Tricky Trickster in Amerindian traditions

It is book review week here on Lingoblog! Today, we are bringing you a review of “Retelling Trickster in Naapi’s Language”.

What is a trickster? Many cultures in the world tell stories about a person or animal that do many things that are tricky. In Medieval Europe, one can think of the fox. In the 12th century, a number of stories about the cunning activities of the fox Renart were written down in France, and such stories with speaking and deceiving animals are widespread through Europe. The fox kills and bullies, and gets away with it. These writings go back to stories transmitted orally from generation to generation.

One can also think of the fables written down by Aesop in ancient Greece some two and a half millennia ago. In these stories, animals are able to speak, and they trick each other into actions that perhaps are not so smart, and in any case regularly detrimental to the protagonist.

A number of years ago, I spent some time with Amerindians of the Cree and Ojibwe First nations in Canada and the USA. They tell stories about a man called Nanabuzhu (Ojibwe) or Wisahkechahk (Cree), who gets into trouble all the time because of his hunger and other drifts, including his sexual desires, but he also has the power to change himself into an animal or a natural object like a rock (shape-shifting). Sometimes this trickster’s deeds explain certain natural phenomena, for instance why humans have a crack on their back or why bears have no tail.

Many of the stories of these two trickster traditions are in fact the same for these two tribal groups, both of whom speak fairly closely related Algonquian languages.

Blackfoot country and reservations

The neighbors of the Crees to the West are the Blackfeet. The Blackfoot trickster is called Naapi, which I would presume is related to the Cree and Algonquian word nâpêw “man”. The Crees call their neighbors ayahciyiniw (in Cree syllabic writing ᐊᔭᐦᒋᔨᓂᐤ) which means both ‘Blackfoot’ and ‘enemy’. There are many oral stories in Plains Cree culture about armed conflicts with the Blackfoot, all of them on a fairly small scale. This animosity existed despite the fact that the traditional cultures of the Blackfoot and the Crees of the Plains were in fact quite similar. Their lives, at least in recent history, revolved around the horse, bison hunting, nomadic lives where cone-shaped tents called tipis were transported by animals. This kind of treatment of similar peoples with enmity, of is of course not unique, in that for many humans, those who were most similar except for one little physical, religious or linguistic feature, were the biggest enemies. Hutus and Tutsis. Serbs and Croats. Christians and Muslims.

The languages of the Blackfoot, Ojibwe and Cree all belong to the Algonquian family. Whereas the Crees and Ojibwes can understand each other to some extent, especially if they speak slowly, or after a few weeks of exposure, the mutual intelligibility between Cree and Blackfoot is zero. The position of Blackfoot within the Algonquian family is one of the challenges of historical linguistics, more concretely regarding the reconstruction of Proto-Algonquian. Proto-Algonquian was the (now extinct) mother language from which the currently spoken dozens of Algonquian languages descend, which was spoken several thousands of years ago. Like Vulgar Latin was the mother language of Italian, Spanish, Italian and Portuguese.

Some of the most enigmatic facts of the languages are the close similarities between the morphological systems of Cree and Blackfoot, as well as the fact that their sound systems are also very similar, whereas both are quite different from Ojibwe, and the roots of the Blackfoot language are very different from those of the other Algonquian languages. It has been claimed that Blackfoot is perhaps a mixed language between Cree and an old layer of Algonquian, a language perhaps even on a par with Proto-Algonquian (as claimed recently by eminent Algonquianist Ives Goddard).

The similarities in the trickster stories of the Plains Crees and Blackfoot are remarkable, but there are also differences. The young Blackfoot scholar Nimachia Howe, curator and archivist in Montana, has recently published a remarkable study about the stories of the Blackfoot trickster. Her book is called Retelling Trickster in Naapi’s language. This language referred to is of course Blackfoot, or Siksika as it is called by the speakers. The nickname Blackfoot/Blackfeet comes allegedly from the fact that their moccasins were often black because they would walk on areas where fires had put the prairie grass on fire. The word “language” in the title can probably also be interpreted metaphorically.

According to the biographical blurb on the backside the author is “an Indigenous philosopher and educator who specializes in environmental philosophy and landscape literature”. With the word “language” in the title, a linguist would hope to get a linguistic analysis as well.

The book is an intellectual tour de force. The author has studied all the available printed sources of trickster stories of the Blackfoot, also manuscripts, as well as the analyses of them by indigenous and non-indigenous observers – scholars, missionaries as well as short-term visitors. The book is written in a decorative style, intellectual yet intelligible, accessible yet flowery. Her writing style is amazing, and her choice of vocabulary wide-ranging. I read her book with interest, pleasure and awe for her broad knowledge and intelligent observations. As a linguist, however, I was somewhat disappointed.

