Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Broken Taboo

May 7, 2013
It occurred to me the other night that the tragedy of the story may have been precipitated by the breaking of a strong taboo.  According to Kenneth Frank, for the Gwich’in it is very important that menstruating women avoid touching or walking over a man’s hunting tools.  This includes his knife, his gun, his scapula, and other implements used for hunting.  If this taboo is broken, it is believed that the hunter will lose his luck and the family will starve.  Robert McKennan lists many taboos for menstruating married Gwich’in women, including one which called for avoiding “any contact with hunting or fishing” (1965:58, also 85).  This taboo is also widespread among other northern Dene groups, including the Eyak (see Abel 199:21; Perry 1991:209-228).

In the story, the blind man’s wife helps hold his bow and helps him aim his arrow at the bear, moose, caribou, or buffalo.  In some variants, as in that of Maggie Gilbert’s, told in Gwich’in, the wife even goes over and picks up her husband’s arrows after she abandons him (see lines 116-121 on p. 74 and p. 80).  In doing so she breaks a cardinal rule that Dene listeners immediately recognize in the telling of the story.  At the same time she did it with his full consent. Yet this is something that escapes the non-Native reader entirely. This single detail underscores the importance of knowing the ethnographic context of the tale when trying to understand what exactly went wrong.  Of course the flip side of the dilemma is that the wife had to aim the blind man’s bow and arrow for him or they probably would have starved anyway.

Kerry Abel, Drum Songs: Glimpses of Dene History.  Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1993.

Robert McKennan, The Chandalar Kutchin.  Montreal: Arctic Institute of North America, 1965.

Richard J. Perry, Western Apache Heritage: People of the Mountain Corridor.  Austin: University of Texas Press, 1991.