Texts by and about Natives: Texts

1. Jarold Ramsey, Joshua Creation Story, as told by Charlie Depoe in 1900

Jarold Ramsey, Reading the Fire: The Traditional Indian Literatures of America, rev.ed. (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1999), 13-24.

I want to turn now to a third Far Western creation narrative, in part because it is a more leisurely told and much more generously detailed story; its texture is unusually rich in expressive details, and one can at least speculate that it is the record of a full-scale recitation. But in fact we don’t know: all we know is that the story was told to Livingston Farrand in 1900 by one Charlie Depoe, a surviving member of a small group of Athapascan-speaking Indians of the southwest Oregon coast known locally as the “Joshuas,” and later edited for publication by Leo J. Frachtenberg. The provenience could hardly be more stark: Farrand took down only four Joshua stories besides this one, and Charlie Depoe’s culture, virtually extinct by 1915, is only fragmentarily recorded. Yet, as with the Klamath and Blackfeet creation stories, the evidence is unmistakable of a well-made story, a narrative of one world’s beginnings worthy to stand alongside other such narratives as a mythic accommodation to life as we know and suffer it.

Given the fact that Charlie Depoe’s telling languished in utter obscurity for over sixty years before re-publication and study, it seems right to provide the full text here. The first part amounts to an unusually full cosmogony (at least for Western Indians), and the second part, in establishing the first human family, seems to take on something of the quality of a romance—slow paced and dreamlike. Or so it seems to me as I reread it, and I am reminded of a similar shift in effect in our own Genesis, from the strenuous events of the cosmogony itself to the Edenic idyll of Adam and Eve, before the serpent enters the story “and all that woe.” But in most respects, Genesis is not a useful analogue to Charlie Depoe’s story—and let us turn to it now without further comparison or commentary:

In the beginning there was no land. There was nothing but the sky, some fog, and water. The water was still; there were no breakers. A sweat-house stood on the water, and in it there lived two men—The Giver and his companion. The Giver’s companion had tobacco. He usually stayed outside watching, while The Giver remained in the sweat-house.

One day it seemed to the watcher as if daylight were coming. He went inside and told The Giver that he saw something strange coming. Soon there appeared something that looked like land, and on it two trees were growing. The man kept on looking, and soon was able to distinguish that the object that was approaching was white land. Then the huge ocean began to move, bringing the land nearer. Its eastern portion was dark. The western part kept on moving until it struck the sweat-house, where it stopped. It began to stretch to the north

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and to the south. The land was white like snow. There was no grass on it. It expanded like the waves of the ocean. Then the fog began to disappear and the watcher could look far away.

He went into the sweat-house, and asked, “Giver, are you ready?” and The Giver said, “Is the land solid?”—“Not quite,” replied the man. Then The Giver took some tobacco and began to smoke. He blew the smoke on the land, and the land became motionless. Only two trees were growing at that time, redwood to the south, and ash to the north. Five times The Giver smoked, while discussing with his companion various means of creating the world and the people. Then night came, and after that daylight appeared again. Four days The Giver worked; and trees began to bud, and [buds] fell like drops of water upon the ground. Grass came up, and leaves appeared on the trees. The Giver walked around the piece of land that had stopped near his sweat-house, commanding the ocean to withdraw and to be calm.

Then The Giver made five cakes of mud. Of the first cake he made a stone and dropped it into the water, telling it to make a noise and to expand, as soon as it hit the bottom. After a long while he heard a faint noise and knew then that the water was very deep. He waited some time before dropping the second cake. This time he heard the noise sooner, and knew that the land was coming nearer to the surface. After he had dropped the third cake, the land reached almost to the surface of the water. So he went into the sweat-house and opened a new sack of tobacco. Soon his companion shouted from outside. “It looks as if breakers are coming!” The Giver was glad, because he knew now that the land was coming up from the bottom of the ocean. After the sixth wave the water receded, and The Giver scattered tobacco all over. Sand appeared. More breakers came in, receding farther and farther westward. Thus the land and the world were created. To the west, to the north, and to the south there was tide-water; to the east the land was dry. The new land was soft and looked like sand. The Giver stepped on it and said, “I am going to see if the great land has come”; and as he stepped, the land grew hard.

