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Nonfiction in Brief

ENCYCLOPEDIA OF NATIVE AMERICAN TRIBES by Carl Waldman, illustrations by Molly Braun (Facts on File: $35)

March 06, 1988|ALEX RAKSIN

While some of us had the chance to visit Indian pueblos when we were in school, we were still left with the impression that these were settlements rather than remnants of civilizations. This thinking was no doubt influenced by our textbooks, which looked back at the descendants of our nation's family--the Greeks and Romans--rather than at the older, roughly comparable progenitors of our land--the Mayas and the Aztecs. In 1985 Carl Waldman helped remind us of the richness of Native American culture in "Atlas of the North American Indian," named an "outstanding reference book" by the American Library Association. He offers another after-school corrective in these pages, with the help of Molly Braun's simple, yet elegant and evocative art. Waldman's books might renew interest where others failed because he refuses to follow the standard encyclopedic style of cramming summary into the first few sentences and then barraging us with dry facts.

Instead, Waldman begins his shorter entries on tribes by describing ways of thinking and living--the Aleuts were more concerned with rank and wealth than the Eskimos, for instance, while Eskimo men had "song partners," friendships so great they would sometimes share wives. Under the larger headings, Waldman begins by capturing the spiritual essence of a tribe's culture. We meet the Hopis, for instance, by learning their story of creation: People and animals emerged from a series of caves into a dark and wet Grand Canyon and tried to bring light into the world. Spider spun a ball of pure white silk to make the moon. Vulture flapped his wings and made the water flow away, forming dry land. And coyote opened a jar he had found in one of the caves. Sparks flew out of it, then flew into the sky to become stars.

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