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Tribal Women Speak : SPIDER WOMAN'S GRANDDAUGHTERS : Traditional Tales and Contemporary Writing by Native American Women edited by Paula Gunn Allen (Beacon Press: $19 . 95; 242 pp.)

July 09, 1989|Quannah Karvar | Karvar is a translator of Ponca oral history and mythology. and

"Spider Woman's Granddaughters," a companion in spirit to Paula Gunn Allen's "The Sacred Hoop: Recovering the Feminine in American Indian Tradition," published in 1986, continues to explore the history and spiritual heritage of Native American women.

The voices of the 17 women whose works make up this collection speak of the sacred traditions that weave the fabric of their tribal identity, of the spirit beings with whom they coexist, of the importance of "right kinship," and of the connection of all creatures to each other and to the land.

They also tell of the war, captivity, separation and loss that have pervaded the lives of their people for five centuries.

These remarkable narratives represent the oral tradition as it journeys into its contemporary form, bringing with it all that is sacred and significant to tribal women and tribal people as a whole.

The contributors "belong to a time-honored tradition of storytelling in which the teller reminds us of our responsibilities, our gifts, and our right place in the interplay of energies that are at once sacred and frightening, ordinary and transcendent."

In her introduction, Allen expresses her concern "that these stories not be read as 'women's literature' as that term has come to be applied in contemporary feminist writing. Rather . . . as tribal women's literature. . . . We are not so much 'women' as American Indian women; our stories, like our lives, necessarily reflect that fundamental identity."

The collection opens with a traditional tale told to anthropologist Frank B. Linderman at the turn of the century, a childhood memory of a Crow wise-woman, Pretty Shield.

This brief but luminous tale is a well-placed, if not essential preface to the collection's female warrior theme, as it reveals the priorities of battle, the nature of warriors and the power of women in traditional tribal society. It is memory refined to its most powerful purpose.

The power of contemporary author Louise Erdrich lies not only in her extraordinary insight but equally in her skill and eloquence as a writer. The same is true of Anna Lee Waters and Linda Hogan, whose works put to rest the persistent notion that Native American literature is confined to folklore.

Louise Erdrich, a National Book Critics Circle Award-winning novelist, steals the senses with "American Horse," drawing a dark North Dakota night and the growing terror of a young boy around the heart and mind until there is no escape.

Huddled together in an old shed at the edge of the yard, Buddy and Albertine American Horse cling to each other as Vickie Koobs and officers Harmony and Brackett approach. Albertine goes into battle prepared to die for her son but life is not always that merciful.

"American Horse" is akin in theme to the traditional Chippewa tale, "Oshkiwe's Baby," which Allen has included in the collection. Both explore the experience of separation and loss so prevalent in Native American women's lives and literature.

Anna Lee Waters and Linda Hogan tell of the search for dignity and beauty on the landscape of poverty and despair and of death and the power of grief to destroy or to transform.

Theirs are intensely beautiful and poignant stories so lyrically rendered that when they are finished their spirits linger.

Like most traditional tales, the "Yellow Woman" cycle (Allen includes two from the Cochiti Pueblo and one from the Laguna Pueblo mythology) assumes the inseparability of the physical and metaphysical realm, causing them to seem more like captured visions than short stories.

Carried into contemporary form, Leslie Marmon Silko's "Yellow Woman" story explores the uncertainty of a young woman who is transformed into the mythological Yellow Woman and lured away by a Kachina spirit--or is she? The young woman's modern sensibilities challenge her intuition and even when she is set free and has returned to her family, she remains certain and yet somehow unconvinced of her transformation.

LeAnne Howe's "An American in New York" steps clear of the collection's predominant landscapes and predicaments to the Big Apple, where a woman's business trip is destined to become a tall traveler's tale among her people. It is also an ironic commentary on America from a Native point of view.

The narrator reflects on the "one-hundredth birthday celebration of the Statue of Liberty. Even though not one word was mentioned about America's natives . . . I've decided that Emma Lazarus, who wrote the statue's welcoming inscription, must have been an Indian: 'Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free. . . .' You did. Now where do we go from here."

In the words of the final contributor, Misha Gallagher: "Stories don't have endings." They come from and return to "Mother tradition," guarding the continuity of the collective memory.

For those of us who inhabit that perilous ground where two worlds collide, Allen is a pathfinder. She is only one of many who, like Spider Woman, offer their "light of intelligence and experience." But her emergence at this time in our history, and our determination, renders her as significant as any who have come before.

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