More on The Bluebonnet Story

Bluebonnet flower

I won’t make any friends with this post but I believe in the power of sunshine. haha

Mrs. Bruce Reid of Port Arthur, Texas is the author of the first published account of the bluebonnet story as far as I can tell. Her source was “Jack” Mitchell, whose family lived for fifty years in the piney-woods region of Texas. Her story was included in Legends of Texas (1924) pp 197-200. The book’s editor was J. Frank Dobie, whose name will be familiar to anyone who has ever attended or lived near the University of Texas in Austin.

Dobie and Reid were members of the Texas Folklore Society, a group which continues to meet.

Dobie’s comments throughout the book make it sound like he tried to collect authentic tales. I suppose that people continue to believe the bluebonnet story is authentic because Dobie’s name and academic credentials are attached. Yet, a person doesn’t need to be a scholar to see this story’s authenticity just doesn’t hold up to any scrutiny.

If possible, Reid’s story seems even less authentic than the DePaola version: too lengthy, too literary in tone and the themes are all wrong. The story even breaks the prime criteria for being a folktale. How can it be a ‘folk’ tale if it only comes from one source and can’t be corroborated by any other teller?

I blush to see embarrassing terms like papoose, a word that comes from a completely different language family. The Comanche spoke a dialect of the Shonsoni language. Reid describes a bird calling out “Jay! Jay!’ yet the Shoshoni word for blue jay is aibehi-huchuu’.

The inclusion of the Great Spirit idea is also probably a European intrusion. Shamanic cultures believe everything is sacred. Sort of. It is complicated.

Themes of sacrifice and transformation are frequently (though not always) a tip off of European story values. The Europeans were mad about Ovid at the time. They were also predominately Christian.

I wonder at the motivation to create fake-lore ( a term I only just learned).

Racism and a belief in white supremacy spring to mind as possible explanations. The Europeans of the 19th century genuinely believed they represented the epitome of civilization and that other people’s cultures were quaint. They thought first nations people were somehow exotic, so weird & mythical things could happen to ‘them’ that couldn’t happen to ‘ordinary’ people. Maybe these fake-lores came from a desire to feel more at home in a new landscape. If the invaders could import their own stories to fit this new place maybe they could make it their own.

Maybe the early invaders didn’t know better but it is so wrong that publishers today continue to pretend these stories are true representations. When parents read these stories to their children they are trying to teach the values of  multiculturalism. The result is a terrible distortion. (For more on the ethics of appropriating stories and turning them into children’s literature please take a look at Eliot A. Singer’s opinion piece that can be found here.)

It is one thing to be like a jazz player and to riff off an idea or image and make it your own. It is quite another to reframe a narrative and still claim authenticity. A re-framed story is like a palimpsest that trivializes and overwrites the original culture. In effect, it silences the very stories/ideas of a people. And this ought to be a crime because when you read or better yet hear one of the authentic stories — especially in context — they are powerful. Different. But powerful.

Mrs. Reid’s story (that I was lucky enough to find online) follows the break

AN INDIAN LEGEND OF THE BLUE BONNET

— Mrs. Bruce Reid

There had been a great flood followed by a greater drouth, and
then on the drouth came a bitter winter of sleet and ice. Even
in the far south, where the cold breath of winter is seldom felt,
the woods and grasses of the coastal plains were sheathed with
a rattling icy armor. All the game was dead or gone. The
Indian people were starving to death. A dreadful disease had
broken out among them. It was clear that the Great Spirit had
indeed turned his face away from his children. Day and night
the medicine men chanted their incantations, danced to the music
of the sacred tomtoms, and mutilated their bodies in agony for
a promise from the angered Spirit. At last the Great Spirit
spoke. This was his message. In penance for the wrong-doing
that had brought the evils upon the tribe there must be a burnt
offering of its most valued possession, and the ashes of this offer-
ing must be scattered to the east and to the west, to the north
and to the south.

