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Revisiting Native American and Mizo folktales from an ecocritical perspective

By Zothanchhingi Khiangte
Research Scholar,Dept of English,
Manipur University.

The oral tradition which sustains a tribe’s cultural identity through historical record documents not only the creation and emergence of a tribe but also the people’s relationship with nature and other species of the earth. Native Americans have been accustomed to remembering their histories and their way of life through time-proven processes of story-telling which is inextricably linked to Mother Earth.

The continued use of the oral tradition by Native writers and the north-east Indian writers acts as a form of postcolonial resistance and becomes a means of telling their own stories in their own terms and in their own voices. A north-east Indian poet Esther Syiem imaginatively reconstructs a story from the oraltradition in order to lend a voice to the voiceless. The poem Ka Tiew Lalyngi Pepshad is based on a folktale about a beautiful flower that missed an important dance of all the creatures of the earth because she procrastinated over her toilette.The poet articulates the silence of a woman in the traditional Khasi society where women were excluded from the public domain. In fact, there is a saying which is applied to women who try to make their voices heard: “Dur lanot la kynih ka siar kynthei”(woe to us if the hen crows). The following twist in the narration lends ears to the flower that never had the chance to tell her side of the story:

But if allowed to have my say
I’d re-arrange the words
And tell them all,
The reason for my procrastination
From the view of one
Who wanted most of all
To be the crowning beauty of a dance
Which eventually I missed…

In The Sacred Hoop, Paula Gunn demonstrates how the sacred traditions of the Native Americans shape their worldviews. Leslie Marmon Silko’s novels and poems celebrate the restorative power of the oral tradition. Geary Hobson, the editor of the book The Remembered Earth (1979) writes in the introductory chapter:

“… Native American people have been accustomed to remembering their histories and their ways of life through intricate time-proven processes of storytelling.”

The post-colonial world system has greatly contributed to the physical, cultural and spiritual displacements of non-western culture and has left them uprooted and removed from their cultural heritage. The western concept of individuality is a counterpoint to the Mizo and Native American concept of family for whom the tribe is but an extended family. This consciousness of family-community, placing the community first and the self second disappeared once colonization occurred and one can only look back in nostalgia at what was lost and attempt to creatively reconstruct life anew through the study of folklore.

Folklore identifies the people, offering a vivid picture of their intrinsic values and their view of life. It gives an insight into the tribe’s history. Jan Vansina in his book, Oral Tradition has said that among the peoples without writing, oral tradition forms the main available source for a reconstruction of the past. In the context of the Mizos andNative Americans , folktales and folksongs are, as it were, the keys to reconstructing the past. The reconstruction of the past is necessary in order to know where you are headed to.

The larger part of Mizo and Native American history has been written in a colonial perspective and the historians have made shockingly little effort to understand the life, the society, the culture, the thinking and the feeling of these peoples and they have been time and again branded as savages with no virtues of civilisation in the historical accounts of the first European colonisers. Similarly, the Mizos were also described as uncivilized headhunters, dancing around their kill. An account of Colonel Elles may be quoted in this regard: “… in nature they [Mizos] are no doubt savage and morose, and they have not as yet acquired any of the virtues of civilization.” But what really is the yardstick by which we measure civility? They are called “savages” just because their manners differ from those of the colonisers, which we think is the perfection of civility.

A closer delving into their folktales reveals these traditional societies in a different light. It is through the folk narratives that the Mizos and the Native Americans ‘tell’ their own story. Although they may have their fair share of wars and bloodshed, the Mizos were not a band of barbarians roving the hills for heads and scalps nor were they foragers who knew nothing about agriculture and commerce. One of the oldest Mizo folktales, Liandova te unau tells us about the Mizos’ long acquaintance with the cultivation of maize. That the Mizos knew trade and commerce is evident from the humorous story of Chhurbura, who sets out to sell his earthenware in another village and loses his way.

The Mizo sense of hygiene can also be seen in the popular story of Chemtatrawta when the villagers rebuke the old widow for excreting near the public water point. In the same story, the importance given to justice and fairness can be seen through the villagers’ painstaking effort to book the real culprit.

The folk narratives, while maintaining and transmitting an entire culture create a sense of identity which was intimately linked to the landscape that has often played a significant role in a story. The Mizo Chai Hla and Sikpui Hla give us a glimpse of their descent and their route of migration. From the Chant or invocation by the Puithiam (priest) of the clan for Sakhua (sacrifice to the guardian spirit of the clan or the family), the Mizos in olden days used to include in their prayers the names of the places where they lived. Like Leslie Marmon Silko says in Yellow Woman, the precise date of the incident is less important than the place or location of the happening. “Long, long ago”, “a long time ago”, “not too long ago”, “recently” are usually how stories are classified in terms of time.

