The Anguish of Snails: Native American Folklore in the West

By Barre Toelken. 2003. Logan: Utah State University Press. xii + 197 pages. ISBN: 0-87421-556-0.

Reviewed by Kimberly Jenkins Marshall, Indiana University

[Review length: 738 words • Review posted in 2005]

[Cover ofThe Anguish of Snails: Native American Folklore in the West]

In The Anguish of Snails, Barre Toelken proceeds from the premise that folklore expresses the “generalized values and worldview assumptions” (13) of a community. Like a snail shell generated by a certain amount of anguish, he argues, the patterns of style and substance in outward expressions can provide clues to the emotions and values that produce them. Thus, as the author explains in his first chapter, one may gain valuable insight into underlying cultural patterns and norms by studying public visual, kinetic, and oral forms, rather than trying to observe private forms by resorting to disrespectful prying or trickery.

In Chapter Two, Toelken analyzes the visual patterns of Native American folklore performance in the western United States. He claims that visual art is particularly useful because it comprises “visible constellations of meaning” (13). He suggests, for instance, that the roundness of Navajo architecture reflects the value of matrilineality, that the cradleboard and moccasin embody the value of surroundment, and that Navajo weaving depicts patterns of balance and reciprocation. Toelken also points out that the maintenance of traditional approaches “does not preclude creativity and innovation” (35), such as beading baseball caps and tennis shoes.

Toelken describes traditional dance as “normal human movement made meaningful,” (80) and so focuses his third chapter on the cultural values communicated through dance. These include connection with the earth and living world, relationships between tribes, and balance between cooperation and competition. Focusing on the powwow, Toelken argues that these values are expressed even in this secular venue. In costuming, dancers surround themselves with the feathers, hide, and other symbols of their plant and animal relatives. Powwows often attempt to balance tribal-specific dances with those that are known inter-tribally. Further, dance competition winners will often redistribute their prize money. Overall, Toelken argues that the powwow is not a marker of waning Native traditions, but rather a type of “selective, intensified ethnic tenacity” (107).

Toelken uses Chapter Four to explore his own research specialty: patterns in oral performance. He argues that these verbal forms are particularly good indicators of cultural values, because if oral stories were no longer culturally relevant to teller and audience, they would simply cease to be told. In this chapter, Toelken analyzes four Native American narratives: “The Five Lummi Sisters,” “The Sun’s Myth,” “The Grizzly Bear,” and a Coyote tale. He argues that oral narratives not only entertain, “but also embody Native behavioral and ethical values” (15). Cautioning against a simplistic reading of tales as explanations of nature, Toelken suggests instead that natural phenomena such as the length of a bear’s tail or the color of a coyote’s eyes call up the stories about them, thereby reminding Native people of their cultural obligations.

Chapter Five is an amusing introduction to the patterns and themes of Native American humor, although the point of the chapter is very serious. Toelken argues that the common misconception of Native Americans as stoic and humorless reveals how little outsiders understand. He identifies common themes of humorous stories, which include intertribal differences, cultural variations, frictions, and the inappropriate behavior of a trickster figure, such as Ma’i (Coyote) for the Navajo. He claims that these stories can be told simply for entertainment, but they may also be told by a healer to address an imbalance caused by human Coyote-like behavior or narrated in an educational or political gathering to warn audience members against such behavior.

In Chapter Six, Toelken briefly explores Native American “cultural patterns of discovery.” According to the author, a perspective in which the natural world is integrated and interdependent encourages Native peoples to be alert to the relationships and processes present in folklore. Furthermore, if the world is interdependent, and sickness results from imbalance, then the natural world will provide a way of restoring balance for those who know where to look. This gives rise to a worldview in which the natural world is waiting to be discovered, and will share its truths with anyone seeking healing. Toelken’s concluding chapter addresses the concept of the active audience as “gleaning” meaning from folk expression.

The Anguish of Snails is an extremely useful introduction to folklore studies, one well deserving of the 2004 Chicago Folklore Prize. The author’s rich analysis also proves that scholars can come to understand a wealth of important material without subjecting individuals to invasive and disrespectful scrutiny. As Toelken notes, “We always gain perspective by taking the Native voice seriously” (184).

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© Journal of Folklore Research, 2010. Last revised June 21, 2010.