The owl sacred pack

The owl sacred pack: A new edition and translation of the Meskwaki manuscript of Alfred Kiyana. Ed. and translated by Ives Goddard. Winnipeg, Manitoba: Algonquian and Iroquoian Linguistics, 2007. Pp. vi, 239. ISBN 0921064195. $40.

Reviewed by Thomas R. Wier, University of Chicago

For many years (indeed, centuries), the study of Native American languages and literatures has been hampered by the lack of widely available basic texts and grammars that would allow students and scholars to dig into non-Western language and culture. This is especially true of the languages of many smaller tribes for whom even the most rudimentary guides are not accessible outside the biggest university libraries. This work by Ives Goddard will help reverse that trend by presenting a full text, glossed and translated from the Meskwaki language into English in a clear, lucid format.

The story behind this text is an interesting one. Approximately 100 years ago, a scholar at the Smithsonian Institution, Truman Michelson, set out to document the language of the Meskwaki, or Fox, tribe in their settlement in Tama, Iowa, working with a local story-teller Alfred Kiyana. Kiyana had a prodigious memory and detailed knowledge of Meskwaki lore, and, before his sudden death in 1918 during the Spanish Influenza pandemic, had written approximately 10,000 pages of texts in all kinds of genres, ranging from the ceremonial, as with this text, to legends (e.g. ‘Mosquito, who fasted too long and became a spirit’ [Dahlstrom 1996]), to his own autobiography. So great was his contribution to Meskwaki literature that the Meskwaki language now has one of the largest corpora of texts of any native language north of the Rio Grande.

Although Michelson published a critically successful version of this text in 1921, the current edition constitutes an improvement over that earlier publication in a number of ways. First, Michelson’s transcription was prephonemic and sometimes used rather peculiar renderings of segments from a modern perspective—for example, the <ä> and <tc> that were used in place of the <eˑ> and <č> of G’s edition might be prone to misinterpretation by the casual reader. Michelson’s version also occasionally edited out lines that properly belong in the text, such as when he deleted a line in 17k (page 31 of this text), which, as G (1990: ‘Some literary devices in the Writings of Alfred Kiyana’) notes, actually constituted a chiastic construction that Kiyana used to alert the reader that more was to come in the story (160).

But by far the best feature of this edition is the line-by-line linguistic analysis. The Meskwaki language, like other Algonquian languages, has a remarkably baroque polysynthetic morphosyntax, and categories foreign to Western languages (such as obviation, a kind of reference tracking) can make it difficult for the unaided reader to appreciate even relatively simple clause structure. To remedy this, each line of this text is first broken down into constituent morphemes and then glossed and translated. Furthermore, G also notes the obviation status of each argument in the free translation, which helps the reader keep track of who is doing what to whom in a text where much is left inexplicit, without any overt verbal argument. These features will make this edition ideal for the linguistic study of the Meskwaki language and Algonquian literature in general, both for students and for more advanced scholars, especially as a companion to Dahlstrom’s forthcoming Grammar of Meskwaki.