The Mizo and the Native American emergence stories of how people had emerged through a cave or a hole from an underground world, like a plant sprouting out of a mother’s womb tell of their intimate connection with the earth. Linda Hogan assigns a distinctly female symbolic meaning to caves and says that they are places of great spiritual significance. She states that “caves are not the places for men. They are the feminine world, a womb of earth, a germinal place of breeding. In many creation stories, caves are the places that bring forth life.”

The Native American cosmology is all-inclusive, where all things in nature become part of a great whole. Paula Gunn in The Sacred Hoop describes life as a circle where “everything has a place within it.” Silko tries to explain this inter- relatedness of human beings and nature when she talks about Pueblo dancers who with their painted body, masks and costumes are transformed into ‘animal beings’ they portray: “ Every impulse is to reaffirm the urgent relationships that human beings have with the plant and animal world.”

In the Mizo tale of Mauruangi, the little girl after the death of her mother finds sustenance in nature. She finds a nurturing maternal figure in the dolphin and the tree. But due to her scheming step mother, the dolphin gets killed and the tree is felled. The message is clear. It is a premonition of the catastrophe to be brought in by the step motherly treatment of nature through industrialization and urbanization. There are no more trees and fish left to give man sustenance. In The Twin Sisters, a Biate (a Mizo sub-tribe) folktale, water becomes a recurring image for physical and psychological healing.

There are also many instances where nature comes to the rescue of those who seek her protection. As a corroborative example, one may refer to the story of Rahtea.

The Native Americans viewed the land itself as a living organism, and the animals that inhabited it were of equal importance to humans. Even the earth and the sky are perceived as organic beings. There is an ancient Navajo poem that speaks of the people’s intimacy with the universe:

Now our Mother Earth
And our Father Sky
Joining one another, meeting,
Helpmates ever, they.
All is beautiful
All is beautiful, all is beautiful, indeed.

This perception of the earth and the sky as mother and father brings to mind a Tenyimia (one of the Naga tribes of Nagaland) poem Ruheja :
Heaven is my father, Earth is my mother,
I am being asked to be the messenger of men and God…

In these two poems, there is a sense of exultation and beauty is celebrated. Beauty was as much a feeling of harmony as it was a visual, aural or sensual effect and it was manifested in one’s relationship with other living beings. Most Indian cultures have held that humans have a personal connection with the natural world.

The Indians and the Mizos shared a relationship with nature which was kept alive by their religious beliefs. The relationship was something spiritual. Fritjof Capra in his book, The Web of Life says, “Ecological awareness is spiritual in its deepest essence.”

The Mizos and the Native Americans worked nature into their rituals and customs. They had several ceremonies associated with the ecology. The Sun Dance ceremony, known as ‘The Offering’ by the Cheyenne is associated with the return of green vegetation and the increase in animal populations (especially the buffalo) during spring and early summer. It expresses a tribe’s unity with the earth and dependence on it for sustenance. Ecological metaphors were woven into the languages of many Native American cultures- “Who cuts the trees as he pleases cuts short his own life,” said the Mayas. In fact the Maya word for “tree sap” is the same as the word for “blood”.

The Mizos celebrated Chapchar Kut to mark the beginning of cultivation and involves some rituals where sacrifices were made to the spirits of nature for protection during the entire process of cultivation. A very remarkable ritual of the Mizos was the Kang ral, a day observed in mourning for the animals, birds or insects that might have been killed while clearing the lands for ‘jhum’. This shows their reverence for animals. Leslie Marmon Silko in her book Yellow Woman writes about the Pueblos’ hunting:

All phases of the hunt are conducted with love: the love the hunter and the people have for the antelope and the love of the antelopes who agreed to give up their meat so that human beings will not starve.

There are strict cultural sanctions against killing of animals in numbers that would exceed their natural replacement rate.

One very interesting ceremony of the Apache Indians is the Puberty Ceremony. The ritual as a whole dramatizes the creation of nature and its perennial renewals and marks the earth’s fertility. The Assamese have a similar kind of puberty ceremony although it is not known to have been prevalent among the Mizos.

