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Thursday, July 15, 2010

Reader's Diary #630- Ronald Melzack and illustrated by Carol Jones: The Day Tuk Became a Hunter and Other Eskimo Stories

When I lived in in Nunavut, I heard many Inuit legends. None, however, were as popular as the story of Sedna. Sedna, as you may or may not have heard, was an Inuit sea goddess, a bitter sea goddess who created and was in charge of sea life. That's the nutshell version. I'd recount the whole thing except I'm not sure what that is. I've heard so many versions now and the above details are the only consistencies I could tease out. Depending on who was telling the story, or where, or when, the story could have ample doses of sex and violence-- there was a relationship with a dog in one version, Sedna gets her fingers cut off by her father in another-- or it may be more subdued. In some tellings Sedna seems to have every reason to be vengeful, in others she just seems insane. Did I mind the variations? Not at all. As long as the core story was the same, I came to enjoy the storytellers' interpretations.

In Melzack's version, found in The Day Tuk Became a Hunter and other eskimo stories, published in 1967, Sedna falls for a man who promises her a better life in another village. It turns out, however, that he was really a loon and he'd lied to her about the better living conditions. Her father visits and tries to help her escape, but when the loon takes chase and the sea begins to get rough, the father is afraid of the loon's power and throws Sedna overboard to save his own life. When Sedna clutches the side of the kayak, her father stabs her hands to make her let go. The blood turns into various sea animals and Sedna becomes ruler over them all from her home beneath the sea, only releasing them to hunters once she is doted on by Medicine Men. I've heard similar stories, so I didn't take any issue with it, nor the other legends in the book.

Then I came across an article called "Revealing the Storyteller: The Ethical Publication of Inuit Stories" by Jefferson Faye, an American of mixed Inuit and European descent living in the U.S. Faye was quite offended by Melzack's book calling it one of the "more irresponsible and potentially damaging" books that he'd encountered. He criticizes the use of the word Eskimo, while Melzack himself acknowledges that they called themselves the Inuit, yet continues to refer to them as Eskimos because that was what they were known as outside of Inuit circles at the time. Keep in mind, this was 1967, so while Faye's point isn't without merit, it seems to me to be a complaint better aimed at 1960's attitudes than scapegoating Melzack. But from there on Faye makes some valid points.

Melzack, in turns out, hadn't done much in the way of connecting with actual Inuit people to gather these stories. Instead he gathered them from anthropologists and explorers (read: white people). Not that his sources weren't accurate necessarily, but it becomes a bit of a telephone game, especially when, as Melzack acknowledges, storytellers "often include their own experiences as they relate the tales they heard from others." Fine, but did the original anthropologists and explorers add their own experiences? Maybe, maybe not. Melzack certainly admits to making changes and his reasons for doing certainly seem suspect. "Because Eskimo life is so different from our own," he writes, "it was necessary to retell the stories in a way that would appeal to children in our culture." There are so many things wrong with that statement. To start, how was their life so fundamentally different? Nothing in this book suggests that Melzack had encounters with any real Inuit, so on what basis did he decide they were so different? And why would the original stories not appeal to children in "our culture"? Was there a study published at the time that showed how white, English children are repulsed by folklore from aboriginal people? Even if we assume, for the sake of argument, that Melzack was right, we're left with another problem in that Melzack has defined his audience so narrowly. The result, when someone like Faye picks up the book, is that he's getting a part of his culture handed back to him in a modified and disingenuous form, all in order to appeal to another culture.

To make matters worse was the choice of illustrator. Talent aside (I actually think Carol Jones did a decent job), Jones was also not an Inuk. In fact, she wasn't even a Canadian. She moved here from England in 1967, the same year the book was published. So why did Melzack and/or the editors at McClelland and Stewart think she was an appropriate choice to add her spin on these stories? To make matters worse, she drew them in a style that looks as if they were trying to pass off as Cape Dorset prints. So now we have not one, but two uninformed southerners interpreting and modifying Inuit culture.

I can see why Faye has his reservations. All the politics aside, my daughter and I enjoyed the stories. They were well written and the accompanying pictures worked nicely. Did we learn authentic Inuit folklore? Possibly not, but as long as we keep that in mind, it's okay for entertainment purposes. Now if only we could get our hands on some real stuff.

1 comment:

GeraniumCat said...

This is a really interesting post! Particularly as outside North America it's even harder to find "authentic" retellings of legends, and the whole question of cultural appropriation is relatively unconsidered. My first acquaintance with anything Inuit was reading Richler's The Incomparable Atuk way back in the 60s. I loved it then - what would I make of it now, I wonder?