Biboon, Nanaboozhoo and Carnival: Winter Trickster Stories
By Sarena Johnson and Megan Davies, First Story Toronto
We’re back this giiwe-biboon (late winter)! This is the best time to talk about Trickster, because he’s sleeping and won’t bother us. Sometimes if you talk about spirits, they will hear it as an invitation to visit you. Trickster isn’t an entirely bad or good spirit, but, hence the name, can play tricks on us, which we won’t always enjoy at the time. That’s why it’s best to tell Trickster stories in the winter.
Nanaboozhoo is an Anishnaabemowin name for Trickster but he goes by many names. The Cree call him Weesakejak, the Sioux call him Iktomi, and there are many stories about him with slight variations in other Indigenous cultures as well. There are many Anishnaabe stories available through Toronto Public Library under the spelling variation “Nanabush” (there are several spellings). When I was a small girl and my Grandma would read me stories of Nanaboozhoo, I could never have imagined that I would be discussing these in Universities and workplaces as an adult. In retrospect, I feel fortunate to have been told these stories, which are of such vital importance to Indigenous culture. Here is one example of a Nanabush story:
“Folkloric tales tell us that Nanaboozhoo was first sent to earth to teach the Ojibwa; his first task was to name all of the plants and animals. Thunderbird, a mythical beast in First Nations folklore, furiously haunts the hero as lightning crashes out of his eyes. According to one legend, Nanaboozhoo turns himself into a rabbit and is swiftly carried up to the nest of the Thunderbirds in order to retrieve their feathers, which would make his hunting arrow very powerful. He steals these feathers from the young Thunderbirds while the parents are out hunting and returns to the earth, very much hurt from his high jump. When the older Thunderbirds learn of this deceit, they chase him across the land, but he takes cover within the hollow trunk of a birch tree. When the Thunderbirds eventually give up on their pursuit, Nanaboozhoo escapes and declares the birch tree a protector and benefactor of the human race. Today, you can still see the short black marks on birch tree bark made by the angry claws of the Thunderbirds; this is also why lightning never strikes a birch tree.” - Royal Canadian Mint
In many stories, Nanaboozhoo was sent to Earth by Creator as a helper and teacher of Anishnaabe people. In some stories he’s credited with creating plants for us to eat or stealing fire so we could keep warm. He’s a shapeshifter and gender non-conformist, sometimes appearing as a man, woman, a coyote, raven, spider, and often as a rabbit. He can be very clever and cunning, often to get himself out of difficult situations he’s landed in due to his foolishness. His mistakes are meant as teaching tools for us.
The Trickster is a type of character found in myths from all over the world. Carl Jung included the Trickster as one of his “archetypes” and thought he was a manifestation of the collective unconscious that spoke to our “shadows”. There definitely is a darkness to the Trickster, as he is known to break the rules, cross boundaries and thumb his nose at normal social behaviour. We see similar behaviour in the “contraries”, or sacred clowns in some Indigenous spiritual societies. (You might have seen them in the 1970 film Little Big Man.)
More recently, Trickster has appeared in many of Thomas King’s stories, most notably “The One About the Coyote Going West” but many of his works touch on the theme. King uses the Trickster to comment on colonization, and many more recent writers have drawn the comparison of trickster stories to the discourse of decolonization. For more stories about Trickster, check out the following titles:
Since Trickster’s forte is escaping harmful situations, similar stories were also popular among enslaved African peoples in the Caribbean. We also see strong connections to Mardi-Gras and Carnival in Trickster mythology. Which is what my co-writer, Megan will focus on from here.
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Trickster traditions also emerge in diverse ways around the world. Across the Caribbean, trickster storytelling traditions show up in various fêtes, festivals and carnivals at different points in the year. In Trinidad and Tobago (T&T), Carnival happens in February and sometimes early March, during winter in Ontario. We thought it appropriate to point out trickster storytelling traditions that happen simultaneously in other places, in part because of relationships: My husband is Bajan (Barbadian) and went to school in Trinidad at University of West Indies. Focusing on Caribbean tricksters also seems relevant, because of the large populations of Caribbean people who have travelled to Takaronto; many are now in relationships with Indigenous communities in this place (including my husband Greg).