“The Native Americans,” as Mc Luhan has asserted in the introductory chapter of Touch the Earth “saw no virtue in imposing their will over their environment”. Subjugating nature was just an illusion. They adapt to their surroundings in order to survive rather than forcing the environment to adjust to their requirements, a characteristic of Western culture ideologies that saw in the environment a natural resource ordained by God for man’s sole benefit. The Native American and Mizo philosophies of life and nature as seen in the context of their oral tradition hold a contrast to the western capitalist notions of commodification. Booth and Jacobs affirm that many “American cultures adapted their needs to the capacities of natural commodities; the new inhabitants freshly out of Europe, adapted natural commodities to meet their needs”

Private land acquisition was to them a way to poverty, not riches. The American Indians never considered land as an individual property which could be owned and sold. The following account of Ramona Bennett, former chairwoman of the Puyallup Tribe may shed some light on the Native view of land acquisition:

When white people came here, they pointed up at the Mother Mountain [Mount Rainier] and said, “Who owns that?” and the Indians cracked up-what a funny idea, to own a mountain! For us, the Mother Mountain is for everyone. It brings fresh water, it’s where our river comes from…It’s sacred.

Another interesting characteristic of the Native American and Mizo creation stories is the female creator. The Mizos believed that Khuazingnu, a female god created the earth and that rain, which brings life and sustenance to all living beings is the work of another female goddess, Vanchungnula. An Iroquois creation story tells of man’s origin from a woman known as the Sky Woman. There is also the Navajo story of Changing Woman who released her people from the underworld where the Sun, her husband wanted them to stay.

There are several Native American stories embodying images of women. One Lakota story speaks of how a holy woman brought the people the sacred pipe and taught them how to live in harmony. In the Iroquois life, women owned the property and took the major decisions of social life. The principal male figure in an Iroquois child’s life was not the father but the mother’s brother, and the image of mother-dominated families is established strongly in the creation legend. A Hopi emergence story tells the story of how all the men of the Underworld had to leave their village to bring an end to the confused state of living. In the story, it was the men who had to leave as the houses did not belong to them. The houses were the women’s properties. In Messengers of the Wind, Emmi Whitehorse, a Navajo woman recounts how the women used to run everything in the family before the arrival of the White missionaries who said that men were supposed to run everything. Indigenous communities had been described and dissected by white observers whose observations sometimes reveal their own cultural biases than about the indigenous people. The position of women was also in most cases viewed through such distorted lens. The hard work of the women was often perceived as servitude, as a mark of their low social status. In fact, the women did work hard, but as Jane Katz has said, “… labor is not necessarily servitude; most [women] were partners with men in the business of survival.”

The Mother Creator in Native American and Mizo creation stories, the woman symbolization of nature, the stories of the emergence of people from a cave or a hole in the earth like a plant sprouting from the earth’s womb, the participation of animals in the creation of the world, the belief that all things in nature-the trees, the moon, the sun, the wind, even inanimate objects like the rocks had spirits in them bespeak of their reverence not only for women but also for nature. The story of the formation of land on the turtle’s back is found both in the Mizo as well as Native American folk narratives.

Silko points out that sexual inhibition did not begin until the Christian missionaries arrived. She further says that because the Creator is female, there is no stigma on being female. This attitude towards women is a counterpoint to the Christian perception of woman as the cause of man’s fall from grace. Nature and women, considered dangerous and unpredictable by the Western culture, need to be subdued and controlled. Writers like Annette Kolodny and Greta Gaard compare the subjugation of women to the subjugation of nature. Greta Gaard maintains, “The standard history of colonialism, one in which the oppressive structures of capitalism, Christianity and patriarchy construct nature and in which those associated with nature are considered resources for the colonizer… interesting only in terms of their subordination.” In her first book The Lay of the Land, Annette Kolodny explores the colonisation of America and argues that the feminization of the land and the use of the metaphor “virgin land” were essential to its colonization. The land became a passive virginal figure, existing only to be dominated, sexually or otherwise In Women and Nature, Susan Griffin likens nature to a woman’s body and exposes how Western culture, through scientific, religious and philosophic thought has justified and defined the subjugation of women and the non-human natural world.

This paper seeks to reinforce the point that indigenous people have lived in harmony with nature for centuries, which is evident from their activities. Land is more than the physical landscape, it includes the living environment. There is a growing need to study the traditional ecological knowledge to educate us on the necessity to preserve wilderness. H.D.Thoreau had said, “In wilderness is the preservation of the world”. The folktales and folksongs, which form part of the cultural heritage of such indigenous people like the Native Americans and Mizo have great relevance because they teach us the fundamentals of living with one another and with the earth in ways that are relation-based rather than consumption-based, responsibility-based than right-based.

- Inpui
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