Jarold Ramsey and Lori Burlingame, eds. In Beauty I Walk: The Literary Roots of Native American Writing. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2008. 6 x 9 pp 395. $27.95 paper.
This anthology of Native American writings compiled by Jarold Ramsey and Lori Burlingame provides a historical background of different types of Native American literature by bringing stories and songs from some of the great Native writers from various tribes together into one comprehensive volume. They collected these works from the memories of tribal groups as well as anthropologists, folklorists, and linguists. Almost all of these works are texts that were translated directly from native performances or linguistically sound transcripts because the authors believed that English retellings took away much of the original intent and therefore did not consider them viable sources.
The editors’ goal in this anthology was to give a variety of people access to Native American oral tradition, whether they were experienced scholars or undergraduates taking their first Native American literature course. They wanted to combine stories in a way that is interesting and challenging but can be understood by anyone who reads this book. Beginners can use this book to get into the rhythm of how Native stories are told and one way scholars can use this book to analyze the different tribes and their individual worldviews. The way In Beauty I Walk is organized is a testament to Ramsey and Burlingame’s goal; the book is divided into two parts.
The first part is a compiling of various tribes’ stories, songs, and ceremonies. The stories chosen gave the reader a smooth introduction to how Native Folktales are told. The stories are titled with the tribe name appearing in parentheses and the story below them. First are “Creation Myths” that emphasize the essential goodness and the bounty of life for the first people to walk the earth such as “The Woman Who Fell from the Sky (Seneca)”. Second are the “Origin Myths” which are, in a way, sequels to the “Creation Myths”. Third are “Trickster Stories” that involve wily animals such as the coyote; these stories are meant to teach morality. Fourth are the “Orpheus Stories” such as “Badger and Coyote Were Neighbors (Clackamas Chinook)” that, much like Greek Mythology, are told to show the permanency of death. Lastly, there were “Stories for Learning How to Live in This World,” such as “The Stone Boy (Lakota Sioux)” that, while still mythic, address how to live in a complex unpredictable world, where moral directions are often ambiguous or lacking altogether.
The songs and ceremonies are meant to be ritualistic in nature, but still help teach moral lessons. It seems the authors chose for the songs and ceremonies to come after the stories because they make the reader think more about the meaning behind these shorter lessons than they would if these songs and ceremonies came after the stories. The songs range from singing about animals to plants to songs sung for the departed and lullabies for children. A good collection of “Songs from The Ghost Dance” (142-144) illustrates how songs are structured in different tribes. The ceremonies are used for naming, inducting warriors, and other –“official” business of the tribe.
The second part of the book is about early modern Native American literature. These collections are organized by author. A short biography discussing the name, tribe, and lifespan of each author is given before his/her works. Each author has contributed a great deal to Native writing in some way. The texts in this segment are arranged chronologically by their authors’ birth dates. Included are those texts that are important to the development of the field, but that also lend themselves well to classroom and literary use. In Beauty I Walk includes authors such as Jane Johnson Schoolcraft– Ojibwa (1800-1841) who wrote “Otagamiad” (181) as a tribute to her grandfather, who tried create peace between his tribe and the people trying to enslave them; and Charles Eastman– Santee Sioux (1858-1939) who wrote his autobiography, Indian Boyhood, which included “An Indian Boy’s Training” (238). The second part with the different authors and their contributions to contemporary native writing gives a historical and applicable perspective to the stories, songs, ceremonies, and transitions that came before in the book. The book is well organized by having this progression of moving from stories to songs to individual authors’ works so that no reader would get too bogged down or bored by the contents.
The book makes great strides in providing a succinct view into Native oral traditions. Ramsey and Burlingame do not include every story, song, or author, but they give an overall well organized glimpse into this large arena of oral tradition. It would be helpful if they had included a more in-depth analysis of why they chose certain authors because, for beginners who may not know Native authors, the reasons for choosing these authors is lost. Use of this book in a Native literature class could be useful to help analyze the different authors. Scholars could use this bibliographic work as a reference for different tribes because many tribes are represented in this book and by collecting these tribes’ works together they could see common belief themes in those tribes. This book could be read by everyone from scholars to lay people and all would understand and appreciate it. Overall, this book is well thought out, organized, and executed.