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Manabozho in the flood. (Illustration by R.C. Armour, from his book North American Indian Fairy Tales, Folklore and Legends, 1905)

Manabozho in the flood. (Illustration by R. C. Armour, from his book North American Indian Fairy Tales, Folklore and Legends, 1905)

In the beginning …

When discussing Joel Chandler Harris‘ tales of Uncle Remus, I noted that, by and large, these tales belonged to the Æsopic corpus and included Reynard the Fox, Roman de Renart‘s tail-fisher narrative. In the Aarne-Thompson classification index, first published by Finnish scholar Antti Aarne 1910, but revised by Stith Thompson in 1927 and 1961. It was refined by Hans-Jörg Uther in 2004 and the classification is now entitled the ATU classification index. Moreover, although Stith Thompson published a Motif-Index of Folk-Literature (1955-1958), the word “type” seems to have replaced the word “motif.” Motif might mean the smallest meaningful element in a tale (see Narrame, Wikipedia).

In the case of Uncle Remus, His Songs and His Sayings: The Folk-Lore of the Old Plantation, 1881, the collector was Joel Chandler Harris and the collection, Æsopic and, drawing on Reynard the Fox. Chandler Harris wrote in eye dialect, which is English in Uncle Remus, but English spelled as it was pronounced by black slaves (i.e. brother is ‘brer’).

If one looks down the table of contents in James Mooney’s Myths of the Cherokee (Gutenberg [EBook #45634]), one quickly notices that Amerindians told etiological (or ætiological) tales, which is also the case in the Tales of Uncle Remus. There are many levels to ætiological tales. They range from Rudyard Kipling‘s Just So Stories for Little Children, “pourquoi” tales and “children’s literature,” to Mesopotamia‘s Epic of Gilgamesh, c. 2100 BCE .

An Inglorious Past

  • Creation myths
  • Trickster tales
  • Myths and folklore
  • The Indian Removal Act (1830)
  • The Cherokee Indian Removal Act (1838)

The Myths of the Cherokee, published in 1902, is a collection of fables and tales that may be read by children, but they border on mythology, such as Greek Mythology, mythologie gréco-romaine FR, the Bible, and various sacred texts, the purpose of which is to explain how and why we humans came to inhabit planet Earth. In the area folklore, these are called creation myths. For instance, the story of the Cherokees includes the deluge (V.14; Mooney). James Mooney was an American ethnologist whose books were published by the US Bureau of American Ethnology.

Trickster tales are the most popular Amerindian tales, but we are looking at a wider selection. For instance, James Mooney gives an account of the plight of Amerindians in the United States. Between 1830 and 1838, Amerindians had to leave their hunting grounds one-third of the Mississippi and settle west of the Mississippi, in geographical areas often, if not always, chosen by the government. Good land was reserved for the white.

I doubt American officials could have removed Amerindians west of the Mississippi had it not been for the Louisiana Purchase of 1803. Financially, Louisiana was purchased at a low-cost to the United States’ government, yet at too high a cost to Amerindians living in the Southeast of the United States.

The Removal Act of 1830, passed into law under the presidency of Andrew Jackson, is an event we would now wish to erase from the pages of history, but it happened, just as Auschwitz happened. Andrew Jackson was a slave-owner and Amerindians were dark-skinned, the wrong “colour.” We still have white supremacists, the Ku Klux Klan, the American Rifle Association, anti-tax extremism, and racism, i.e. the remains of an inglorious past.

For the Amerindians who were sent west, the Removal Act of 1830 was their “trail of tears.” One cannot take a people’s land away and give it to another people without causing considerable harm.


The Trail of Tears

“The Trail of Tears” (Photo credit: Google images)

The Jesuit Relations

  • Dissemination of folktales
  • A case: George Bonga
  • the Jesuits as folklorists: the Relations
  • Epics

I have suggested that deported Acadians may have told their stories to black slaves in Georgia US. They could not leave those boats that sailed down Britain’s Thirteen Colonies. It is an honest theory, but one-third of the current contiguous United States belonged to France and French-Canadian voyageurs grew to include African-Americans and Amerindians. George Bonga,[1] who was of American African and Objiwe descent, was a voyageur and a fur trader. He was educated in Montreal. In other words, stories could circulate quite easily. (See David Vermette, RELATED ARTICLES.)

Stith Thompson (of the Aarne-Thompson-Üther classification index) has provided insightful information regarding the manner in which North-American folklore was collected. He writes that:

[s]ome of the Jesuit Fathers in Canada, however, interested themselves greatly in listening to such stories. They were, of course, much concerned to learn exactly what kinds of error they must combat in their attempt to convert these simple folk. But their curiosity went far beyond this immediate need, and they recorded a number of stories merely because they were interesting.”

With the activities of the Jesuit Fathers, the collecting of American Indian began.”[2]

During their forty-one year mission in New France, from 1632 to 1673, Jesuit missionaries sent their Relations to their superiors in France. The Jesuit Relations were a yearly and detailed report of the activities of missionaries and the daily life of the people of New France. Although converting Amerindians was the main role of Jesuit missionaries, they incorporated in their Relations stories told by Amerindians. The Relations may be read online, but the text may not be complete.

In fact, we could compare the work of the Jesuits with the Brothers Grimm travels in German-language lands, collecting a past for German-speaking Europeans. It was not long before composer Richard Wagner followed in their tracks providing a nascent Germany with operas that told its epic past. Der Ring des Nibelungen is an example. But the Jesuits also transferred an oral tradition into a learned (written) tradition.

The “Noble Savage”

Stith Thompson looks upon the Jesuits as folklorists. They recorded the “folklore” of Amerindians. However, we can also associate the Jesuit Relations with the growth of the notion of the Noble Savage. We have already linked this concept with John Dryden‘s heroic play The Conquest of Granada (1672) and to the Baron de Lahontan‘s Adario. (See RELATED ARTICLES.)

It was difficult for certain Jesuits not to see in Amerindians a form of lay virtue, virtue not associated with a religion.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

However, the development of the concept of the noble savage is also credited to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (27 February 1807 – 24 March 1882), the author of The Song of Hiawatha (1855).

Stith Thompson writes that “[b]y far the best known of all American Indian creation myths is that made famous by Longfellow’s Hiawatha.”[3] Hiawatha was a historical Iroquois” whose name was Manabozho. Henry Rowe Schoolcraft who wrote a six-volume study of American Indians in the 1850s (see Henry Rowe Schoolcraft, Wikipedia), was an inspiration as well as a source to Longfellow (see Henry Rowe Schoolcraft, Wikipedia). Longfellow’s sources were Ojibwe Chief Kahge-ga-gah-bowh, Black Hawk a Sauk leader and other Sauk and Fox Indians.

Kindest greetings to all of you.


Sources and Resources 


[1] Grace Lee Nute, The Voyageur (St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society 1955 [1931]), p. 39.

[2] Stith Thompson, The Folktale (Berkeley, Los Angeles, London: The University of California Press, 1977 [1946]) p. 297-298.

[3] Op. cit., p. 307.

Black Robe, directed by Bruce Beresford

Black Robe, directed by Bruce Beresford

© Micheline Walker
16 August 2015