Then The Giver looked at the sand and saw a man’s tracks. They seemed to have come from the north, disappearing in the water on the south. He wondered what that could mean, and was very much worried. He went back to his first piece of land, and told the water to overflow the land he had created out of the five cakes of mud. Some time afterward he ordered the water to recede, and looked again. This time he saw the tracks coming from the west and returning to the water on the north side. He was puzzled and ordered the water to cover up his new land once more. Five times he repeated this process. At last he became discouraged and said, “This is going to make trouble in the future!” and since then there has always been trouble in the world.

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Then The Giver began to wonder how he could make people. First he took some grass, mixed it with mud, and rubbed it in his hands. Then he ordered a house to appear, gave the two mud figures to his companion, and told him to put them into the house. After four days two dogs—a male and a bitch—appeared. They watched the dogs, and twelve days later the bitch gave birth to pups. The Giver then made food for the dogs. All kinds of dogs were born in that litter of pups. They were all howling. After a while The Giver went to work again. He took some white sand from the new land, and made two figures in the same way as before. He gave the figures to his companion, and ordered a house for them. Then he warned the dogs not to go to the new house, as it was intended for the new people. After thirteen days The Giver heard a great hissing, and a big snake came out of the house, followed by a female snake and many small snakes. The Giver felt bad when he saw this and went to his companion, telling him that this trouble was due to the tracks that had first appeared in the world. Soon the land became full of snakes, which, not having seen The Giver, wondered how everything had come about. The world was inhabited by dogs and snakes only.

One day The Giver wished three baskets to appear, gave them to his companion, and told him to fill them partly with fresh water and partly with salt water. Then he put ten of the biggest snakes into the basket, crushed them, and threw them into the ocean. Two bad snakes got away from him; and all snake-like animals that live today come from these snakes. The Giver said to these two snakes, “You will live and surround the world like a belt, so that it won’t break!” Then he crushed five bad dogs in the same way, made a great ditch with his finger, and threw the dogs into the ditch. These dogs became water-monsters. All animals that raise their heads above the water and smell, and then disappear quickly under the water, came from these five dogs.

Pretty soon The Giver began to think again, “How can I make people? I have failed twice!” Now, for the first time his companion spoke. He said, “Let me smoke tonight, and see if people will not come out of the smoke.” For three days he smoked, at the end of which a house appeared with smoke coming out of it. The man told The Giver, “There is a house!” After a while a beautiful woman came out of the house, carrying a water-basket. Then The Giver was glad and said, “Now we shall have no more trouble creating people.” The woman did not see The Giver and his companion, as they were watching her. After nine days the woman became sad, and wondered who her father and relatives were. She had plenty of food.

One day The Giver said to his companion, “Stay here and take this woman for your wife! You shall have children and be the father of all the people. I am leaving this world. Everything on it shall belong to you.” And

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the man answered, “It is well; but, perchance, I too may have troubles.” Then The Giver asked him, “How are you going to be troubled?” So the man said, “Do you make this woman sleep, so that I can go to her without her seeing me.” The woman found life in the house very easy. Whenever she wished for anything, it appeared at once. About noon she felt sleepy for the first time. When night came, she prepared her bed and lay down. As soon as she was sound asleep, the man went in to her. She was not aware of this, but dreamed that a handsome man was with her. This was an entirely new dream to her. At daybreak she woke up and looked into the blanket. No one was there, although she was sure that someone had been with her. She wished to know who had been with her that night. So next evening she prepared her bed again, hoping that the same thing would happen; but no one came to her. She did the same thing every night without any one coming near her.

Soon the woman became pregnant. The Giver and his companion were still on the land, watching her; but she could not see them, because they were invisible to her. After a while the child was born. It was boy. He grew very fast. The young woman made a cradle for him. After six months the boy could talk. The woman still wanted to know who the father of her child was. So one day she wrapped the child in blankets, and said, “I will neglect the boy and let him cry, and, perchance, his father may come. I will go and look at the country.”

She started south, carrying the baby on her back. She traveled for ten years, seeing no one and never looking at the child. After a long time she could hear only a faint sound coming from behind. Nothing remained of the boy but skin and bones. Finally she stopped at Salomä [a camas prairie far up the Coquille River] and here for the first time she took the child from her back and looked at it. Its eyes were sunken and hollow; the boy was a mere skeleton. The woman felt bad and began to cry. She took the boy out of the cradle and went to the river to bathe. After she had put on her clothes, she felt of the child’s heart. It was still beating!

