Seeking Global Perspectives in Traditional Literature Picture Books: Part 3

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.

Works Cited

“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.

Journey through Worlds of Words during our open reading hours: Monday-Friday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Saturday, 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. To view our complete offerings of WOW Currents, please visit archival stream.

11 thoughts on “Seeking Global Perspectives in Traditional Literature Picture Books: Part 3

  1. Luz Earley says:

    As soon as a reader picks up When Animals Were People: A Huichol Indian Tale/Cuando los animales eran personas: Un cuento huichol by Bonnie Larson, curiosity is peaked regarding the book jacket illustration. The vivid colors and representation of animals is often found in indigenous literature of Latin America. Perhaps the most significant element of this English-Spanish tale is the ability to use it as a tool to introduce children to an unfamiliar world culture. As a result of proximity to the border, the southern region of the United States is often familiar with the existence of the Spanish language. However, this tale introduces the fact that many indigenous beliefs, tales and spirituality are alive and active in Mexico.
    A method of bringing life to this story in oral form can include costumes. Perhaps brightly colored cloth (perhaps scarves and even feathers) can be used to match the colors of the animals in the tale. Without the illustrations, indigenous music can be played in the background. It is also beneficial to provide some simple facts of the Huichol people. Tales that speak of the supernatural may lead children to believe that this tribe is imaginary. It is often useful to explain that tales are told by real people, in order to explain real things.
    The Spanish translation differs from the English in that “El Hombre Tortuga” is actually “Squirrel Man.” In my experience working with literature at all levels, from children’s to adult literature, there are many occasions where translation is not exact. In this particular book, this does not appear to significantly alter the meaning of the story. The goal is to share the rich tradition and belief that, ages ago, animals were indeed people.

  2. Mandy Sheffield says:

    The illustrations in this story have been discussed as a great inspiration for a children’s activity. The yarn art created by Modesto Rivera Lemus to illustrate his narration gives a gruesome tale a colorful and child-like feel. It also gives an opening into a discussion of the Huichol culture.
    The art in this title can be used to share this story and its origination with a group of school aged children. After sharing the book and its origins, an idea might be to have children make their own yarn art in a similar fashion to the art made by Modesto Rivera Lemus. Having children get their hands messy is a great way to make a connection with them, create a memory, and inspire deeper thinking.

    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.

  3. Cindi Wynia says:

    On the cover of the book When Animals Were People: A Huichol Indian Tale/Cuando los animales eran personas: Un cuento huichol the author is identified as Bonnie Larson. However, the cover also reveals that Bonnie Larson retold the story “based on a story told & illustrated by Modesto Rivera Lemus”. As Dr. Moreillon points out Larson is the reteller or translator of the story which leads me to question why that was not stated in that manner on the cover. Mr. Lemus is the author and illustrator who ensured the cultural authenticity of the story, so why is he not receiving the prominent position of author of the work? Is it because Larson has the clout to woo a publisher whereas Lemus does not?

    Whatever the reason, the story opens the door to a beautiful experience for any reader. It conveys several lessons about kindness, patience, greed, and remaining safe that readers of all ages can relate to and enjoy through the narrative of the animal people’s interactions. The traditional artwork is vibrant and brings the characters to life. Although a wonderful story, I believe an oral telling would be lacking unless the artwork could be reproduced in a large scale in order to draw the reader into the Huichol culture through the visual representations of the characters. Or as my colleague suggested in her post, through costumes that capture the texture and color of the illustrations.

    • Mandy Sheffield says:


      I was also curious why Larson is cited as the author and Lemus only the illustrator. Could this title have potentially been co-authored by both?

      It has been noted by all that the illustrations make an important impact to this story and its cultural authenticity. As such, I agree that an oral telling would certainly be remiss without the illustrations.

      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.

  4. Lisa Ramirez says:

    The cultural authenticity in this story seems to spring from the artwork. The storyteller and artist, Modesto Rivera Lemus tells a traditional Huichol Tale, which is retold by Bonnie Larson. I’m fascinated in the oral traditions and artwork from this culture.

    I also viewed some information about Huichol artwork on youtube and I found two great resources. The first one imitates the art that is created in this book, the vivid and intricate yarn art is recreated and demonstrated in the Huichol painting tutorial. The other youtube video discusses Huichol culture.

