Thursday, August 30, 2012

A Native American Cinderella

A Zuni Tale*

Long, long ago, before our ancestors had either sheep or horses, they had various domestic animals, including turkeys. In Matsaki, or the Salt City, there were many wealthy families who owned turkeys, and the slaves and poor people would herd them about. There lived a very poor girl, who was pretty of face but her clothes were tattered and dirty.

But like other poor people, she was humble and kind, and as she herded her turkeys about, she would speak kindly to them. They loved their mistress and were very obedient to her.

One day, as the poor girl drove her turkeys into the plains, she heard the priest proclaiming from the house-top that the Dance of the Sacred Bird would take place in four days. Since this girl was so poor, she had never been permitted to join or watch any of the great festivals, and longed to go. But she knew that, dressed as she was, she would never be able to go. She continued to drive on her turkeys, as she talked to them, never dreaming that they had any idea what she was saying.
Frederick Hall

Each day as the girl drove her turkeys out, she saw the other villagers preparing their garments and cooking and getting ready for the festival. On the fourth day, after the other people had all departed for the festival, one of the big turkeys strutted up to her, spread out his tail and wings, and said, "Maiden mother, we know what your thoughts are, and truly we pity you, and wish might enjoy this holiday." He went on to say that they would help to dress her up prettily, so that all the young men would long to dance with her.

The girl was surprised, but it seemed so natural that her turkeys should be talking to her. She expressed joy that they could talk to each other, but asked how the turkeys could talk of things that were impossible. The turkeys assured her that, being humble, she deserved the happiness of going to the dance, but if she should forget her turkeys, it would prove that she deserved her hard life, because without her poverty she would be as unkind as the rich people were to her. She assured them she would be obedient to them as they were to her.

The turkeys instructed her to give them her articles of clothing, and as she did, one of them would come forward and step on it and peck at it, until it was transformed into beautiful clothes like those the people of the village wore. They also gave her jewelry and ornaments they had colleted for her.

Looking beautiful, the turkeys told her to go, but warned her to leave the wicket open in case she should forget about them, they could leave. She assured them she would remember them, and went to the festival. The people all wondered where the beautiful maiden came from, and she was not without a dancing partner. But in her enjoyment she did not think of her turkeys, but only wondered how she could leave such a place to go back to her turkeys, so she stayed until the dance was nearly over. Only then did she run back, but her turkeys had already left. She returned to the fold and found it empty. She went out in search of her turkeys, calling them, but her clothes returned to her former rags and she remained poor.

*This story is in a collection of Native American folktales, in the section "Tales Borrowed from Europeans"-so don't think that this story happened to originate independantly of our Cinderella with all of its parallels.
To the Perrault/Disney-weaned fairy tale fan, this may not seem to have much connection with Cinderella without the evil stepsisters or fairy godmother, but the animal helper is very common among Cinderella variants as her source of beautiful clothes. What makes this tale so unusual is the non-traditional unhappy ending. I don't like the hint that all poor people deserve to be poor, although it's a good reminder not to let wealth and priviledge curb your compassion-but after reading so many other Cinderella stories I find the ending kind of humorous.

And I am by no means an expert on Native American culture, or the Zuni tribe, but from what I've always understood, Native Americans never had class distinctions, so I wonder if that's purely European influence? Feel free to correct me if I'm wrong in the comments
EDIT: Rosie in the comments has corrected me! Click through to read more about the Zuni culture and how the story reflects it


  1. Native American tribes, especially Navajo; Zuni; and the Dineh in the South West, and the Cree and the Blackfoot in the Great Plains absolutely did have class distinctions, especially when they compared themselves to different camps. Their cultural mandates instructed them to help the poorer members of their family, but anyone not in that family had no difficulty looking down on those people. Their tents, their designs, their dances were all opportunities to show off and display how they were wealthier and more gifted than anyone else.
    A poor girl might not be able to go to a dance because a humongous amount of work ahead of her because her father is too poor to marry more than one wife to help her with the work. Or he might have married her to a richer man who already has many wives and therefore she'd be essentially a servant as the freshman wife.
    Perhaps because of the turkey flock, but this seems similar to the Goose Girl as well as Cinderella. Thanks for putting it up!

  2. I'd never heard this one before! I was not expecting that ending - it gave me a chuckle. It just seems really abrupt... thanks for putting it up!