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Discover Mid-America — October 2004

Trickery and morality combine for great reading

Totkv Mocvse: New Fire: Creek Folktales by Earnest Gouge, edited and illustrated by Jack B. Martin, Margaret Mauldin, and Jaunita McGirt, Forword by Craig Womack, University of Oklahoma Press, 2004, paperback, 160 Pages, 5 b&w illus., $29.95.

The oral tradition of the Native American forms a rich literary design that has been lost to most modern Americans until recently. Thanks to the work of a few native authors and ethnologists working at the beginning of the 20th century, some of these oral tales have been written down, catalogued and translated.

While frequently quirky, awkward and often ill translated, some works stand out from the emerging mass of native literature appearing in university presses and small presses in the United States. Of these, New Fire in particular, deserves attention, not merely for the historical merit of the text — all of these works have inherent historical importance — but for the intricacy and compelling nature of the 29 readable tales compiled in the book.

Earnest Gauge, the author, wrote from a rich tradition of Creek literary authorship, which was already firmly established by the time of the tribe’s removal in the 1830s. As pointed out in the foreword, Creek historians and authors George Stiggins, David Cusick and G.W. Grayson had gone before Gouge in putting down Creek history and perspective.

After the Indian Removal Act had forced the removal of the Five Civilized Tribes — the Creek, Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, and Seminole — west of the Mississippi River into what would become Oklahoma, this literary tradition continued. But only recently has it entered the discourse of Native American studies and the teaching of native literature and language.

A theme of trickery and morality winds through the Creek folk tales. The “Hunter and his dogs,” the first story in the book, typifies the layered, subtle nature of the tales. In this, a hunter, who was often away from his wife, has become sick. His wife is away and has been for some time. His dogs, sentient and intelligent, convince the man that instead of heading over land to hunt, they will carry him to his boat on the nearby river. While the boat floats downstream, the dogs hunt small game, taking what they need to build the hunter back to health.

When they reach the hunting ground, they put the man ashore to rest. “The sick man they’d brought had begun to get around a little,” the tale goes, “and the dogs were very happy...The man had once been a hunter, and was ably killing deer.” Soon, the dogs drive a bear to man, which he kills and upon which the dogs and their owner feast.

The dogs, being wily, knew there was something afoot with the hunter’s wife and another man. When the man becomes healthy enough, they tell him about the affair and take him to the adulterous couple. The oldest of the hounds says to the man, (The text uses commas and capitals to mark quotations.) “The young dogs are saying, if he says to apply the law, We will carry it out, so whatever you think of what they’re saying [we’ll do, the dog] said.”

The man agrees and the dogs kill the offending couple, but then lead the hunter to the house of a man with a young daughter. The dogs instruct the man what to say if asked about his wife, “When we get to that house, those living in the house will tell you, We heard it said that the woman you kept had a very short memory and that she found a man and is living with him…The coyotes did away with her, they’ll tell you. But when they say that, all you will answer will be, And so they did.”

In the end, the man offers food to the man with the daughter and finds a new wife, one whom has a much longer memory, it seems, and of whom the dogs approve.

Such a tale works on several levels. The first and most important is that of fidelity. The man’s fidelity is implied in the tale, and that his wife has a serious affair is great treachery for which she must pay with her life. But here, though the dogs kill the offender, it is with his approval, which makes him a killer, though justified. When he goes to the man, he becomes a liar, again justified in light of the reward of making a young woman and himself happy.

The tales recount the rituals of the seasons and coming of age, of why the natural world is the way it is, and why people act the way they do. In all, it’s a wonderful trip into the human imagination — and many of the realities that lie therein.

Gouge’s original Creek text lays next to the English translation on the page, and the introduction and foreword give linguistic and historical background that make this particularly compelling. It’s a fascinating look into the Creek worldview, one that is relevant and important to anyone interested in this facet of our history.

Patrick Dobson is a journalist, poet, and freelance writer and editor based in Kansas City, MO. He publishes and edits the online literary magazine, the poetrysheet. His award-winning columns, editorials, and articles have appeared in PitchWeekly, eKC, and Discover Mid-America. His poetry and short stories have been published in the pages of The Kansas City Star, Review, Friction Magazine, Mid-America Poetry Review, The Same, and Thorny Locust. He is now pursuing a doctorate in history at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.

Patrick Dobson can be contacted at or

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