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Boas, Franz. Race, Language and Culture – T50


Romance Folk-Lore among
American Indians 11

Recent collections of American Indian folk-lore prove more and
more clearly that a great deal of European material has been assimilated
by the natives of our continent. Many stories that are at
present found among American Indians are versions of well-known
European tales, while others that are more thoroughly assimilated can
also be shown to be derived from Europe.

The imported material goes back almost entirely to three distinctive
sources, French, Spanish and Portuguese, and Negro. The early French
settlers brought their tales and beliefs to our continent. How great the
wealth of this material was may be seen from the collections of French
Canadian folk-lore published in the Journal of American Folk-Lore. 22
As employees of the Hudson's Bay Company and as independent fur
traders they carried their lore over extended areas of the continent.

Quite a variety of French material has become part of Indian lore.
Fairy tales like the story of Seven-Heads and John the Bear are found
wherever the French fur trader went. Generally these tales retain so
much of their European setting that they may be readily recognized as
foreign elements, although there are cases in which assimilation has
progressed so far that we might be doubtful in regard to their origin,
if the plot did not show so clearly their European connections. One of
the most widely spread types of French tales includes those relating to
the young hero, P'tit Jean, partly fairy tales in which he is made the
hero, partly trickster and noodle tales. Even the name has been taken
over by the Indians and appears in more or less distorted form, for
instance, as Buchetsá among the Shuswap Indians of British Columbia. 33

We have records of French stories all over the northern part of the
continent from Quebec and Nova Scotia to British Columbia, as well
517as on the southern plains where French influence was important at an
early time. A useful survey of this material has been made by Prof.
Stith Thompson. 14

The region in which Spanish tales are found centers naturally in
Spanish America, extending from California, Arizona, New Mexico
and Texas southward through the American continent wherever the
Spaniards came into close contact with the natives. In Brazil Portuguese
material, which, however, is practically identical in content with the
Spanish material, takes its place. The investigations of Prof.
Aurelio M. Espinosa, Dr. Elsie Clews Parsons and my own 25 have shown
clearly that a great amount of American Indian material can be traced
directly to Spanish sources. We find numerous fairy tales such as Cinderella,
Amor and Psyche, Doctor Allwissend, the Swan Maidens, which
are general European property and are known to occur in Spain.
Many of these are identical with French tales, and we may often be
doubtful whether we are dealing with material of French or Spanish
origin. This is true particularly of the most widely distributed stories,
such as John the Bear or Seven-Heads which are found over the greater
part of the continent. Still more extended is the distribution of the
Magic Flight story, which in the Old World occurs from Morocco to
East Siberia, crosses to the American continent and occurs throughout
the whole of the Northwest Coast area in a form that makes it quite
certain that it came here before White influence made itself felt. We
conclude this from the very intimate connection between this story
and the religious concepts of the people, as well as from the close
analogy with East Siberian forms of the tale. On the other hand, the
same story has been imported into America by French and Spanish
colonists, so that it has circled the whole world, and the two currents
of dissemination meet on the North Pacific Coast.

The numerous noodle stories of the Southwest are also derived from
Spanish sources. This group is not absent in the area in which French
material prevails, but so far as our present knowledge goes, tales of this
type are not so plentiful there. A few have been recorded by Mr. Teit
from the Thompson Indians 36 in British Columbia, and others are mentioned
518by Prof. Thompson in his general survey of the subject. In
the Southwest where Spanish influence predominates they are quite
numerous and include stories of the foolish bridegroom, others from
the Pedro Urdimales group and many others.

Animal tales of European origin are also quite frequent. Of special
interest is the Shuswap tale of the grasshopper contained in Teit's collection, 17
who amuses himself rather than help the people catch salmon.
Later on he starves and is punished by being transformed into a grasshopper
which must always jump about and dance and live on grass.
This is evidently the well-known La Fontaine fable changed from a
moralizing fable into a typical Indian explanatory tale.

In Spanish territory the animal fable of foreign origin is more fully
developed. It is particularly fully represented in the Coyote cycle of
the Southwest and in the corresponding Tiger cycle of South America.

