Nenapohs Legends

23 June 2017

Nēnapohš Legends
Narrated by Saulteaux Elders
Transcribed, Translated and Edited by Margaret Cote
Syllabics by Lynn Cote, Glossary by Arok Wolvengrey
Published by University of Regina Press
Review by Shelley A. Leedahl
$19.95 ISBN 978-0-88977-219-9

Nēnapohš Legends, Memoir 2 in the First Nations Language Readers features seven traditional Salteaux stories I’m happy to have been introduced to. As explained by Margaret Cote and Arok Wolvengrey, these language texts have been used to teach Saulteaux (Plains Ojibwe) in classrooms at First Nations University of Canada in Regina, and prior to this they existed exclusively as oral stories shared between generations.

The central character is Nēnapohš (pronounced NAY nuh bohsh), the “‘trickster’ or culture-hero” in the Saulteaux tradition. Cote First Nation Elders Andrew Keewatin, John F. Cote, and Cote’s daughter, Margaret Cote, a retired Assistant Professor of Salteaux Language Studies, are to be congratulated for preserving these stories via sharing them both orally and in this text. Aside from the fun and imaginative bilingual tales, Nēnapohš Legends includes a Saulteaux syllabary, an extensive Salteaux-English glossary, and detailed ink drawings by Denny Morrison, a Salteaux artist from Ochapowace First Nation.

The first story, “When the Earth was Flooded and How Nēnapohš Recreated It,” shares many aspects with the Noah’s Ark story, though here God is “Great Spirit,” the Noah figure is Nēnapohš, and the ark is “a big raft” which saves its builder and “some of his animal brothers,” like beaver, otter, and muskrat, who is responsible for diving and returning with the handful of dirt that Nēnapohš blew on to recreate the world. Wolverine and wolf also play major roles. The final line – “That’s as far as it goes for now!” – gives the story that storytelling flavour, and indeed, all of the tales end similarly.

Most of these very short mythological stories begin with the main character “out walking around”. Soon he gets bored, or hungry, or mischievous, and something dramatic happens. The one-page legend “Nēnapohš and the Owl” provides an explanation as to why the owl can turn its head around. The brave owl was attacking the protagonist as he walked through the forest, then Nēnapohš “got a good hold of the owl’s head” and broke his neck. In another story, “Nēnapohš and the Geese,” readers learn why Geese always fly in a “V” formation.

Humour’s especially evident in “Nēnapohš Makes Red Willows”. Here sly Nēnapohš is roasting ducks on a fire and instructs his own “rear-end” to stay on watch for predators while he sleeps. When wolves appear, “his rear-end let out a loud fart to wake him up,” but when hunters later arrive and quietly eat the ducks, Nēnapohš isn’t warned, and his rear-end is punished by having to sit on a “red-hot rock”.

Nēnapohš is simultaneously portrayed as playful, dangerous, clever, and dim-witted, ie: at one point he thinks he’s eating dried meat left by his grandmother on the snow, when really he’s so hungry and dazed he’s been eating his own scabs. Chickadee teasingly sings the truth, and “That’s as far as it goes”.

This University of Regina Press book squarely hits the mark, both as a teaching tool and an entertaining read, and Morrison’s welcome illustrations are worthy of frames.


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