The Wishing Bone Cycle

by nike, November 5, 2016

wishboneRecently, I posted my personal mixtape of fairytale and folklore selections: an eccentric list of fairy tales, folktales and other works, inspired (in the collating) by the eccentric collecting and publishing strategies of Andrew Lang. The list includes the poem/song below, which was included in The Wishing Bone Cycle: Narrative Poems from the Swampy Cree Indians. Norman was named the co-winner of the Harold Morton Landon Translation Award by the Academy of American Poets, splitting the prize with Galway Kinnell. Then, and now, he split his winnings and royalties with the Cree community. My copy of this classic (first published in 1972) is well worn, you might even say rumpled, the spine just about worn away. The book is a selection of narratives ‘gathered and translated’ by Howard A Norman.

Howard was the child of Russian-Polish Jewish refugees who met in Jewish orphanage, and spent his life translating and publishing works from Canadian Indigenous people, as well as writing and publishing his own short fiction and novels. The Wishing Bone Cycle was his first publication, and is based on a process he continues to hone to this day. According to Norman, the narrative poems in this book were gathered by him during storytelling sessions with two Cree storytellers, Jacob Nibenegenesabe and Samuel Makidemewabe.

In his ‘notes’, Norman writes that “[t]hese narratives were heard and translated between 1967 and 1973 in the area of the Belanger and Cobham rivers” (p. 175). Norman also asserts that often “after a single performance or exhange of stories in Cree communities” much discussion would ensure about the practice of storytelling. One of his sources, William Smith Smith, he says, told him:

The best story teller is one who lets you live if the weather is bad and you are hungry. I’ll talk about this more. One man I knew long ago. He told me stories. He watched animals. He heard about animals and talked about them. Out of the talk came something. Once he sat down with me and said: ‘This story has something about ice fishing in it. You should know this thing. Maybe it won’t be easy to hear, inside the story, but it’s there. Too easy to find you might think it was too easy to do.’ Well, then he told me the story. Sure enough, there was an important thing in it about ice fishing. I heard it and remembered it. Later, I asked myself: What if a wind blew all the other people away and I was alone? Could I catch fish under the ice just going by what I learned in that story? And a little of what I saw done during ice fishing season? I said to myself: Yes! Then I knew he told a good story. Also, it made me laugh (pp.172-173).

At least two scholars of Indian languages have since published articles asserting that The Wishing Bone Cycle is a fake. In April 1989, John Nichols from the University of Manitoba published an article (‘The Wishing Bone Cycle’: a Cree ‘Ossian’?) in the International Journal of American Linguistics (vol. 55, no 2). He argued that Norman’s translations were ‘fakes’ that demonstrated the author’s lack of familiarity with the Cree language of Norman’s purported sources.

Robert Brightman, from University of Wisconsin, also published a critical article (Tricksters and Ethnopoetics) in the same issue of the same journal, using Wishing Bone Cycle as the basis for an article in which he argued, in part, that Norman’s text raised “a number of questions regarding the authenticity both of the texts and the poetic characteristics represented in Norman’s translations” (p. 179) and that “Whatever their literary merits, versifications based on English translations of American Indian texts provide no insights into the poetic structures of the originals as oral performances” (p. 179). He also argued that much of Norman’s material had been lifted from an earlier translation/transcription by Leonard Bloomfield of stories told to him by Maggie Achenam. Brightman’s argument was that Norman had merely rendered Bloomfield’s prose translations into poetic form.

The arguments against Norman’s works and process don’t seem to have gained much attention or traction, and his works are still widely published. These days, Norman tends to stick to writing original fiction. The following is a single story from the Trickster narrative, Wishing Bone Cycle, from which the book takes its title. According to Norman, Jacob Nibenegenesabe was the ‘inventor and initiator of these particular narrative poems’ (p. 3). In the stories in this cycle, the first-person narrator has found the wishbone of a snow goose, which functions as a powerful ‘wishing bone’: the wishbone has the power to metamorphose any object into another, or, as the coat story suggests, to invest inanimate objects with lively personalities.

Swampy Cree people at Shoal River, Manitoba, 1889. Image courtesy Library & Archives Canada, PA050874.

Swampy Cree people at Shoal River, Manitoba, 1889. Image courtesy Library & Archives Canada, PA050874.


I try to make wishes right
but sometimes it doesn’t work.
Once, I wished a tree upside down
and its branches
were where the roots should have been!
The squirrels had to ask the moles
“How do we get down there
to get home?”
One time it happened that way.
Then there was the time, I remember now,
I wished a man upside down
and his feet were where his hands
should have been!
In the morning his shoes
had to ask the bires
“How do we fly up there
to get home?”
One time it happened that way.

There was an old woman I wished up.
She was the wife
of an old pond.
You could watch her swim in her husband
if you were
in the hiding bushes.
She spoke to him by the way she swam
One time in their lives there was no rain
and the sun began making the pond smaller.
Soon the sun took the whole pond!
For many nights the old woman slept
near the hole where her husband once lived.
Then, one night, a storm came
but in the morning there still was no water
in her husband’s old house.
So she set out on a journey to find her husband
and followed the puddles on the ground
which were the storm’s footprints.
She followed them for many mile.
Finally she came upon her husband
sitting in a hole. But he was in the wrong hole!
So the old woman brought her husband home
little by little in her hands.
You could have seen him come home
if you were
in the hiding bushes.

Once I wished up a coat
wearing a man inside.
The man was sleeping
and when he woke
the coat was on him!
This was in summer, so many asked him
“Why do you have that coat on?”
“It has me in it!”
he would answer.
He tried to take it off
but I wished his memory shivering with cold
so it wouldn’t want to remember
how to take a coat off.
That way it would stay warm.
I congratulated myself on thinking of that.
Then his friends came,
put coats on,
and slowly showed him how they took coats off.
Even that didn’t work.
Things were getting interesting.
Then his friends
tried to confuse the coat
into thinking it was a man.
“Good morning,” they said to it,
“Did you get
your share of fish?”
and other things too.
Some even invited the coat to gossip.
It got to be late summer
and someone said to the coat
“It is getting colder.
You better go out
and find a coat to wear.”
The coat agreed!

Ha! I was too busy laughing
to stop that dumb coat
from leaving the man it wore
I didn’t care.
I went following the coat.
Things were getting interesting.

(pp. 33-34)

1 Comment

  • […] ‘Once I wished up a coat / wearing a man inside’, which is collected in The Wishing Bone Cycle: a series of translations of Swampy Cree tales told by Jacob Nibenegenesabe, and translated by Howard Norman. (I’ve posted a little extract and some contextual information here) […]

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