The four chapters of the book are rather abstract. I understand that the text was intended to be an introduction to trickster stories. If one does not know the genre of trickster stories, I would recommend readers to start with the six-page appendix which contains five brief trickster stories: Naapi fled his enemies, changed himself into a rock which can still be seen. Naapi met a woman, tied a bell to her dress, and she helped him shoot bison, but later she discovers that he has no eyes. Naapi, when rejected by women, turned into a lone pine tree. Many of the stories are connected to certain locations, such as a place near Red Deer River where Naapi slid down a hill with his toboggan (sled). See also ninastako.ca for a collection of Napi stories online.

One of the story tellers said: “Napioa is the Secondary Creator of the Indians. There are two kinds of stories told concerning him. One class reveals him in the character of a good man, and the other class as a bad man. He is not, however, a man, but a supernatural being, able to perform deeds which no human could perform” (p. 135).

Napi Rock in Montana, USA

The first chapter deals with the language background as well as the semiotic background, and she connects the Blackfoot language with Plains Indian Sign Language and the meanings of animal tracks as signs. The second chapter deals with the name of the trickster, including the loss of a final syllable through time. Chapter 3 deals with traditional and untraditional interpretations of Naapi stories. Chapter 4 provides a new view of the stories.

Reading the book, one gets the impression that the author is privileged as an indigenous person, in that she better understands the deeper background of the trickster stories than an outsider would do. She criticizes several approaches, and proposes her own complex analysis of the wider meaning of the stories. She has one foot in indigenous philosophy, but she also has a good grasp of modern western, perhaps also postmodern, science. On the one hand, she links the Naapi stories to similar narrations in other North American Indian traditions, most often of the Algonquian groups.

When one reads the book, and one does not know anything about the Blackfoot language, or Algonquian languages, or the diversity of languages of the world, the remarks about Blackfoot will provide a very exotic image of the language. For a typologist, however, the exotic traits constitute just another solution among the range of structural and grammatical choices: special, yes, but far from unique. Blackfoot is not more special than Danish or Greenlandic. The author’s limited knowledge of linguistic diversity and terminology, leads to some exorbitant claims. She learned the terms first person, second person, third person and fourth person. The first three are standard in grammatical studies and linguistics, whereas the term “fourth person” is used for a solution to distinguish two persons in a discourse, in order to disambiguate an English sentence “he saw his dog” (his own, or someone else’s?) or in a discourse “He saw a man. He fled.” (who of the two men fled?). Algonquian languages “solve” this with an extra ending on one of the nouns or different shapes of pronouns, and one of the endings is called obviative of fourth person. Howe writes (p. 122): “Constantly evolving facts and situations allow for movement of energy. The first, second, third, and fourth persons identified by researchers (e.g., Frantz, Uhlenbeck, Pustet) represent one way Blackfoot distinguishes witness levels’ distance from firsthand experience.”. The four persons have little or nothing to do with distances of witnesses.

Another difference between Blackfoot and English is the fact that English makes use of prepositions (like ‘for’, ‘on behalf of’, ‘towards’, ‘with’), extra verbs (like ‘make someone do’), whereas the polysynthetic Blackfoot language modifies the verb with a range of bound morphemes, often in the middle of the verb, in order to constitute the same thought. These different solutions are described by Howe as follows: “When we look closely at the types of energy that obviation allows for, it is generally used to capture references to space and time, thus prefixes refer to locative, directional, comitative, benefactive, and causative and to source and instrumental action. All of these are caused by energy. Blackfoot speakers have no issue with double referring to these potential agents because they all work to rearrange action in space and time (…).” Except for the structural differences, this is of course just as true for English speakers as it is for Blackfoot speakers.

There are a number of these exoticizing interpretations throughout the book. Her interpretations for instance of the loss of final vowels in Blackfoot, a very common process in the languages of the world, is connected to the decline of the Blackfoot language and its diminished use, whereas it is really a natural language change, unconnected to language decay or diminished language use. Latin underwent a comparable process.

In short, the linguistic interpretations in the book should be taken with a grain of salt. As a philosophical approach to mythology and its links with the modern world, the book contains many interesting observations, and lots of food for thought. The author is one of the most thought-provoking indigenous philosophers.

Peter Bakker is from planet earth, senior lecturer in linguistics at Aarhus University, originally from the Netherlands and adopted Cree.

More info on the book can be found here:

Howe, Nimachia. 2019. Retelling Trickster in Naapi’s Language. Colorado: University Press of Colorado.

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