- Koasati Traditional Narratives by Geoffrey D. Kimball
This volume contains the first published collection of oral literature from the Koasati Indians, nowadays living in western Louisiana. Although the author is listed as translator of the narratives (from the Koasati language into English), he does far more than that: he provides a useful preface, abundant notes for each genre and each narrative, and textual commentaries with historical, folkloric, and linguistic data.
The narratives were collected between 1910 and 1992 by several researchers, notably John R. Swanton (in or around 1910), Mary R. Haas (who conducted fieldwork in 1939), and Geoffrey Kimball himself, who gives us texts he collected in the 1980s and 1990s. All texts, including the older ones, are carefully translated by the author, an anthropologist who studied the Koasati language for more than twenty years. “These translations,” he writes, “are what I feel that Koasati would say, were English their native language. I have tried not to intrude my personality or beliefs into the translations, but, as I have acted as a lens to focus the light of the one language into the other, the lens may have added some unwitting distortion” (p. xix). All narratives are in verse, presented in the original Koasati and in English translations in side-by-side columns. Each text is also divided into numbered and titled scenes, providing a better presentation of plot structure. Numbered lines help the reader to locate the textual emendations and commentaries provided at the end of each text. For those wishing to read the original texts in Koasati, a pronunciation list is also provided. Finally, in a first appendix, the author gives the reader five examples of linguistic analyses of narratives from this collection; and, in a second appendix, he presents two examples of texts translated by Swanton in 1910 and 1930.
The texts are organized in two parts, the first of which deals with mythological narratives, and the second with semi-historical narratives. Part 1 is composed of ten Rabbit Stories (the Koasati trickster), fifteen Origin Tales, five Monster Tales, eleven Animal Tales, one Medicine Origin Tale, and three Christian Tales. Part 2 is shorter, comprising four Encounter Stories, five War Stories and, finally, five “Other” Semihistorical Stories. This grouping by genre tends to be used when it is impossible to give the narratives an ATU number. Nevertheless, ATU number 298 (The Contest of the Wind and the Sun) can be assigned to one narrative in the book, “The Contest of Heat and Cold,” told by Martha John. Kimball states that this story, unlike others in the book, stems from European fable tradition.
One of the riches of this compilation lies in the diversity of traditions represented in its texts. They simultaneously reflect the Koasati preservation of their traditional oral literature, and the social and religious changes that have taken place in Koasati society following the arrival of Europeans, and particularly their introduction to Congregational Christianity. If the Animal Stories and Origin Tales are traditional aboriginal narratives, the Christian Tales are a phenomenon of acculturation and a biblical worldview. To some degree, these biblical beliefs are responsible for the disappearance of [End Page 94] traditional Monster Stories, which reflect a different cosmology: a celestial malevolent world and a terrestrial benevolent world, both inhabited by supernatural beings. Medicine Origin Tales, too, are now almost obsolete because the Koasati have largely abandoned traditional methods of healing for new medical treatments.
Within the category of Semihistorical Narratives, we discover an oral history that helps the Koasati to remember important events (usually traumatic ones) in their earlier existence as a homogenous social group. Their first encounters with Europeans and enslaved Africans, wars with their Indian neighbors (particularly the Tonkawa and Comanche), and great droughts and floods are among the primary subjects of these stories.
Because oral literature lives in the memory of people, narrators are the most important links in the continuity of traditional narratives. This review, then, is not complete without some remarks about the storytellers. In all, there are fifteen narrators, but a...