The Naked Bear: Folk Tales of the Iroquois, edited by John Bierhorst, illustrations by Dirk Zimmer (Morrow Junior Books: $13)
"Now I will tell you a story," the Iroquois storyteller would say. "Heh!" his listeners would reply, and the tale would begin.
The Iroquois storyteller has gone the way of the long house and the buffalo robe, but much of the oral literature has been preserved. Folklorist John Bierhorst chose 16 representative stories for "The Naked Bear." He introduces the collection with historical background on the Five Nations of the Iroquois--the best-known of American Indian groups--in New York state and southern Canada.
The stories are alive with a cast of fantastic characters, intricate plots in which the good guys always win, and stunning imagery.
Meet Naked Bear, huge, smooth-skinned and hairless. Naked Bear has a weakness, though --its heart is not in its chest but on its paw, the spot the clever hunter aims for.
Meet the Stone Coats
Meet the enormous, armored Stone Coats: one "carried two bears in his belt the way an ordinary man would carry a couple of squirrels." But Stone Coat also has a weakness--its hard covering keeps it from turning its head to look for danger.
Pitted against an array of man-eating monsters, disembodied heads, and flying witches are brave boys and girls, wily grandmothers and clever animal people. Disobedience is a favorite theme: "Do not go west," says the father to his sons, and you can bet that in the next paragraph the boys will be heading west, suffering the consequences but triumphing in the end. A young man decked out in a panther-skin robe with a magic pouch sent to woo a bride is instructed by his shaman-uncle not to talk to strangers on the way; of course he does, and of course the stranger steals his robe and his magic and nearly steals his bride as well.
But these are stories with happy endings. Not only does boy get girl (and vice versa), but young people make sure their elders are content, too. The man in the panther-skin robe brings home his mother-in-law as a companion for his uncle. Everybody lives happily ever after.
The Uses of Magic
Magic is commonplace. A cannibal drinks up a lake, but the boy he's chasing shoots an arrow into his belly and the lake pours out. A boy shakes a tiny dog by the ears and it grows to the size of a bear. Another boy, to rescue his sister from a witch, shakes the girl until she's small enough to fit into an arrowhead. A boy calls upon pigeons to form a wall of droppings to slow down the witch-bear in hot pursuit.
"The Quilt of Men's Eyes" is one of the most convoluted and intriguing of the stories. A witch instructs her daughter to sit on the bed of the youngest of seven brothers, to become his bride. But the girl disobeys and sits on the bed of the eldest. Too late, she discovers that she really wants the youngest brother, and she tries to seduce him. He refuses, but she convinces her husband that his brother has made advances. Now the brothers decide the youngest must be killed, and the sister must cut off his head. Sorrowfully, she complies.
Later he is restored--but the good sister is unable to keep the storm maidens from snatching his eyes. In "cloudland" the witch and her daughters are making a quilt of men's eyes. The sister's twin sons change themselves into fleas and creep into the witch's lodge. They find their uncle's eyes in the quilt (his are bloodshot), bite the women and return to Earth with the eyes. The story ends happily, but the image of "the quilt of eyes, all alive and winking," lingers on.
These are tales for reading and re-reading, to savor the turns of phrase, the flashes of humor, the glimpses of a mighty culture.