When Animals Were People: A Huichol Indian Tale/Cuando los animales eran personas: Un cuento huichol
By Judi Moreillon, Texas Woman’s University
In When Animals Were People: A Huichol Indian Tale/Cuando los animales eran personas: Un cuento huichol Bonnie Larson retells a story told to her by the book’s illustrator Modesto Rivera Lemus. The biographical information at the back of this English/Spanish bilingual book rightly identifies Mr. Lemus as the “narrator” of this story. This collaboration between the narrator, reteller, and illustrator results in a story and book richly textured with Huichol culture.
The book opens with a prologue that explains the time in Huichol history, when after a great flood had destroyed most of the animals and plants on earth, people were returned to the earth by Takútski Nakawé, Grandmother of All Growing Things. Sometimes these new creatures were animals until they received guidance or necessarily harsh lessons that would help them find their place in the natural order. This story tells about three of these people animals: Squirrel People, Turtle People, and Wolf People. Some may consider this story a pourquoi tale in which listeners learn the reasons why certain animals exhibit behaviors that help them survive.
When the story begins, Turtle Person is cooking meat in a pit. A sly looking stranger happens by and offers to return with some toasted corn to add to the feast. In short order, Squirrel Person arrives and lets Turtle Person know that Wolf Person was the stranger, and that they should climb the tree where they can eat the meat in safety from him.
Of course, Turtle Person is not a good climber and Squirrel Person has to haul him and the meat up the tree. Wolf Person returns with his family. They discover the two up in the tree when Squirrel Person has the misfortune of dropping a bone on a wolf pup’s head. The angry wolves begin gnawing on the tree. So Turtle Person holds onto Squirrel Person’s tail and when they jump to the next tree, Turtle Person, unfortunately, lets go and lands in a puddle of water. Helpless, Squirrel Person watches as the wolves devour Turtle Person. When they finish, the wolves are thirsty but there is no water left.
When drops fall on their heads, the wolves look up to see Grandfather Vulture bathing himself. Five times, they ask Grandfather Vulture where the water is, and five times the Wolf People are unable to find it. Finally, Grandfather Vulture lets the Wolf People know they will not have water until they put Turtle Person back together and bring him back to life. They do so, return him to the puddle, and little by little water returns.
But the lessons are not over yet. The wolves drink too much too fast and get very sick. This story ten explains why the scutes on turtles’ shells look like they were pieced together, why squirrels live up in the trees where they are safe, and as the story notes, wolves have become smarter and better hunters since then.
Modesto Rivera Lemus’s traditional yarn painting illustrations anchor this story in Huichol culture. A note about the illustrations shares the process used to make this bold, bright and textured art. There is also a note about the Huichol who are indigenous peoples of the western Mexico states of Jalisco and Nayarit.
The book is presented in English/Spanish, but I was curious about Huichol indigenous language. According to the Wikipedia, there is a Huichol language preservation effort underway and several resources are available for nonnative speakers. In the process, I learned the name Huichol people use to refer to themselves, “Wixaritari,” but I didn’t learn what this name means. I also searched YouTube for a piece of Huichol music, “Cuisinela,” mentioned in the Wikipedia article. Where can you find out more information about the Huichol and their culture?
This book raised many questions for me in terms of its use in an oral storytelling presentation for non-Huichol story listeners. How might tellers/readers respond differently to this story in print or told as an oral story? What are your ideas or questions about how this story or book could best be shared in the face-to-face classroom and library settings or online as a digital story?
Next week’s title will be Pretty Salma: An African Little Red Riding Hood Story retold by Niki Daly.
“Huichol Language.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 23 Feb. 2014. Web. 03 Mar. 2014.
Larson, Bonnie. When Animals Were People: A Huichol Indian Tale/Cuando los animales eran personas: Un cuento huichol. Santa Fe, NM: Clear Light, 2002. Print.
Please visit wowlit.org to browse or search our growing database of books, to read one of our two on-line journals, or to learn more about our mission.