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(Many Paths)
An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America
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Book Lets Great Lakes American Indians Tell Their Own Story
by Levi Rickert - The Grand Rapids (MI) Press

Star Songs and Water Spirits: A Great Lakes Native Reader

During the pre-Columbian contact era, indigenous peoples of Turtle Island, now known as North America, passed their stories, poetry and songs down from one generation to the next through oral history. Using their own tribal language, their creation stories established a sense of belonging to Mother Earth and their prophecies guided them for the future.

Mostly these oral histories were compressed and concise. Once transferred to written form as the result of Euro-American technological influences, these stories were still in their native language; thus, leaving the translation to ethnologists to ensure proper translations into English.

For those of us — contemporary American Indians — who remain, these stories written by our ancestors provide us with a means to retain our cultural and tribal identities. It is always better for any one cultural group to provide their own histories than to have others write them. Otherwise, it leaves room for slants others can put on their history.

A recently published book, "Star Songs and Water Spirits: A Great Lakes Native Reader" is an anthology of stories, songs, poetry, autobiographies, and speeches from the Great Lakes region. Some of these works reach back to the times of oral history and were put into written words; then translated by ethnologists.

The book was edited by Victoria Brehm, who is a former professor of English literature at Grand Valley State University.

"Oral history forces us to remain as tourists," Brehm states. "We have to rely on the ethnologists to translate for us. They have to make the works look modern to a culture that is not dead."

The genesis of "Star Songs and Water Spirits: A Great Lakes Native Reader" was a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. She spent 12 years researching, compiling, verifying and editing Great Lakes American Indian material. In the end though, Brehm produced a thick, great book.

Previously, Brehm did extensive work on other books relating to the Great Lakes region. Her other works include, "Sweetwater, Storms, and Spirits: Stories of the Great Lakes" and "The Women's Great Lakes Reader." She also edited, "A Little History of My Forest Life: An Indian-White Autobiography" by Eliza Morrison.

In "Star Songs and Water: A Great Lakes Native Reader" the earlier writings heavily rely on mythical animals which played a key role in the stories. The book provides a bridge from historic American Indians, such as Tenskwatawa, Tecumseh's brother, to contemporary American Indian writers, such as Basil Johnston and Louise Erdrich.

An entry taken from "I Know What You Mean, Edrdupps MacChurbbs: Autobiographical Myths and Metaphors" by Gerarld Vizenor, a mixed-blood Ojibwe, provides an inside look at a meeting of American Indian Movement leaders who went to the Leech Lake Reservation in Minnesota to assist local tribal members in the their fight for fishing treaty rights. Vizenor ends up becoming Dennis Banks' chauffeur. Banks co-founded the American Indian Movement in 1968.

Another treat in the book is taken from "Queen of the Woods" by Simon Pokagon, an educated American Indian, who eventually became the keynote speaker on Chicago Day at the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Pokagon writes: " . . . I had attended the white man's school for several years, I had an innate desire to retire into the wild woods, far from the haunts of civilization." One has to wonder about the true meaning behind "the haunts of civilization" from the Native perspective. Pokagon further in the discourse argues even non-Indians would want to return to the woods, as well.

"Star Songs and Water: A Great Lakes Native Reader" should be savored one writing at a time. Readers should allow the writings to simmer as they enjoy the deep rich history of Great Lakes American Indians.

Levi Rickert, a tribal member of the Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation, is the former executive director of the North American Indian Center of Grand Rapids.

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