Folklorist follows trail of an Arctic classic

Mike Dunham

Once upon a time a spiteful mother blinded her son. Even in his sightless state, he managed to kill a bear, but his mother told him he had missed and kept the meat for herself. Then a kind loon restored the man's vision. In retaliation, the son tied his mother to a line attached to a harpoon with which he speared a whale that dragged her screaming into the water.

For a thousand years or so, variations of this tale have been told from the Bering Sea to Greenland and from Barrow to Oklahoma. In a new book, "The Blind Man and the Loon: The Story of a Tale" (University of Nebraska Press), Alaskan anthropologist and folklorist Craig Mishler analyzes the legend and traces its travels across generations, distance and cultures, from antiquity to appearances in modern media.

"I never visualized it as a book," said Mishler, cousin of photographer Clark Mishler. "It's more like a collection process."

The process began in 1973, not long after the Michigan-born Mishler arrived in Fairbanks as a Vista volunteer. He'd taught a course in Alaska folklore at Anchorage Community College and landed a grant to record stories. He rented a house in Fort Yukon and traveled to Arctic Village, where he recorded Gwich'in elder Maggie Gilbert, an energetic storyteller who was blind herself at that time. She shared her rendition of the story.

Mishler then heard versions of the story in Dot Lake and found there was an Eyak version. "It gave me reason to think the story had traveled," he said.

The extent of how far it traveled fascinated him. "I'm obsessed with the power of the tale," he said. "It's one thing to ask, 'Where did it come from?' But that's not as important as why people tell it."

Mishler thinks that the story originated among the Inuit of Alaska's Arctic coast and spread eastward with the so-called Thule migration of people from Alaska to Greenland about 1200 A.D. One clue, he said, is the technology used by the people in the story, particularly the harpoon with a float and the bow and arrow. "Those were a fairly recent invention," he said. "And the Inuit had them before the Athabaskans."

But the Athabaskans picked it up, tweaking details to fit their own tools and game animals, probably after 1400 A.D. Mishler gives that date because it coincides with a massive volcanic eruption in the Wrangell Mountains said to have separated Athabaskans into northern groups -- like the Gwich'in -- and southern tribes, like the Apache.

"Only the northern tribes know this story," he said. "The Apache and Navajo don't know it. Also, it didn't go across the Bering Strait or to Kodiak."

But it flourished in the interior of British Columbia and the Pacific Northwest, from where it presumably was picked up by plains tribes, giving rise to Ute and Arapaho versions.

As the Indians tell the story, the son is a husband and the nemesis is not his mother, but his wife. It is more likely to be a stand-alone fable for the Athabaskans but expanded into a saga among the Eskimo tellers, with after-stories that tie into other legends and myths.

The first written accounts Mishler has found were made in the 1800s in Greenland and recorded in the Native language of the region. Since then it has been turned into animated films and children's books.

"The Canadians love it even more than Alaskans," he said. "They have a symphony and a ballet based on it." And a well-known film, "The Loon's Necklace" featuring Northwest Indian masks that, Mishler said with a grin, have nothing to do with the story.

The popular "mediated" manifestations usually eliminate the violence of the authentic stories, opting for happy endings. "But 'The Blind Man and the Loon' does not end happily," Mishler notes in his book. Still, the modern media versions also reveal something about their tellers and their society and he dedicates a chapter to them. Another chapter focuses on art drawn from the story.

"The point is that the story seems to have a life of its own," he said. "It adapts to its environment."

But, Mishler insists, the power of the tale resides in its original roots. "It has so much to do with Native values," he said. "It's about subsistence, family, medicine, abuse of the handicapped and compassion for them. When the man is betrayed, the family explodes, the story becomes tragic."

It also becomes epic and open to different interpretations. Mishler said some tellers find the man's blindness to be a metaphor for his ignorance of the woman's malice. In the Interior he was told that the moral of the story is that justice must be done. But in Chevak, the teller concluded that the story shows revenge to be counter-productive and wrong.

"This is literary criticism in an oral form," Mishler said. "Different people see different ways to interpret the tale. To me, that's the hallmark of a classic."