When Dream Bear Sings: Native Literatures of the Southern Plains

Edited by Gus Palmer Jr. 2018. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press. 402 pages. ISBN: 978-0-8032-8400-5 (hard cover).


Reviewed by Thierry Veyrié, American Indian Studies Research Institute

[Review length: 986 words • Review posted on October 31, 2019]


[Cover ofWhen Dream Bear Sings: Native Literatures of the Southern Plains]

A diverse collection of texts from each linguistic family of the Native American Southern Plains, When Dream Bear Sings evokes a singular editorial freedom, and in juxtaposing texts crafted in different eras, for different purposes, and by authors of diverse sensitivities, interrogates a paradoxical literary tradition—that of the documentation and revitalization of Native American oral traditions—on its evolution, its promises, and its shortcomings.

By some standards, the book may seem unfinished. Interlinear texts are formatted differently by each contributor, and the level of detail varies drastically, be it in the introductions to each contribution where themes covered vary from history to biographic information, orthography, and history of the documentation of the language at stake, or inside the texts where some provide transcription, word for word, and free translation, while others are only in English. Indeed, these differences have reasons to be: the cultural and linguistic diversity of the Southern Plains, an area where the native cultural diversity, notably multiplied by the dramatic Trail of Tears of the 1830s, constitutes a marker of identity for the contemporary native communities of Oklahoma, and justifies the relative chaos of the book, echoing a sense of trauma caused by removal and displacement. In other words, the heterogeneous form of the texts and metadata serves the purpose of expressing a shared feeling of psychosocial loss of bearing, an acute experience for the native people who underwent the Trail of Tears, but one that can also be generalized to an ontological questioning of all humanity.

If When Dream Bear Sings has historical, spiritual, and literary dimensions, it is however first and foremost a book on languages, both from the point of view of linguists and from that of community language activists, two overlapping perspectives. The book is organized by language family (and one isolate, Tonkawa), and within them by language. Each language is represented by one or several contributors listed and introduced at the end of the book. At the beginning of each chapter, the names of the original narrator, the transcriber/translator, the annotator, and the person who wrote the introduction are mentioned when applicable. The result is an emphasis on the social dimension of the fabrication of texts, not only in terms of collaboration between community members, linguists, and language workers, but also in terms of reinterpretation of the heritage left by those who have gone before us.

The many voices, native and non-native, give depth to texts as creations that continue to live and inspire. Reverend James Owen Dorsey, for example, appears in the treatment of all six Siouan languages included in the book, but every time under a different light: as a perfectible transcriber and translator in the Ponca Ghost Story narrated by Francis La Flesche and reanalyzed and introduced by Sean O’Neill; as an authoritative voice in the texts provided by Sky Campbell and the Otoe-Missouria Language Department; as a militant typing and sending letters that were dictated to him in Ponca-Omaha to a journal editor in order to raise awareness about the distress and hunger of native communities; as an ethnohistorian capturing different accounts of a battle between the Kaws and the Cheyenne and whose texts are retranscribed, retranslated, and introduced by Julian McBride, professor of linguistics and citizen of the Cherokee Nation; as the publisher of an Iowa tale of complicated origins, translated and traced by Lane Foster, Tribal Historic Preservation Officer for the Iowa Tribe of Kansas; and as the recorder of a rather entertaining Quapaw story presented by Billy Proctor of the Quapaw Language Program, in which Rabbit defeats the Bears with his yelling feces. Dorsey’s extensive and diverse work on the documentation of Siouan languages offers opportunities to revisit and strengthen the literary heritage of these tribes.

Resolutely representative of the diversity of native literary genres in the first chapter on the Algonquian language family, with Shawnee poems by Pauline Wahpepah, a modern Kickapoo joke about motorcyclists by Mosiah Bluecloud, and excerpts from interviews of Cheyenne storyteller Birdie Burns that serve as a vehicle for tribal history and myth, When Dream Bear Sings more generally proposes an inclusive approach to tradition, a concept that has too often been reduced to ethnographic views of authenticity. On the other hand, the third chapter on the Caddoan language family presents meticulous contributions from Caddo of Wallace Chafe, from Pawnee of Douglas R. Parks and Adrian Spottedhorsechief, from Arikara of Douglas R. Parks, from Kitsai of Joshua A. Richards, and Wichita of David S. Rood, all of which pertain to myths and stories set in a pristine ethnographic environment and remarkably manifest the cultural experience of the native Plains. It is this gap between tradition and modernity, a commonplace in the humanities, that the book invites to think.

In the introduction to the book, Gus Palmer, volume editor and contributor on Kiowa, emphasizes the importance of producing more useful translations (xxx-xxxi), less literal and capturing more affect: as advocated by Walter Benjamin (1968), the translator should reproduce the intended effect of the original. As such, community language workers, because they are exposed every day to the cultural worlds from which these texts emanate, have the power to retranslate texts to make them more vibrant, more total as expressions of a situated point of view on the world. However, Palmer’s practice of the renovation of texts sidesteps that of ethnopoetics: there is much more freedom in the presentation of the texts in this book than there is in Dell Hymes’s or Dennis Tedlock’s. In the promotion of the singularity of texts, Palmer finds an audacious subversion of the written epistemology to evoke the personality of the narrator and other contributors, and deconstruct the myth of the definiteness of texts.

Works Cited

Benjamin, Walter. Illuminations. New York: Shocken Books, 1968.

Hymes, Dell. "In Vain I Tried to Tell You": Essays in Native American Ethnopoetics. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1981.

Tedlock, Dennis. Finding the Center. New York: The Dial Press, 1972.

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