The boy urinated, and was dirty all over. His body was covered with maggots, and he had acquired various diseases. The woman took him to the water and washed his body. She had no milk with which to feed him; so she sang a medicine song, and milk came to her. She gave the breast to the child, but it was too weak to suck: hence she had to feed it gradually. As the days went by the boy grew stronger. After three days his eyes were better. Then they went back to their house, where they found plenty of food. The boy grew soon into a strong and handsome young man, and was helping his mother with her work. One day he asked her, “Mother, where is your husband?” and she replied, “I only dreamed of my husband.” Then she told him all that had

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happened before he was born; and the boy said, “Oh! Maybe my father may turn up some day.”

Then The Giver said to his companion, “The woman is home now.” That night the woman longed for her husband. She had been dreaming all the time that he was a handsome man that her boy looked just like him. At dusk it seemed to her as if someone were coming. Her heart began to beat. Soon she heard footsteps. The door opened, and her boy exclaimed, “Oh, my father has come!” She looked and saw the man in her dreams. At first she was ashamed and bashful. The man told her all that had happened before and claimed her as his wife.

One day The Giver told the man that all the world had been made for him. Then he instructed him how to act at all times and under all conditions. He also admonished him to have more children, and the man had sixteen children. The first one was a boy, then came a girl, then another boy, and so on. Half the children went to live north of the Rogue River, while the other half settled down south of the river. The Giver told the man that hereafter he would obtain everything by wishing. Then he straightened out the world, made it flat, and placed the waters. He created all sorts of animals, and cautioned the man not to cut down more trees or kill more animals than he needed. And after all this had been done, he bade him farewell and went up to the sky. “You and your wife and your children shall speak different languages. You shall be the progenitors of all the different tribes.”

In principio: the initial scene is of an embryonic maritime world—only sky, fog, motionless water; no breakers, no land, no life, nothing “coming” as yet. The world remains to be born (cosmogony means “birth of the world”, in fact), and the cosmogonists on hand are “on-stage” . . . and are well equipped in Native terms for the task in that they dwell in a sweat-house, in times to come the place of spiritual as well as physical perfection, and possess that potent vehicle of spirit, tobacco. From the outset, the sacred meaning of their work is emphasized through the repetition of actions according to “pattern numbers,” a quite unusual variety of them in fact—fives, threes, fours, and multiples, as if number itself in some Pythagorean sense were central to creation.

“The Giver,” who smokes, is in charge; but in a doubling of parts, widespread in Indian myth . . ., he is assisted in his labors by a secondary figure, less divinely gifted but more recognizably human, whose crucial change of role

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through the story is expressed by a shift of appellation, from The Giver’s “companion” to simply “the man.” As companion and protoman, this figure seems to mediate between The Giver and the world-in-progress: he watches, reports, discusses with The Giver “various means of creating the world and the people,” takes custody of the first animals—and eventually, as we will see, actually takes his turn at smoking, and creates woman, after The Giver has failed twice. Clearly, the story aims to invest Creation with (as jargon would have it) an “on-site” human perspective.

With the mainland established, and vegetation (redwood in what is now northern California, ash in what is now southwest Oregon—the botanical limits of the Joshua world), The Giver undertakes—crucially, for a coastal people—to create the littoral and the shore. To do so, he employs a variant of what is probably the most widespread and therefore probably the oldest story-motif in Native American literature, the so-called “Earth Diver” episode, which figures in creation narratives from the Micmacs and Penobscots of the northeastern coast to the Indians of the Pacific coast. Here there is no team of animal divers attempting to bring up earth from the seabottom; The Giver simply drops five mudcakes one after the other until the appearance of breakers tells him that, in effect, the land and the ocean are now “connected.”

At this point, the narrative seems to turn, unlike the Klamath and Blackfeet stories, toward theodicy. No sooner has The Giver stepped out on the new land, then he sees “a man’s tracks” coming from the north. A magical five times The Giver erases these mysterious footprints with water: each time they reappear, and at last he gives up with the gnomic warning: “This is going to make trouble in the future.” What, according to our working conception of myth, does this mean? Clearly it serves to indicate that, here again, the Creator’s powers are sharply limited; he cannot remove the ominous footprints, he can only interpret them as spelling trouble to come. Specifically, human trouble, it appears; trouble for and between people. It may be that the northern origins of the tracks refer specifically to a traditional enmity between the Joshuas and their northern neighbors, the Penutian-speaking Coos. If so the detail has a general mythic meaning as well, not etiological but narrative, to the effect that “trouble came at the very beginning, even before people, despite The Giver’s efforts to remove it—and it left human footprints.” In terms of theodicy, a divine “way” is not being justified here; instead the episode merely initiates “the way it is”

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on the score of evil. And the theoretical association of trouble with human life is of course dramatized in subsequent episodes, beginning with the next one, which concerns the rather bizarre trouble The Giver has with the task of making people in the first place.