In order to understand the distribution of these tales we have to consider
the dissemination of material apparently of Negro origin. Many
of the Indian animal tales of foreign origin are decidedly more similar
to American Negro tales than to European ones, and the two groups
must have had the same origin. In many cases it is difficult to decide
whether their home must be looked for in Spain or in Africa. Collections
like those from Angola by Elie Chatelain 28 and those from Portuguese
Southeast Africa 39 contain numerous examples showing that
Portuguese folk-lore has penetrated Africa, being carried there at the
time of colonization.

The problems presented by animal stories are more difficult. Parallel
forms that occur in America and in Africa are common. Striking examples
of this type are the Tar Baby stories and the race between a slow
and a fleet animal. Many of this group of tales, but not all, are the
common property of Europe and Africa, and the question arises as to
the relation between these two areas. Gerber 410 assumed that the American
tales are due to Negro influence. This is undoubtedly true in the
Southeast and in many parts of Brazil and in other countries where
Negro influence is strong. Espinosa and myself have held to the theory
that most of these tales are of Spanish provenience and came to America
519in part directly and in part indirectly from Spain, the latter group being
brought here by Negroes who learned the tales in Africa from Spaniards
and Portuguese.

We are confronted here with the difficulty that we are lacking evidence
of the occurrence of several of these tales in Europe. The Tar
Baby story to which I referred before is a characteristic example. Its
general distribution among American Indians is such that we must conclude
that the story has the same provenience as a large group of stories
which can be shown to have come from Spain, but no exact parallel has
been recorded in Spain. Prof. Espinosa on his recent collecting trip
found a Spanish story which undoubtedly belongs to the general cycle
of Tar Baby stories, but which differs considerably from the cycle as
found among the Negroes and the American Indians. The peculiar distribution
of this tale in America and in other Spanish colonies, such as
the Philippines, 111 suggests to my mind that it must have been carried
into these areas by the Spaniards shortly after the time of discovery. In
North America its distribution coincides essentially with the area of
Negro influence, but in Central America and South America it occurs
in districts in which assimilation from Negro sources is very unlikely,
and where we should be more inclined to look for Spanish sources.
The intensity of Spanish influence in the Philippines is best illustrated
by the rich Romance literature which is directly derived from Spanish
literary and oral sources. 212 Although the essential form of the Tar Baby
story occurs in the East Indies, the similarity of its setting in America,
Africa and the Philippines shows that the forms in these three areas
must go back to a common source. The question now arises whether we
have the right to assume that the tale is of Spanish origin and was carried
by the Spaniards to Africa and later on by African slaves to America.
It seems to my mind that we may well consider here the question
whether the numerous slaves of African descent who were imported
into Portugal and there employed as agricultural laborers may not have
had an influence on Portuguese folk-lore and indirectly on Spanish folklore.
It is not improbable that folk tales from equatorial Africa may
have been imported into Europe in this manner during the fifteenth
520century and may have been afloat there for some time without taking
as firm root as the older folk tales, and that in this way the Portuguese
and Spaniards were instrumental in disseminating tales of Negro origin.
With the material in our hands at present it is impossible to decide just
what happened. A thorough search in southern Spain and Portugal
for tales belonging to this group may perhaps help us to clear up this
important question.

A similar difficulty arises in regard to the tale of the attempted execution
of Br'er Rabbit, who boasts that various methods proposed for
killing him will be ineffectual, but says that he fears to be thrown into
briar bushes. We find this tale widely distributed in the area of Negro
influence in America, but in another part of the continent Turtle takes
the place of Br'er Rabbit. The tale in which this occurs, “Turtle's War
Party,” is evidently an Indian tale, but it is difficult to believe that the
incident here referred to could have arisen independently.