    The more that I read about this culture, the more I am interested in it. I think about the incredibly detailed artwork and I wonder if every image has a story. In many cultures, symbols of importance within that culture are often displayed in the artwork. According to the Huichol center, several images are symbolic in Huichol culture. These symbols are deer, snakes, the sun, flowers, wolf people, turtles and scorpions, among others.
    One of the things that I wondered about this story as well was the title, why is it called, “When Animals were People?” The Huichol Center also gives insight to this, on the center’s website it states that Wolf People are, “Believed to be the earliest ancestors, they spoke and lived like people. Tacutsi, the goddess of life, first taught them how to live well and overcome hunger and cold.”

    The Huichol Center for Cultural Survival. A Glossary of Huichol Symbols, 27 Dec. 2009. Web. 21 Mar. 2014.

    Jennifercxo. Youtube. Huichol Yard Painting Tutorial, 11 Nov. 2010. Web. 22 Mar. 2014.

    Alper, Mara. Youtube. Visions of the Huichol. 27 Dec. 2009. Web. 21 Mar. 2014.

    • April Zuniga says:

      Hi Lisa,
      I think it’s great that you looked up additional information about the Huichol artwork portrayed in the book. I think this is what really intrigues a reader. Personally, it makes me want to learn more about the culture as well and helps me build a newfound respect and awareness for the Huichol culture. The story displays so much symbolism as far as pictures and the story itself. It’s not only just another story; it is a deep and meaningful representation of the people of the Huichol community. I think it is a story that should be shared with children of all ages.

  5. Cindi Wynia says:

    The Huichol are under duress as they try to preserve their culture because the Mexican government owns the land making it difficult for the people to maintain their traditional agricultural lifestyle according to an article published online by Cultural Survival. Many people are moving into cities where it is feared the traditions of the Huichol will be lost. The oral tradition may be the oldest way of maintaining the stories of a culture, but if no one is telling those stories they will certainly be lost. Authors like Larson may be the best hope for capturing these traditional tales and preserving them for future generations to enjoy and share.
    If you are interested in learning more about the Huichol culture, several sites are available.
    Handcrafting Justice is a fair trade organization that sells artwork of indigenous cultures. They have some wonderful artwork done by Huichol artists.

  6. Lisa Ramirez says:

    Regarding the question, “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?”
    I don’t always think that it is easy to retell a story like this one without a Huichol storyteller. The same I think is true for Native American stories, for example. Something seems a little lost when someone who does not know the true heart of the story tells it, there can be small things that are not considered, like hand/facial gestures or pronunciation.

    This story should begin with an introduction to Huichol artwork. The storyteller should talk about the original Huichol artwork featured in this story, as well discuss a bit if history about Huichol culture and also information about traditional stories.

    I believe that this story needs to be displayed side by side along with the artwork. The artwork is so authentic to the story, it is necessary for its reading. A storyteller should use artwork from the narrative to discuss each section of the work when telling the story in the classroom or in the school library. Each image in the book coincides with the text, therefore, it is important to allow the viewer to see each image as the text is being read. If this story is told as a digital story, the images should be displayed during the storytelling as well. A great lesson that can work well with this story would be to perhaps plan a collaborative lesson between the librarian and an art teacher featuring yarn painting.

  7. April Zuniga says:

    This book represents so much of the Huichol culture just by the illustrations itself. The handcrafted yarn art adds to the authenticity of this marvelous story. Not only is this tale intriguing but it also reminds me of Aesop’s fables that have a reoccurring theme of a lesson to be learned or a value to obtain. That is something to be valued in a story especially when it helps benefit a young child.

    This particular story contains characters that children are familiar with and might have even seen in their everyday life. For example, a squirrel or a turtle might be something children have seen before in nature or in a classroom. This familiarity to the characters helps intrigue a child even more when they recognize something they have knowledge about. This story would be great to share with children in a classroom or at a library story time as a read aloud so that they can also share in the amazing illustrations of the book. I think it is also possible to read this story without the book in oral storytelling but show visuals as well to help conserve the Huichol feel of the story.

    This story is a great example of how a culture can be represented through authentic illustrations and storytelling. It allows for readers to learn about a different culture in a way that allows for respect and cultural awareness.

  8. Luz Earley says:

    During a collective discussion, it appears that a common thread is reference to by both the artwork as well as story content. As a traditional folk tale, each reader is impacted by everything from the spiritual connection and attribution of human qualities to members of the animal kingdom. Children’s literature is a means to penetrate ancient civilizations, see imaginative designs, and uncover magical tales. By means of storytelling, magic and reality find a common ground. Using a full cast of storytellers, this story has potential to be used to exhibit an ancient culture and peak the interest of people young and old. Questions of authenticity can only be answered when listeners and readers have been exposed to this tale. It is only then that people can discover the beauty and history of the Huichol people.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *