is a wonderful book because its a great story to read, with interesting characters and an exciting narrative. At the same time it provides an amazing glimpse into the way life was in North America before the coming of the Europeans. Joseph Bruchac doesn't preach or say that we should all go and live in houses made of bark, he just tells us what it was like when people used to. Although, after reading this book, I'm certain the world would be a lot better if we were to follow their examples a little more when it comes to the way we treat each other and the world around us.
(Originally posted February 2008)
Richard Marcus is the author of two commissioned works published by Ulysses Press, editor in the books section of Blogcritics.org and contributor at Qantara.de. He has been writing since 2005 and his work has appeared in publications all over the world including the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine.