'Mythology of the Blackfoot Indians'
A hundred years ago, Clark Wissler and D.C. Duvall published ''Mythology of the Blackfoot Indians,'' a compilation of Blackfoot tales gathered under the watchful eye of the American Museum of Natural History.
The centennial of their publication has now inspired a reprint of the Bison Books edition that appeared in 1995. Published by the University of Nebraska Press, the second edition reprint of this classic is a dandy.
Wissler's original tome was written during the heyday of salvage ethnography, when anthropologists scattered across America to collect representative ''specimens'' of Native cultures before the traditions of many
Fortunately, what they were salvaging never died out in some places, thanks to the work of cultural organizations like the Piegan Institute, whose director, Darrell Kipp, Blackfoot, writes an insightful introduction to the current edition.
Kipp recounts that Wissler's co-author was David Duvall, a Blackfoot of mixed ancestry who did painstaking service as project interpreter and interviewer. By today's ethnographic standards, the duo's methodology may have been lacking. For instance, Duvall's notes were written in English (though he was fluent in Blackfoot), giving the book no direct idiomatic record in the original tongue.
Still, having a co-author fluent in the Native language has made ''Mythology of the Blackfoot Indians'' a historical prize nonetheless.
As scholar Alice Beck Kehoe makes clear in a second introduction, the myths are ''legendary history,'' a genre with no easy equivalent in American culture. The stories collected by Duvall and Wissler, curator of the Natural History Museum, aren't fairytales, nor are many of them even parables with strict moral lessons. Perhaps best compared to fiction, they're true to a way of life that existed before contact with white people, even if the incidents recounted are exaggerated and fantastic.
This edition reprints the original text, together with copious footnotes. One thing that would have been helpful is a map situating the three main branches of the Blackfoot in the U.S. and Canada, an omission perhaps explained by the exacting nature of a historical reprint.
The text begins with the delightful Napiwa (Old Man), a creator/trickster figure common in Blackfoot stories who is given to outlandish appetites and deeds. Unlike other Plains tricksters, however, he is entirely human.
Napiwa is brutal, stupid, high-spirited and funny. He's a main actor in Blackfoot origin stories, as when he holds the lynx over a fire and gives him his characteristic stripes, or when he angrily scores a tree with his knife and thus lends to birch bark the scars it's carried ever since.
How death came to last so long among people is an even better Old Man tale.
It seems Old Man and Old Woman couldn't decide whether they wanted to make death permanent or not. She got tired of arguing the point after a while and said, ''If [people] did not die forever, they would never feel sorry for each other, and there would be no sympathy in the world.'' Old Man had to agree with the wisdom of that - and death was made forever from that day forward.
Many of these myths are brutal, scatological and obscene - which doesn't make them any less enjoyable. It's hard to compare some of them to anything in Anglo culture. The stories have all the vibrancy of animation, for example, and some of the tamer episodes even smack of Wile E. Coyote's high jinks, remembering that Coyote was an ancient tradition in Native myth long before Warner Brothers resurrected him for the screen.
The tales are about all manner of things: why dogs don't talk; why grasshoppers spit; how the turtle saved himself by pretending to be afraid of water. There are stories about the star twins, born through a Caesarian, and how the Big Dipper came to be when six brothers and a sister chose to live in the sky after their people were all killed.
The reprint of Wissler and Duvall's work is a reminder that the salvage ethnography of another age can still be admired. As Kipp reminds us, the reach of a century is long. The span of years since the book first appeared is already as long as the interval between the Blackfoot meeting with Lewis and Clark and the original publication of ''Mythology.''
These stories go back a long way. And this centennial edition should attract new readers for a long time to come.