A Trickster Study

By Larry P. Madden

Many modern Natives share knowledge through social media. Some watch films, some read books, and many cover trickster bookshare stories on the Powwow trail. Mostknow about tricksters. Many have a story about one that is part of their family lore. But how many of them would read a book from 1912 that explains theknowledge at the time of their great-grandparents? Recently I did just that with the book, "The Trickster: A Study In American Indian Mythology," by Paul Radin. It's about the ancient Winnebago stories concerning the Hare (culture Hero) and Wadjunkaga (Trickster – fool - buffoon). I enjoyed it tremendously, and I will tell you why and also why twenty-first century people shouldn’t judge a book by its century-old cover.

The Trickster’s relationship with the Winnebago tribal societies served as examples to be set for behavior and life decorum. These stories were collected in1912 and were told to Radin by Mr. Sam Blowfish, an elder from Winnebago, Nebraska. In the face of a changing dynamic of Winnebago culture, namely theconversion to the Peyote religion, a conscious decision to save these tales was made. These stories were received, after proper gifts were supplied to anolder individual who wished to remain nameless, and given to Blowfish with permission to share the stories with Radin. Radin states, “The identity of thenarrator is, however, not really of great importance. What is important is whether it was obtained under the proper conditions.” Radin further states that “Byproper conditions I mean the adequate offerings of tobacco were presented to the narrator and gifts commensurate with traditionally accepted value of the myth given to him.” (Blowfish, 112).

The Trickster has a place in many tribal legacies: the Wadjunkaga in the Winnebago world of this time, Iktomi in other Siouan tribes, and the Raven in thePacific Northwest are just some of his/hers/its identities. In the text the Hare has a unique place in the old Winnebago stories separate of Wadjunkaga; his tales serve to benefit man on a different level than Wadjunkaga. The Hare holds sway in many tribal stories from the east to the Great Lakes and north,ranging from benevolent to malicious in his actions. Tricksters overall are governed by their insatiable appetite to eat and have sex and many if not all have ahand in the creation or transformation of the world to a place that mankind might have a chance to survive in. Wadjunkaga’s constant wanderings put conditions right for a constant interaction with the world at some level. According to Radin, his condition varies in many tribes, as “In some instances he is regarded as an actual deity, in others as intimately connected with deities, in still others he is at best as a generalized animal or human being subject todeath” (155).

This text is what I would call a ‘scholarly book’ written for anthropologists and other studies of human nature, but that does not mean that an Average Joe could not absorb the material. If you are interested in the legends and stories of our peoples, this is an excellent reference. The white parlor of rhetoric comesto play as the additional inserts of European experts preface and comment on Radin’s work. In 1912, science was tied directly to the Judeo-Christian ethic,even though during these times they felt quite enlightened. Beyond that, in the discussions concerning festivals and portrayals of fools and sexual misconductin European culture, one can see the connection of mankind throughout time, using these tactics to teach lessons on behavior and decorum. It is in these sidebar discussions that the Greek mythology of Hermes the mischievous and theatre, both Greek and later cultures, use phallic symbols becomescomparative. I believe in this modern time, our legends and stories need not be compared to any other society to prove or verify their cultural viability.

Additional personal research proves Radin to be a learned man with interest in American Indian culture. In a time when many communities were still reeling from cultural and physical destruction, Radin pursued and recorded pieces of history that today would surely have otherwise been lost. The reputations of many anthropologists have been soiled and ridiculed in recent years, especially as science progresses and many standards of American Indian antiquity fall to the wayside. The resifting of these gems of research from early anthropologists paint a fuller picture of varied cultures with vibrant trade networks stretching across the continent. The pages keep turning and questions are being answered every day; language diversity alone has presented a timeline of existence that destroys many long-held theories. As modern descendants of these ancient peoples, we owe a debt of gratitude to these people who recorded and kept stories and languages for us. I’m just glad that I didn’t let the fact that the book was from 1912 prevent me from realizing its value.

Larry P. Madden (Stockbridge-Munsee Band of Wisconsin) was born and raised in the Sturgeon Bay area. A recent graduate of CMN , he enjoys the Powwow trail and strives to maintain balance on the red road. He’s found his recent enlightenment to the arts to be quite satisfying.