Texts by and about Natives: Commentary

4. Three Versions of the Quinalt Tale about Thunder and Sisemo

A great deal of the recorded Indian literature has survived in part because anthropologists spoke with native informants and wrote down their stories. We should not assume, however, that the process of preservation either recorded native tales with tremendous accuracy or itself avoided altering native stories. In one sense, native narratives became much more fixed than they had been as oral tales. On the other hand, even written versions underwent substantial changes. Three different versions of the Quinalt tale concerning Thunder and Sisemo illustrate what happened to some native stories at the hands of those striving to save them. (These tales were recommended by William R. Seaburg, a professor at University of Washington, Bothell, who has worked extensively to uncover the history of how anthropologists acquired information about Northwest Coast peoples. For an example of his work, see Seaburg and Amoss 2000.)

The first version of the story was recorded by Livingston Farrand, who worked with the famous Columbia University anthropologist Franz Boas. A professor of psychology at Columbia (before 1902, anthropologists were housed in the Department of Psychology), Farrand taught with Boas and took an interest in some of his projects. In 1897 he accompanied Boas to British Columbia, hoping to measure the heads of native peoples. He spent the next summer trying, with only limited success, to collect ethnographic information from the Quileute and Quinalt Indians. While working on the Washington coast he complained, in a letter to Boas, that (what he perceived as) the loss of traditional culture was inhibiting his work. He assailed in particular the popular Shaker faith, “that bastard religion . . . which discontenances [sic] old ceremonials, etc. and regards them as sinful. Consequently [the Quinalt] regard their past habits as a disgrace and are not at all proud to tell them” (quoted in Jonaitis 1988:191). Nonetheless, Farrand took down an initial version of the Thunder and Sisemo tale in his field notes while speaking with a native informant. The result, as a reader can see, is a rather spare rendition that almost seems as if it were recorded in shorthand. Farrand used numerous abbreviations and symbols, as if he were in a hurry to keep up with the pace of his informant. One might infer that Farrand left some details out of the story because he did not have time to jot all of them down. On the other hand, the relative sparseness of the story may reflect more on the memory of the informant. Perhaps Farrand’s contact, because of age or memory loss or—as Farrand himself implied—the erosion of tradition, was not able to add much flesh to the bare bones of the story of Thunder and Sisemo. (Farrand went on to become president of the University of Colorado, Boulder in 1915 and Cornell University during the 1920s.)

In 1902 Livingston Farrand published the Quinalt story as “How Sisemo Won Thunder’s Daughter” in an anthropological series sponsored by the American Museum of Natural History. This version differs in significant ways from the version recorded in the anthropologist’s field notebooks. For one thing, Farrand did not reproduce his shorthand version but rather spelled out the narrative more fully. He also introduced such western conventions as paragraphs, footnotes, and a title for his largely non-Indian audience. For another, Farrand added a variety of details that were not included in the original version. The result is a richer, more interesting tale. But readers remain uncertain as to where the new details came from. One explanation is that Farrand did not have time to write down all the nuances and specifics when he first recorded the story in 1897, but when preparing it for publication he was able to include, working from memory as well as the field notebooks, what had been initially omitted. Yet one does not know to what extent Farrand’s memory may be trusted. Moreover, it seems possible that Farrand could have taken some liberties with the story in order to establish a clearer plot and context for readers and to continue translating what had initially been an oral tale into a published text. The Quinalt had been accustomed to telling and hearing the story in one fashion; Farrand intended to preserve the story for posterity, but in doing so told it in somewhat different fashion for a non-Indian audience intent on reading rather than hearing it.

In 1953 still another version of the tale of Thunder and Sisemo was published by Ella Clark in Indian Legends of the Pacific Northwest. This rendition possessed a different title still, a great deal of dialogue that had not existed in the previous two versions, and an even clearer plot-line than Farrand had furnished. In this instance, Clark admitted readily to the changes she had made. She explained that she rewrote most tales borrowed from written works, like Farrand’s, because she regarded her audience as general readers who wanted to be entertained and to satisfy their curiosity about native peoples. (She included children as part of her audience, which explains why in other instances she deleted “references to physiological functions.”) Moreover, Clark declared that “literal translations [of native tales], desirable for scientific purposes, seldom make smooth, pleasant reading . . .” (Clark 1953: 3). For a variety of reasons, then, the story of Thunder and Sisemo evolved considerably in the hands of whites between 1897 and 1953. Clark’s version was one that Farrand would probably have recognized; whether his informant too would have recognized it may be another matter.

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