‘Northern Tales: Traditional Stories of Eskimo and Indian Peoples,’ selected and edited by Howard Norman


"Northern Tales: Traditional Stories of Eskimo and Indian Peoples” is a cultural feast as well as a guidebook to life.

The 116 stories therein are, the author and editor Howard Norman wrote, an education in “the joys and terrors, triumphs and defeats, feasts and famines, which throughout time have informed northern experience from the most remote hunting camps to the bustling centers of village life.”

Norman, a native Ohioan of Russian-Polish-Jewish ancestry, first became fascinated with indigenous stories in the mid-1960s when he worked on a Cree fire crew in Manitoba. He went on to earn a graduate degree in linguistics and folklore from Indiana University and has been a prolific anthologist, editor and writer since.

“All of my selections for this anthology were culled from libraries, personal archives and correspondence,” he wrote. But he also recorded a number of stories in remote Churchill, Manitoba and spent time researching at the Alaska Native Language Center at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, and the Ethnology Division of the National Museum of Man in Ottawa.

Some 35 peoples are represented – from Alaska, Canada, Greenland, East Siberia and Japan.

These stories are living things. Passed down orally from generation to generation – told and retold until firmly established in the hearer’s memory – the stories are told today “in tents, at kitchen tables on hunting trips, at festivals, and powwows, while driving along in pickup trucks,” Norman wrote.

There are stories of village life, of how things got to be the way they are, of tricksters and cultural heroes. There are stories about animals. There are shaman stories, stories of strange and menacing neighbors, stories about hunting, and stories about marriage.

In them we learn truths about survival in an often harsh and unforgiving environment. We learn how important it is to live in harmony with others – animal, plant and human – with whom we share this earth.

In the Chippewa story, “Fourteen with One Stroke,” we see the damage substance abuse does to a family. In the Cree story, “The Wolverine Grudge,” we see the cycle of revenge that can be spawned when we do wrong to another; we also see the importance of being able to forgive.

In the Greenland Inuit story, “The Bear Goes on His Long Solitary Journey,” we see the consequences of marital infidelity. In the Naskapi story, “Ayaje’s Wives with Forearms Like Awls,” we see the consequences of acting impulsively, in this case rushing into marriage with strangers.

In the Siberian Yupik story, “The Girl Who Watched in the Nighttime,” we see the importance of family members looking out for each other, and we see the importance of being vigilant in the face of danger.

“Our tales are narratives of human experience, and therefore they do not always tell of beautiful things,” Osarqaq, an Inughuit, states in the book’s introduction. “But one cannot embellish a tale to please the hearer and at the same time keep to the truth.”

“Northern Tales” was first published in 1990 by Pantheon Books and was republished in 2008 by University of Nebraska Press. The introduction contains maps with keys to indigenous territories, and each section begins with an overview to “generally illuminate cultural particulars. … and to forecast some of the delights of the stories themselves.” This illumination sets up the reader for what is coming and adds background useful to understanding.

In the note to readers in the 2008 edition, Norman acknowledges the word “Eskimo” does not, in the view of many Native peoples, respect “their historically based vital sense of self-definition.”

“Despite my obviously generic use of ‘Eskimo,’ which is perhaps far too deeply rooted in the public domain of western readers, it is my hope that the range of tales in the collection contributes to underscoring the remarkably idiosyncratic nature of northern cultures.”

The reader will come away from “Northern Tales” with an understanding of the beauty and complexities of northern life. That’s Norman’s goal. He wrote, “I wish for this volume to exist as a spirited, if necessarily fragmented, homage to northern tales.”

Richard Walker is a correspondent reporting from San Juan Island, Wash. Contact him at rmwalker@rockisland.com.