Retelling Trickster in Naapi’s Language

By Nimachia Howe. 2019. Logan: Utah State University Press. 176 pages. ISBN: 978-1-60732-978-7 (hard cover), 978-1-60732-977-0 (soft cover).


Reviewed by William M. Clements, Arkansas State University

[Review length: 859 words • Review posted on October 14, 2021]


[Cover ofRetelling Trickster in Naapi’s Language]

Conventional wisdom from non-Native commentators has identified Naapi as a manifestation of Trickster among the Blackfoot-speaking communities of the northern Great Plains. Stories about Naapi incorporate narrative motifs encountered in tales about Trickster in other Native North American expressive heritages as well as internationally. Naapi’s activities characterize him as fickle, impulsive and impatient, unpredictable, adaptable, appetitive and insatiable, amoral, peripatetic, and possessing other characteristics typically attributed to Trickster. He is also known as “Old Man” and “White Man” in English translations of his name. Translated texts of accounts of his activities date from the late eighteenth century and have continued to appear frequently in presentations of Blackfoot verbal art by anthropologists, linguists, and popular writers on Blackfoot traditions.

Using her in-depth knowledge of the Blackfoot language, a member of the Algonkin/Algonquian family spoken throughout much of the woodlands and Plains of Canada and the northern United States, and of Indigenous philosophy, Nimachee Howe, though, suggests that conventional wisdom about Naapi is at best limited and superficial. Based as they are on Indo-European language patterns and assumptions, previously published treatments of the concept of Naapi have misconstrued his nature and ignored how important he is in Blackfoot cosmology, sense of place, relationship ethics, and other foundational systems and concepts. As the title of her book announces, Howe intends to re-articulate this figure, image, and energy from what outsiders denominate as “myth,” using the language in which he has been verbally realized among Blackfoot speakers.

The usual translations of Naapi’s name provide one point of entry into the complexity of this concept. The “old” modifier does not necessarily indicate that he is an antiquated elder. Instead, it suggests that he is contemporaneous with the age of creation: a timeless eternal present when creative energy was shaping the landscape and producing the lifeforms that continue to be a part of it. When Naapi is referred to as “white man,” Blackfoot speakers are not ethnically marking him. Rather, the term stresses his association, perhaps even identity, with abstract energy concretely encouched in the rising sun. Naapi’s name thus connects with powers that not only shaped the cosmos but continue to define relationships among its features: the land itself, the flora and fauna who inhabit it and whom humans exploit for their needs, and the People who live on the land and off the animals. Naapi’s apparent contradictions, which have led, Howe believes, commentators to limit him only to Trickster, arise out of his identity as a foundational cosmological concept, not just a character from verbal narrative.

Howe’s analysis reflects the high expectations she has of her readers: that they will move beyond their Indo-European-shaped perceptions to an appreciation of Blackfoot vocabulary and grammar, that they are not irrevocably bound to an order of things shaped by their own linguistic heritages. The abstract complexity of her argument suits its topic. The reader must be prepared to commit to what for her or him is most likely a new ideational order. Not to do so risks the imposition of irrelevant and mistaken views onto Naapi and the cultural and linguistic context which surrounds him. And that, according to Howe, is what virtually every commentator who has treated Naapi and other Blackfoot philosophical matters has done. Fortunately, some earlier linguists have opened up avenues of ingress into Blackfoot grammar and vocabulary, and Howe has been able to use, expand, and correct some of the insights of previous language scholars.

Although she does not focus on any specific storytelling events or representations of Naapi grounded in particular circumstances, Howe reproduces several Naapi stories as an appendix. These texts are translations of material recorded in the nineteenth and first half of the twentieth centuries, but she also calls attention to several recently documented and recorded Naapi stories. Frequently these stories depict Naapi as concrete phenomenon–often but not inevitably Coyote (consistent, of course, with Tricksters in other Indigenous North American heritages). Often this force of creation appears as or in association with forms of water such as thunderstorms, blizzards, rainbows, even glacial activity. It transcends such apparent binaries as animate and inanimate. Transcendence reminds that Naapi embodies the interrelatedness of all creation, according to Blackfoot metaphysics. Particularly important in the texts Howe reprints and mentions are their specific references to landforms and patterns in plant and animal life—allusions which ground Naapi stories in the places where his generative fluctuations between chaos and order were and are manifest.

Perhaps the most important contribution made by Howe’s examination of Naapi from an Indigenous perspective is its reminder of the oversimplification and often error that arise from ignoring original languages and foundational concepts when attempting to appreciate a community’s verbal art only from an outside perspective. Most contemporary folklorists know this but may forget especially when engaged in intercultural analyses. Making intercultural comparisons will become more difficult when studies such as Howe’s are taken into account, but their results will represent more fully grounded understandings of how verbal art reveals cultural differences and resemblances. Students of Native North American traditions will definitely find this volume useful, but anyone involved in examinations of traditional narrative on an intercultural level should read it.

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© Journal of Folklore Research, 2020. Last revised January 22, 2022.