Trial gives way to error, and to his dismay the world is soon full of dogs and snakes only. The Giver can only correct part of the problem: he turns some of the dogs into seals, otters, and the like, and he manages to encircle the earth with two of the snakes, securing it belt-wise like the Midgard Serpent or Jörmungander of Nordic mythology. Significantly, it remains for the human companion to try his hand at making people. For the first time he smokes, and for a wonder he creates a house “with smoke coming out of it”—that is, a real domestic house, manmade as it were, out of which steps a beautiful woman, already carrying a waterbasket.

The Giver’s response to his assistant’s achievement is wonderful, both exultant and droll: “Now we shall have no more trouble in creating people.” Procreation is, he sees, a human achievement in this first instance, albeit with special spirit assistance; and so it will be henceforth, he prophesies, now that the world is sexualized. Acting on this certainty, The Giver orders his companion to marry the woman and people the world. But the man has his own peculiarly human foresight and responds: “It is well, but perchance I too may have troubles.” No doubt this rather winning hesitation on the threshold of human life refers generally to the discovery that “trouble” is already abroad, and likely to beset the man as he enters the world—but specifically it seems to refer to the mixed prospects of procreation and family life. “Male and female created he them.” All well and good for The Giver to exult, “Now we shall have no more trouble in creating people”; on his part the man seems to anticipate inevitable sexual and familial miseries to come, and in bashfully persuading The Giver to let him visit the woman in a dream—as demon lover, as it were—he in effect ironically ensures that the woman and their son will have their share of trouble indeed because of his domestic absenteeism.

At this point, with the plot thickening markedly, we can recognize what, thematically, the story is “about,” beyond cosmogenesis. It might be said that all creation myths are formulations of the desire to know our progenitors, our first parents—but that theme is especially prominent in Charlie Depoe’s narrative; in effect it organizes the story. All of the creatures brought to life by The Giver and his companion inquire after their

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parentage. First the dogs, who howl, as Farrand explains for his narrator in a footnote, just as “every dog to-day howls looking up to the sky, because he is crying for his first father, whom he never knew.” Then the snakes, “which, not having seen The Giver, wondered how everything had come about.” Then the first woman, who “after nine days became sad, and wondered who her father and relatives were.” And finally, the boy, who asks his mother about the paternity, and prepares for the story’s climactic scene of recognition by saying, wistfully, “Oh! Maybe my father may turn up some day.”

One thinks here of Lévi-Strauss’s discovery through synchronic analysis that the Oedipus myth is really a formulation of two conflicting views of man’s origins: are they autochthonous, or are they sexual? Have we sprung from the earth like plants, or were we engendered? “Born from one, or born from two?” In mentioning this celebrated essay I am not proposing that our Joshua myth effects anything comparable to the subtle and profound meditation between irreconcilable opposites that Lévi-Strauss finds in the Oedipus story—but there is a dramatic opposition to be seen here, at least, between what the first animals and human characters want to know about their origins, and what we as audience know, through the story, about the labors of The Giver and his companion. The effect of this opposition seems to be to heighten our self-consciousness: we are, that is, the People—descended from such fathers, who know the story of creation and man’s parentage, as these first people and creatures did not. As I hope to show in subsequent discussions of individual texts, such cultivation of forms of imaginative self-consciousness in the audience is central to the artistry of traditional Western Indian narratives.

A second line of opposition—again, commonplace, and perhaps inherent in creation stories generally—takes the form of emphasis on the process of actualization, from dream-states, emblematic of spirituality, to reality. On the cosmogonic level, of course , the substantial world emerges from the reveries of The Giver and his companion, specifically from their smoking (even as the substance of the myth may be said to emerge from the shared “dreaming” of the teller and his listeners). On the human level, in the second part of the story the action likewise proceeds from dreams to realities, to “responsibilities” as Yeats put it—the woman first experiences sexual intercourse and love memorably as “an entirely new dream,” and, having significantly put aside her initial curiosity about her father, she goes

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out to search for “the man in her dreams”—that is, the father of her child. Their son in his turn has only his mother’s report of these dreams to satisfy his paternal curiosity, until the final scene in which recognition seems to take the form of an awakening.