Now among those who sat in discreet and becoming silence,
beyond the anxious warriors gathered about the fires, was a little
maid, too young for the heavy burdens of Indian womanhood to
have yet begun to fall upon her small shoulders. Hidden among
the folds of her scanty garments she tightly clasped a tiny figure
of white fawn-skin, rudely shaped into the likeness of a papoose,
with long braids of black horse-hair, and eyes, nose, and mouth
painted on it with the juice of various berries. This figure the
little maid had robed in a skirt, mantle, and high head-dress, out
of the feathers of a bird of the rarest of hues in nature — the big,
proudly crested, black-collared bird that calls “Jay ! Jay !” through
the topmost branches of the tallest and largest trees. Very, very
beautiful were the feathers of this bird, soft, richly blue as the
late afternoon skies when they clear after showers which have
lasted through a day; and as an older mother loves her living
child, so did the little maid love her deer-skin baby. Almost
would she rather have died than have parted with it. Well she
knew that it was by far the most precious of things owned by the
tribe; and her heart was very heavy indeed for the rest of that
day, and the part of a night that she lay beside her mother in their
tepee, sleepless for that she saw her duty so clearly.

At last she arose, and stooping to lift from the smouldering
fire within the tepee a bit of wood, one end of which was a glow-
ing coal, she slipped out into the night. Under the twinkling,
frosty stars she knelt, and prayed that her offering might be ac-
cepted and the fact of the acceptance made known to her.

Then blinking her eyes to keep back the tears, which an Indian
child early learns must never be shed, she made a fire of twigs and
grasses, and thrust her beloved papoose deep down into the glow-
ing heart of the blaze, till the last bit of skin and shred of feather
were consumed to ashes. The ashes she carefully scooped up in
the hollow of her hand and scattered, to the east and the west, to
the north and the south. Then putting out what remained of the
fire, she patted the earth smooth and flat again.

As she did this last she felt beneath her palms something as
fine and soft as the plumage with which she had clothed her doll
— something that had not been in that place upon the ground when
she cleared it to make her little fire. Believing that this might
be the sign for which she had prayed, she would have picked up
what lay against her hand, but she found it to be rooted in the
soil.

So, returning to the tepee, she waited until morning and then
with her mother, whom she told of what she had done, she went
to the place where she had burned the little deer-skin papoose.
But all about, as far as the ashes had traveled upon the early
spring night breeze, was nothing but a blanket of such flowers
as had never before enriched the landscape; and their thick tas-
sels, in so great a profusion as nearly to hide the tender green of
their leaves, were of the same deep, deep blue as the feathers of
the bird that calls “Jay ! Jay !” through the high tree-tops.

When the chief of the medicine men heard the story told by
the mother and daughter, and saw for himself the expanse of
blue flowers, he called the tribe together, and solemnly informed
them that the command of the Great Spirit had been obeyed and
the sacrifice accepted, and that the evil which had for so long
pursued them would now be at an end.

It was even so. At once the plains and the open places, between
lines and clumps of trees, began to renew their verdure, scat-
tered over with gayly colored wild flowers; the birds and four-
footed things came back to raise their families; and the tribal
crops, natural and cultivated, gave every sign of abundant har-
vest.

In place of the name the little maid had borne, another was
given her, a name of many musically flowing syllables, the mean-
ing of which, in the red men’s tongue, was “she who dearly loves
her people.”

Because the great shaggy animals, whose herds of old thun-
dered across the far-flung prairies, were so fond of its succulent
green abundance, the blue flower was called an Indian name
which the pale-faces translated into “buffalo clover.” After
the manner of its class of plant, it bore prodigious quantities
of fertile seed and rapidly extended the limits of its growth.

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7 thoughts on “More on The Bluebonnet Story

  1. Thank you for visiting my blog, Debra. And because I was curious, I decided to pay a visit to your blog. I’m glad I did. I like the way you think and the way you write. I’ll be back…..

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  2. You really do book reviews very well. Honestly and with great thought. I do understand the frustration in inconsistencies and “reframing a narrative’. I watch a TV show that takes such liberties with history and invents happening that it outrages the many history buffs and viewers. Me I just like the story they weave and can overlook the inventive creativity. I see your point on folklore though, there seems like something is sacred about those stories because so many passed them down. It seems wrong to mold them in a way that is not true to a culture.

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    1. Thank you for the compliment. I can see why both stories are popular. They have their own kind of beauty and moments of brilliance. For people coming from a Christian background the themes do resonate. Neither author needed to construct the veneer of being a first nations’ story. They could have said that they were writing literary fantasies like Kipling’s just So Stories.

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    1. It has been kind of fun tracking this story and I was surprised where it took me. I remember reading all kinds of ‘multicultural’ stories to my son when he was growing up — in fact I went out of my way to find them for him. I had the best of intentions and now I can see that there were some issues i was completely oblivious to. I do not like the idea that I was duped.

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