The problem that confronts us in regard to the Tar Baby story appears
still more clearly in the story of the race between a slow and a fleet
animal. In Asia and in Central Africa the story refers to a race between
Turtle and some fleet runner. In Europe Turtle never appears in this
role. Proof of direct European origin can best be given for the Laguna
version of the tale. In the earliest recorded European version of the
thirteenth century 113 the two runners contend in regard to the ownership
of a field, and the same incident occurs in the Laguna form. 214 It is absent
in the African versions and we must, therefore, conclude that the
Laguna tale is of European origin. In the area of Spanish influence we
find the Frog as the slow animal, as in the French and Italian versions. 315
The Frog as one of the two competitors appears in Laguna, among the
Apache, in northern Mexico, Oaxaca and Chile. Among the Zuni the
Gopher (or Mole) takes its place. Among the Cora of Mexico, 416 the
Locust. In the territory subject to French influence we find the Frog
among the Kutenai. 517 Among the Chiriguano the tick is the slow
521animal; 118 in the Philippines the snail; 219 in Borneo 320 the crab. In other parts
of America the slow competitor is the Turtle as in all parts of Africa
and in the Aesopian fable. In the southeastern United States where
Negro influence is all important it is easily understood why the African
form should prevail, but it is not clear why we should find in the northern
area, among the Arikara, the Salish of Washington, the Ojibwa, the
Wyandotte and others, the Turtle. It seems very unlikely that these tales
should have been derived from Negro sources. We may therefore ask
ourselves whether unrecorded French or Spanish versions do not exist
in which Turtle appears as an actor.

Still another analogous case is presented by the story of the escape
up the tree, which has been fully discussed by Dr. Elsie Clews Parsons. 421
She gives a number of African versions, some from American Negroes
and others from American Indians located on the western plains and
plateaus. Recently a new version has been recorded from Puget Sound.
In this case European parallels are also missing. Furthermore the tale
is very thoroughly assimilated and forms part of stories of purely Indian
form. Nevertheless the incident must be considered as imported from
Africa or Europe. I am under the impression that a slow infiltration of
elements of this type has occurred on the western plateaus, perhaps also
in California, proceeding from Mexico northward; and that this current
of dissemination is so old that most of the foreign material has been
thoroughly embodied in native folk tales. This process is probably also
the cause of the occurrence of the Swan Maiden element in some of the
most important tales of the southwestern plateaus. 522

Assimilation occurs perhaps more rapidly than is ordinarily assumed.
Proof of this is the change of the moralizing fable into an explanatory
Indian tale like the one referred to before, or the Sans Poil story of the
race between Turtle and Frog, 623 in which both animals stake their tails.
Frog loses and for this reason the pollywog loses its tail.

While the material previously discussed is derived from the intimate
522intercourse between colonists or hunters and Indians, there is another
group of tales that has been disseminated through the influence of
missionaries. These are partly Biblical tales, partly moralizing fables
used for the purposes of instruction. The latter group has been found
particularly in Spanish territory where the Catholic clergy used them.
Here belong a number of the Aesopian fables like that of the snake
which in return for being freed by a man threatens to kill him. Stories
of saints are also found in this territory. So far they have not been
collected in other districts where Catholic missionaries have been working,
but they may occur there. On the whole, this group of tales is very
slightly modified.

The fate of Biblical stories has been quite different and often they
are found assimilated to the native style of mythology and of story-telling.
Examples are the Biblical tales of the Thompson Indians. 124 They
believe that in the beginning all trees bore fruit, and that the pine particularly
had large sweet fruit. God told man that he would come soon
and tell them what they might eat. Meanwhile the Devil asked Eem
(Eve) to eat of the fruit of the white pine, which was particularly good.
She mistook the Devil for God, and as a punishment she was sent to
live with the Devil and the fruits of all trees shrivelled up to the size
of seeds and berries. Then God created a new wife for Atam (Adam)
by taking out one of his ribs.

Christ is said to be the son of Patliam (Bethlehem). He is deserted
by his mother in a swamp where a sheep and a rooster take care of him.
The latter announces that the child is a god. A cow is sent by God to feed
him, and his mother takes him back from the swamp and travels with
the child until she reaches a stream. Until that time human beings had
no fingers and no toes, and when they stepped into the water in order
to cross the stream (baptism) all of a sudden her feet and her hands
assumed their present form.

Thorough assimilation is also found in the nativity tale of Zuni. Two
versions have been recorded, one by Dr. Elsie Clews Parsons, 225 one by
Dr. Ruth Benedict. 326 The most characteristic feature of this tale is that
the child was born in a manger and that the animals came to bless it.
The pig blesses it first and is recompensed by the mother by being given
a large number of offspring. The sheep comes next and is given two off-spring
523at a time. The mule refuses to bless the child and is punished with

Many of the deluge tales of North American Indians are obviously
derived from Biblical sources. There are also a large number of native
deluge tales. The assimilation between the two groups is very thorough
and in a great many cases it is difficult to decide whether we are dealing
with a Biblical or a native story.

