- Creation Myths of Primitive America
Jeremiah Curtin was the kind of nineteenth-century scholar and linguist whose personality and motives have been rendered enigmatic by the intervening century of folklore scholarship. Readers who plunge into the body of this work, the myths, without reading Kroeber's introduction may find themselves adrift in texts packed with multiple names—of places, forces, and spirits moving through action-packed sequences that recount the origins of the world according to the Yana and Wintu of central California. While Curtin worked in many indigenous-language communities, only in the notes does he present information about the general "Primitive America" of his title. He focuses on material recorded from a few culture bearers about California, where he had sought the last and least-changed frontier. A certain undifferentiated intonation in the telling of these myths may send the reader back to the introduction to unravel the conundrums of presentation and reenter the text with an expanded understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of Curtin's methods and interactions with his interlocutors.
Kroeber recounts Curtin's career as one emblematically American, from farm boy to Harvard scholar to entrepreneur. Curtin employed his impressive linguistic talents first to make a fortune by translating novels (such as Quo Vadis) whose Polish and Russian authors were unprotected by U.S. copyright law. His focus on translation and English publication allowed him to present both literature and oral culture to wide audiences, but unfortunately it has provided an impoverished linguistic archive for subsequent scholarship. With financial independence ensured and many friends in high places, he undertook to save the mythology of native peoples of California, whose numbers [End Page 131] were rapidly declining under the onslaught of American western expansion. His assessment of the Wintu and Yana plight led him, unlike many in the field, to use his Washington contacts to plead the cause of the remaining members of each group, even contacting President Theodore Roosevelt, but to little avail. His efforts did, however, earn the enduring trust and friendship of his interlocutors.
In his collecting, Curtin might well have cast himself as an "Earthdiver," bringing the mud of primordial human thought to the surface of his "Turn of the Century" culture. His enterprise was to trace the origins of universal human spirituality. He held the conviction that the narratives he translated actually recorded early stages in the evolution of human religiosity, indeed the first completely systematic accounts of the cosmos. Paragraphs headlining each myth name the animal or plant that each spirit-being became as the world shifted radically from timeless, primordial paradise through chaos to the time of humans. Curtin was touched by the sacred nature of these accounts, and despite his strong editorial style, the ferment and energy of creation infuse the translations. Although he sought to describe a hierarchy of deities distinctly patriarchal in tone, the myths themselves contradict such an ordering. In "Olelbis and Mem Loimos" (28-38), Mem Loimos (Water) seeks out the Supreme Being, Olelbis, as her mate. When she is stolen away, he and his community are devastated, but she continues to travel on, bearing offspring to other husbands, disdaining the claims of Olelbis to being all-knowing, for he is unable to "see" her to find her. While woman's reproductive power is extolled, the female potential for destruction is also portrayed, as in the Yana myth "The Flight of Tsanunewa and Defeat of Hehku" (235-46), a tale of a devouring female spirit who eventually loses her power while gambling with life and death in a bone game. Recurring, stable grandmother figures evoke the power and wisdom of women and elders, such as the elderly woman who adopted an orphan to shield him from destruction by Hehku. This narrative may be interpreted as one instance when myth, naming the primordial, also dealt with historical vectors and mortal problems troubling the peoples as they struggled to maintain a world where the Yana and Wintu might survive...