The search for husband and father constitutes a ten-year odyssey in which the woman illustrates the “trouble” now footprinted in the world by deliberately abusing her child in order to find her dream-husband. Her priorities are all wrong, it appears. When she guiltily “wakes up” at length to the child’s condition, he is nearly dead from disease and neglect, and the afflictions his mother has brought upon him will now be part of the human story, mythically speaking: as Farrand explains in a note from Charlie Depoe: “As she washed him, the diseases dropped to the ground and have remained in the world ever since.”

But with the mother’s discovery of her proper responsibilities to her boy, the real product of a “dream,” he is able to grow to young manhood and make inquiries about his absent father. The Homeric associations here are inevitable and should not be resisted but rather examined for possible interpretive value. The basic circumstances that give Odysseus’s homecoming as father and spouse so much emotional power are present here, too, albeit most oddly rearranged: in the aftermath of a long, troubled journey (but by a wife), we have the wife whose memory of her husband is dreamlike; the son, who only knows what he has been told about his paternity, but who is first to recognize the father figure when he actually comes; the initial bashfulness of the wife; the man’s long narrative, joining past to present, of “all that had happened before.” When Telemachus says of his father in Book One, “My mother says indeed I am his. I for my part / do not know. Nobody really knows his own father,” Homer yokes together the “ontogenetic” and the “phylogenetic” and the mythic dimensions of his story. Telemachus’s doubts simultaneously apply to his individual case, and also to all human cases, given the terms of human procreation and consciousness; and also, by a metaphorical extension, to the general case of humans in quest of a creator. In The Odyssey this last dimension is, I think, undeveloped, “free-floating” in the poem’s epic context; in the Indian story, which is after all a creation myth, it is explicit.

Thus in the final scene of primal concord and recognition, a mythological equation is completed, between the happy outcome of the quest for progenitors on the part of the characters in the myth, and the foregone

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happy outcome of the quest for origins and progenitors, which has, amongst the Joshua Indians, given rise to the myth itself. “Nobody really knows his father.” But on the contrary, as the first son ultimately comes to know his father, and as his mother is rewarded for her belated success at mothering by knowing “the man of her dreams,” both “father” and husband, so the Joshuas would know again the identity of all their progenitors, these members of the first human family, and also, of course, the now absent instigator of it all, “The Giver.”

To sum up, what would the Klamath, Blackfeet, and Joshua audiences have understood in creation and origin narratives like these? What would adults, hearing the stories once again, have remembered and reaffirmed in their imaginations, and what would they have expected their children to learn from the recitations, beyond specific kinds of lore? Given the limits and uncertainties of our knowledge about traditional Indian cultures, these are perhaps presumptuous questions, but I will venture a few tentative and general answers.

First, that in their different ways these stories must have conveyed an affirmative impression of human life, that from the beginning it has been, if not ever perfect or prelapserian, essentially good, “sweet,” “open,” stable, and commodious, and spiritually accessible.

Second, that although the world was created under less-than-perfect, in some cases under “all-too-human” auspices, and indeed those imperfect beings who live in it are certain to experience what Charlie Depoe calls “trouble”—nonetheless there have been from the beginning powerful mitigations of evil and misfortune according to a principle of human solidarity—“feeling sorry for each other,” in the Blackfeet formula.

And third, that this solidarity is specifically ethnocentric, relating to the way in which myth-narratives like these confirmed in their audiences the conviction that they were consolidated as the People, for better and for worse the proud and rightful inheritors of a distinctive world and cultural way, and above all the possessors of ritualized sacred stories about how that world and way began, and are to be continued.

At the very end of the Joshua narrative, The Giver tells the man in this spirit that “all the world had been made for him.” What is meant is, “all the world that is worth caring about”—half of the first children, we are told, disperse to live north of the mouth of the Rogue River and half go to

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live across the river to the south: corresponding exactly to the two main Joshua communities in historical times.

Then, after chartering the Joshua world, The Giver is reported to have instructed the man “how to act at all times and under all conditions,” specifically licensing the seeking of ultimate goods by “wishing” (even as the world itself has been wished and dreamed into actuality), and cautioning the man “not to cut down more trees or kill more animals” than necessary. The rules, limits, and sanctions of a way of life—really, just the idea of such mythic legislation—are thus laid down, and it is typical of creation and origin narratives that, as here, the complexities of the Native way thus established are left undeveloped. For the full drama of these complexities, and for an understanding of the social, psychological, and ultimately the artistic value of the Native literature about them, we need to move beyond the creation and origin myths to the full traditional repertories to which they stand rather as antechambers. But we have made, I hope, our beginning.

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