CM . . .
. Volume XVII Number 23. . . .February 18, 2011
Muin and the Seven Bird Hunters = Muin aqq Luiknek Te'sijik Ntuksuinuk.
Lillian Marshall and others. Illustrated by Kristy Read & Sana Kavanagh.
Sydney, NS: Cape Breton University Press, 2010.
32 pp., pbk., $11.95.
Micmac Indians-Folklore-Juvenile literature.
Preschool-grade 5 / Ages 4-10.
Review by Shelbey Krahn.
The first to dip below the horizon is Kupkwe'j, the little Saw-whet Owl, but don't make fun of him for not getting some of his share of the food, and don't mimic his sad cry, for the Mi'kmaq say if he gets upset, he will find you and burn your clothes!
This traditional Mi'kmaw story explains the movement of the constellation of Ursa Major (also known as the Big Dipper) as it shifts in the night sky. The bear's body is the four stars that make up the bowl of the dipper. In the spring, Muin the bear walks downhill. In the summer, she walks horizontally, with seven birds hunting her. Four birds gradually tire and fall below the horizon. In mid-autumn, the three remaining birds (Robin, Chickadee, and Gray Jay) gain on Muin, and she rises on her hind legs to defend herself. Robin shoots and kills her with an arrow. In his eagerness to eat, Robin gets covered in blood. As he shakes off most of the blood, the sky maple receives the most splatters, which is why earth maples, following the appearance of the sky maple, have the reddest fall leaves. Robin and Chickadee cook the bear's meat. Gray Jay shows up only as it is ready, but Robin and Chickadee are generous and will share their meal. They dance and give thanks to the Creator and each other. Muin's skeleton continues to move in the sky on its back through the winter, with her Life-spirit entering another bear that also lies upon her back in a den, sleeping the winter sleep, continuing a never-ending cycle. The story helps the reader remember and visualize the movement of the constellation while reinforcing cultural mores, like sharing and gratitude.
The illustrations enhance understanding, with the animals in an earthly setting mimicking the moments of the stars. A confusing illustrative element is seven augmented stars in a C shape in three of the illustrations. Sleuthing revealed that the C-shape is Corona Borealis, which is known by the Mi'kmaq as Muin's den. The constellation is mentioned in the five page glossary, and so it is possible to puzzle it out without resorting to external resources.
The style of the illustrations is unique. The background is navy with many small, blue circles and stars. Stars relevant to the story are whiter and larger. The vegetation is created from cut-outs outlined in black or white. A cut-out meant to represent hundreds of leaves will have two or more beautifully detailed and see through leaves on it, with a dreamy, photographic quality about them. Pine tree needles are represented by cut-outs of photographs of spiky grasses. Likewise, the tree trunks are made from photographs of weather-beaten wood. Looking for patterns, one can find repeating images, many of them flipped right-to-left. The grasses of the foreground are often exactly the same, but the colour or the perspective will be changed. An observant child will delight in finding the similarities and differences in the pictures. There are two illustrators, and likely one artist created the setting and the other created the characters. The characters, their fires, and the bear dens are in the style of more typical illustrations, simplified realism, but they are not typical. Outlined in white, they are like stickers in children's sticker books, with the same sticker being used on different pages. If there is meaning to the interesting experiment, it might be that nature is ever-changing, yet really the same, its broad swathes made up of exquisite detail. The characters aren't meant to be realistic -- robins don't hunt bears - placing stickers in a book is like assigning characters to stars: the first star is a robin, the little one is a chickadee...
Muin and the Seven Bird Hunters is doubly ambitious on three levels: two styles of illustration, two languages (Mi'kmaq and English), and two layers of subject matter (science and legend). To top off the complicated creation, the creators also issued an online version at www.integrativescience.ca. The online version has the added benefit of the viewer's being able to hear the Mi'kmaw language, and it has extra details. Such as the story's first being documented by Stansbury Hagar in 1900.
In terms of text, I do not like that the Mi'kmaw bird names were used in the English text. On page four, "sharp-eyed Chickadee (Juki'kes) ... picks up his birchbark pot (Wow)." On page 6, the English words have been permanently replaced with Mi'kmaw words: "Little Juki'kes is so small and the sky so huge that he flies between the larger birds, Jipjawej and Nikjako'kej." Most English-speaking children wouldn't be familiar with even the English bird names and would benefit from learning them. As well, they could be alienated from the book by adults' stumbling over the Mi'kmaw words. I understand the desire to share the poetic language of the Mi'kmaq, but find that the long bird names are too challenging, especially for young readers.
Nevertheless, the project effectively communicates the movements of the stars in a memorable and interesting way.
Shelbey Krahn (BA, BEd, MLIS) is the librarian for the School of Education at Laurentian University in Sudbury, ON.
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