When a Blackfeet has ideas about writing a book, which they have no doubt will be published and earn lots of money, they almost invariably say they’re going to write the true version of the Napi stories, which they learned from their grandparent (usually about my age by now). Though the stories were originally oral, there must be a dozen versions of printed Blackfeet Napi stories out there floating around, not counting other tribes. Why add to the pile? When I ask these would-be authorities, they just look confused. In their minds it is clear that a book about Blackfeet should have Napi stories in it, that there are definitive versions that are more valuable than the others, and that everyone in the greater world will fall on them with great delight and tons of money. (They have not gotten the news about the collapse of the publishing industry, but that’s beside the point.)
If you speak to a white person over sixty about a book about Blackfeet, their minds will turn to James Willard Schultz — dramatic horseback adventures of hunting and war. If the white person is a little younger, the book will be about post-colonial misery and injustice: alcoholism, lousy housing, drugs, broken families. If the white person is female, it will be about a cross-race romance. Everyone thinks of their little sub-category as representing the whole. They never question this, never investigate, and even if they come to the rez, they will see it on those terms.
Let’s go back to Napi stories. The anthropologists like Wissler, Ewers or Kehoe had a great interest in them and scientists recorded them as accurately as they could in the early days of contact, hoping to understand the culture better. Anyway, in those days it was salvage anthropology: save what they could. At the same time the missionaries were looking for equivalents to the Christian stories so they could say, “You see? These are universal elements.” So Starboy or Blood Clot Boy became versions of Jesus. And there WERE correlations, but they became an argument something like genetic purity: kill all the buffalo that have domestic cow genes. (An old Aryan idea: variation as pollution.)
The general public saw Napi stories as more like Aesop fables or the Greek myths. Entertaining. Suitable for children. (Which they were, since they were meant to socialize the tribal children with tribal values like generosity, courage, and willingness to experiment.) But trivial, non-threatening. So James Willard Schultz, Frank Bird Linderman, George Bird Grinnell, the Demings, Walter McClintock did pretty well selling the stories. None were Blackfeet. None got rich.
In the Sixties local people began to pick up the idea of Napi, Natoosi (Sun), and others. For instance, Napi’s Lookout; The Story of Willow Rounds by Dorothy M. Hamaker (1964) (A white rancher’s wife.) And not long after that the Blackfeet themselves were chiming in. Percy Bullchild’s “The Sun Came Down,” was commercially successful.
Napi and the Bullberries (The Indian Reading Series Stories and Legends of the Northwest, Level II Book 17) was by Joan Kennerly, Carmen Marceau, Doris Old Person and June Tatsey (1978) (Four Blackfeet sisters, “the Bullshoe girls,” who were all involved with education.) Darnell Doore (Rides at the Door) (1979) Blackfeet Heritage Program, Browning Public Schools, put another turn on the wheel. There are others, I’m sure.
Napi is a trickster figure and a universal in stories around the planet. Here he’s Brer Rabbit and there he’s Loki. He’s the guy that thinks he’s so smart, but gets carried away. On the other hand, because he’ll try anything, he’s creative and makes contributions.
A few years after I left the reservation for a while, I earned a degree from the University of Chicago Divinity School with a focus on anthropology. There I learned about revising sacred stories or writing parallel new ones in order to make a point.
In part I learned this in a dark way from a student who combined the Baker Massacre with Dracula, a figure from European vampire lore, very much like the cannibal figure of the Windigo, the woodland tribes’ starvation horror figure. (There’s a modern movie version spelled “Wendigo.”) On the other hand I tried playing “what if” with traditional teaching stories of the Gospels. Sometimes this was pretty enlightening. What if Jesus had turned all the wine at the wedding party into water instead of the other way around?
What Napi story might I invent for the situation of today’s Blackfeet? I’ll give it a try.
Napi’s neighbor, Striped Skunk, was experimenting with the white man’s way of building a house. First he wove one of grass, but the wind soon got rid of that. So the next one was made of logs, which stayed and looked good.
Napi was jealous, but he didn’t get upset until he looked over one day and saw that Striped Skunk even had lights on in his cabin. How did he manage that?
When he went over and demanded to know the secret, Striped Skunk showed him that he had captured a Farting Horse, which emitted a gas from under his tail that could be set on fire, making a pretty good light. It was warm, too, which is a big advantage in a prairie winter. So Napi went over one night and stole the Farting Horse.
Indeed, the gas burned bright and warm, but Napi kept Farting Horse picketed next to his lodge so it wouldn’t run away. Pretty soon the horse had eaten everything nearby and stopped farting. This made Napi very indignant and he decided to find out where in the horse the farts were coming from, so he cut the horse open. It didn’t work. No clue.
Napi was pretty sure the horse was getting something from the ground — it was always going along in the grass with its nose down. So he went to look for whatever it was. All he found was horse dung, which would burn, but nothing like farts. However, he did find a lot of shiny black rock, something like obsidian. Thinking about Striped Skunk’s log cabin, he decided he would make a house of this black rock, which would be very beautiful and strong. So he did. In it he burned buffalo chips and horse dung, because there was never enough wood on the high hilltops where he liked to live because of the view which made him feel important.
Then came spring and the thunderstorms. Lightning struck everywhere. Striped Skunk was always careful to open his Pipe Bundle at that time and to give away what he could to his family and friends. One day in spite of this his cabin was struck by lightning and would have burned but all his friends and neighbors came quickly and put the fire out.
Napi’s lookout house up there so high was also struck by lightning, but he had thought, “Ha! Nothing will happen to me! I don’t need to do any ceremonies because this house is made of stone.” Alas, it turned out that the black shiny stone was coal and it burned very well. The tribe tried to get up there to help, but it took a long time to climb such steep slopes and the house burned completely. Napi spent the rainy season huddled in front of his smoking, smelly fire of dung. He couldn’t even afford a canvas lodge.
I tried to get oil into this story but failed. Maybe you can do it. This is a creative story — anyone can add to it or change it. Just like life, especially tribal life. I don’t recommend this music, but it IS very windigo. Maybe it is sound from a windigo who thought he could eat oil. Or was that drinking frakking liquid? http://tiktik.bandcamp.com/album/windigo-psychosis