Not all the problems relating to the origin and development of
contents and style of American mythology can be solved at the present
time, but there is no doubt that Romance sources have added a great
deal to the lore of America and that in some cases even stylistic characteristics
of Romance story-telling may be traced in native tales.524

11 The Romanic Review, vol. 16 (1925), pp. 199-207.

22 Journal of American Folk-Lore, vol. 29, No. 111 (1916); vol. 30, No. 115
(1917); vol. 32, No. 123 (1919); vol. 33, No. 129 (1920), vol. 36, No. 141 (1923).

33 James A. Teit, “The Shuswap Indians,” Publications of the Jesup North Pacific
, vol. 2, part 7 (1909), p. 733.

41 “European Tales among the North American Indians,” Colorado College Publications,
Language Series, vol. 2, No. 34 (1919), pp. 319-471.

52 See Journal of American Folk-Lore, vol. 23 (1910), p. 3; vol. 24 (1911), p. 398;
vol. 27 (1914), p. 211 (Espinosa, for New Mexican Spanish tales); vol. 25 (1912),
p. 247 (Boas); vol. 31 (1918), p. 216 (Parsons).

63 James A. Teit, “European Tales from the Upper Thompson Indians,” Journal
of American Folk-Lore
, vol. 29 (1916), pp. 313 et seq.

71 Publications of Jesup North Pacific Expedition, vol. 2, part 7, p. 655.

82 “Folk-Tales of Angola,” Memoirs of the American Folk-Lore Society, vol. 1

93 F. Boas and C. Kamba Simango, “Tales and Proverbs of the Vandau of Portuguese
South Africa,” Journal of American Folk-Lore, vol. 35 (1922), pp. 151-204.

104 A. Gerber, “Uncle Remus Traced to the Old World,” Journal of American
, vol. 6 (1893), pp. 245 et seq.

111 D. S. Fansler, “Filipino Popular Tales,” Memoirs of the American Folk-Lore
, vol. 12 (1921), p. 327, N. Y.; Espinosa, Cuentos populares españoles (Stanford
Univ., 1923), p. 80.

122 Dean S. Fansler, “Metrical Romances in the Philippines,” Journal of American
, vol. 29 (1916), pp. 203 et seq.

131 Bolte and Polívka, Anmerkungen zu den Kinder- und Hausmärchen der Brüder
(1913-18), vol. 3, p. 343; Oskar Dähnhardt, Natursagen (Leipzig, 1907-12),
vol. 4, p. 470.

142 F. Boas, “Keresan Texts,” Publications of the American Ethnological Society,
vol. 8, part 2, p. 261, and corresponding translation in Part 1 (1925).

153 Bolte and Polívka, vol. 3, p. 347.

164 K. T. Preuss, Die Nayarit-Expedition (Leipzig, 1912), p. 209.

175 F. Boas, “Kutenai Tales,” Bureau of American Ethnology, Bulletin 59 (1918),
pp. 43, 307.

181 Erland Nordenskiold, Indianersagen, p. 292.

192 Dean S. Fansler, “Filipino Popular Tales,” op. cit., p. 429; W. H. Millington
and Berton L. Maxfield, Journal of American Folk-Lore, vol. 20 (1907), p. 315.

203 I. H. N. Evans, “Folk Stories of the Tempanouk and Tuarun Districts,” Journal
of the Royal Anthropological Institute
, vol. 43 (1913), p. 475.

214 Zeitschrift für Ethnologie, vol. 45 (1922), pp. 1-29.

225 F. Alden Mason, “Myths of the Uintah Utes,” Journal of American Folk-Lore,
vol. 23 (1910), p. 322; R. H. Lowie, “Shoshonean Tales,” ibid., vol. 37 (1924),
p. 86.

236 “Folk-Tales of Salishan and Sahaptin Tribes,” Memoirs of the American Folk-Lore
, vol. 11 (1917), p. 111.

241 James A. Teit, “Mythology of the Thompson Indians,” Publications of the Jesup
North Pacific Expedition
, vol. 8 (1913), pp. 399 et seq.

252 Journal of American Folk-Lore, vol. 31 (1918), pp. 258, 259.

263 Zuñi Mythology, vol. 1, pp. 279, 280.