Book review: “Trickster: Native American Tales, a graphic collection,” edited by Matt Dembicki

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Book review: “Trickster: Native American Tales, a graphic collection,” edited by Matt Dembicki

Well, when you get down to it, isn’t life a trick?

You’re born and spend your whole existence on Earth trying to figure out what it all means.

And then you die.

The Big Trick.

No wonder, then, that, throughout human history, culture after culture has developed a mythology that has included at least one character who is a trickster. This is especially true among Native Americans where the multiplicity of tribes has resulted in a multiplicity of tricksters.

Tricksters of all sorts, some cunning in their deviousness, others hapless when their tricks backfire.

Some who are responsible for the creation of certain rock formations or the stars in the night sky, and some whose tricks are the reason certain animals look the way they do.

 

“The original people of this land”

Trickster: Native American Tales, a graphic collection was put together by Matt Dembicki, a Washington, D.C.-based comics creator.

He writes in an afterword that he got the idea for his collection when, at a local library, he came across the 1998 book American Indian Trickster Tales by Alfonso Ortiz and Richard Erdoes. He was enthralled by the variety of stories, featuring a wide range of animals.

Although the Ortiz-Erdoes book is sprinkled with simple illustrations, it is mainly text. So, Dembicki thought to bring together native storytellers with professional illustrators to create graphic versions of such Native American tales.

The result, after some bumps in the road, was Trickster, published in 2010, a book which. Dembicki writes, can serve “as a bridge for readers to learn more about the original people of this land and…foster a greater appreciation and understanding among all inhabitants.”

It offers 21 stories, told by 23 Native Americans from Alaska to Nebraska, from Maine to South Carolina, from Hawaii to New York to New Mexico. The tribes represented include Cherokee, Navajo, Pueblo, Blackfoot and Choctaw.

 

A bit of a doofus

In the book’s first story “Coyote and the Pebbles,” the trickster is Coyote who is something of a doofus.

Like many tricksters in Native American stories, coyote runs on his own time clock. He arrives late for a meeting that the animals have had with the Great Mystery.

The animals have asked the Great Mystery for more light at night, and they’ve been told to gather shiny pebbles and bring them to the top of the mountain and use them to draw self-portraits in the sky. This, they do.

Coyote, though, in addition to being late, dawdles, and, when he gets to the mountain top, all of the spaces in the sky have been put to use. As he scans around to find a place for his self-portrait, he’s not paying attention to what he’s doing. He stumbles, his pebbles fly out hither and yon up to the sky, bumping pebbles already there and starting a chain reaction that results in a royal mess of a sky.

The animals ask the Great Mystery to fix things, but are told,

“We cannot change what has happened. We cannot go back to last month, last week, or even five minutes ago.”

After all, the Great Mystery says, the animals hadn’t asked for portraits, only more light.

The animals have no choice but to live with the result of Coyote’s lateness, dawdling and clumsiness, and they’re mad at him.

What strikes me about this tale is that, here, the trickster is the opposite of the mythical hero. The hero does great things to make the lives of the people better. In this story, Coyote does a lot of sloppy things that make the lives of the people less than what they might have been.

The moral of the hero story is that a human being can display courage and grit to the benefit of others. The moral of the Coyote story is that human beings can be inattentive, distracted and self-absorbed, and others pay the price.

 

Attractively roguish

The moral of “Raven the Trickster” is that everyday people can be duped by someone who is clever and out for his own advantage.

It’s the sort of story can be told with great darkness, but this version depicts Raven’s cleverness as attractively roguish.

After Raven tricks a whale to open his mouth, he flies in and has a minor adventure inside the beluga. Then, when he messes with a lamp he’s supposed to leave alone, the fire goes out and the inside of the whale is left in darkness.

Luckily for Raven, the whale dies (maybe because the lamp went out?) and is washed ashore, and, when men begin butchering the carcass, he flies to freedom.

Then, he plays his big trick: He goes to the men and asks them if they noticed that, as they worked, “something black” flew out of the body. (It was, of course, Raven.)

Raven tells them it might have been an evil spirt. They buy it and go home.

As soon as they’re gone, Raven gathers the meat and blubber and takes it away, all for himself.

 

Playing dead

Another trickster in the book is Azban the racoon who has a taste for crawfish so he plays dead to get a whole colony of the crustaceans to believe that his carcass is available for fine dining.

Despite some hardships, such as a bite on his nose, Azban keeps still, and, then, at the right moment, springs into action and has himself a feast.

The moral here is that playing a trick may require a great amount of pain and perseverance before it results in success.

Also, it can be dangerous to be as greedy as the crawfish, hoping for an entire racoon to feast on.

 

A trick backfires

Sometimes, a trick backfires, as when Waynaboozhoo, a Native America boy, finds a way to tie together the feet of a bunch of geese.

He had the rope around himself and is about to pull them in to him when they take off — and take him with them!

The moral: Be sure you know how your trick is going to turn out.

 

Devious and admirable?

There’s something deeply human about all these trickster tales.

We all have been stung by tricksters — and will be stung by the Big Trick.

But, for Native Americans (and, I suspect, for many readers of this book), some tricksters are seen as admirable, even in their deviousness.

We like the idea of a hero’s courage and strength.

But we’re more familiar with the actions of tricksters in our lives.

 

Patrick T. Reardon

6.27.18

 

 

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