T&T has a long history of Indigenous traditions. In respect to the carnival, I will be talking about Indigenous West African’s trickster traditions that were imported through Black populations and integrated into the French pre-Lenten festival. After West African peoples who were enslaved were emancipated, they participated in and adapted the French festival for their own ends, including for celebration, rebellion and subversion. It was later fully appropriated by Black lower classes, and emerged as Carnival. (Gilbert and Tompkins 79) The festival now features an array of events, including PAN, fêtes and Mas. However, T&T has a longer history of Indigenous traditions pre-colonization, through the occupation and movement of the ancestors of the Santa Rosa First Peoples (SRFP).
The SRFP, formerly the Santa Rosa Carib Community, are descendants of the Nepuyo, Locono, Tainos, Karina, and Warao, and embrace their complicated history that is intertwined with movement, intermarriage and colonization. A significant part of revitalizing their community came with the Santa Rosa Festival, “and the Community’s central involvement in it is seen by members as the most fundamental expression of their continuing existence and survival in the face of extraordinary change” (“About Us” Santa Rosa First Peoples). The festival occurs in August, and a big part of revitalization comes during the performances at their community centre afterwards, where parang bands from the T&T Indigenous community re-appropriate and adapt parang music (Venezuelan-infused string music) (Ingram "Reading History, Performing Carib.”).
Carnival in T&T is a continually changing annual event, rooted in the culture and history of that place, and the various people that were brought together by imperial and colonial enterprises, among other reasons. While Indigenous influenced parang music has become popularized for Christmas and infused into Carnival, Indigenous traditions from West Africa have also influenced T&T Carnival (as well as other populations and influences, such as French-Creole, Indian, Chinese and South American). The trickster figure Anansi and Griot storytelling techniques were brought into the Caribbean by West African populations and their descendants. Griot storytelling during T&T Mas, often consists of the speakers using long and eloquent monologues, usually boasting their own enterprises, adventures and power over oppressors, and sometimes contain subversive (or overt) messages that speak to historical or existing politics or issues.
Trickster traditions manifest in Carnival differently than in homes and schools. In February and March, storytellers and citizens take on the roles of various trickster characters or characters using trickster qualities at Carnival like the traditional Mas. They dress up as, embody, and speak as, those characters, at the same time that they themselves as performers use griot storytelling techniques. When I asked some of Greg’s Trinidadian friends (thank-you Jamilla, Kellon, David and Joanna!!!) about trickster characters, or characters with trickster qualities, there were a few that came up, such as La Diablesse, Douens, and Soucouyant. The Midnight Robber was also heavily featured when I was doing some research, as the Mas character has been written about by scholars and taken up by Trinidadian playwrights and authors like Earl Lovelace and Keith Jardin. Post-Colonial Scholar Dr. Emily Marshall describes the Midnight Robber as “Morally deviant, the Midnight Robber boastfully proclaims to be both terrorist and saviour; a criminal extraordinaire and breaker of institutional and supernatural laws” (210-1 “Resistance Through Robber Talk.”), using wordplay and double-entendres. When I tuned into CTV T&T (Jamilla called to tell me that traditional Mas was streaming live) on Sunday night (11 February 2018), the Midnight Robber popped up on my computer screen, boasting to the crowd (and me) that Carnival is still alive.
Although these tricky characters come out during Carnival, people are also taught about those characters in school. I found this part very interesting, because until recently, Indigenous content and epistemologies have not been prominent in Canada’s education system (and colonial agents attempted, but did not succeed, to stamp them out). There has been criticism in recent years by many locals and academics that T&T Carnival has become too commercialized and tourism-focused, however in the Mas video above, it seems as though the trickster characters have changed, adapted and survived, much like the SRFP’s Santa Rosa Festival.
We invite you to share and ask questions in the comment section about the Tricksters you’ve met here and storytelling techniques in the links and resources posted below!
First Nations Trickster Videos:
Raven: A Trickster Tale from the Pacific Northwest
Traditional Mas Carnival Videos:
Victoria Square Mas 2008: Midnight Robber portrayal by Sterling Taylor
Midnight Robber portrayal by Bill
Traditional Carnival Mas 2013: Midnight Robber, Fancy Sailor, Jab Jab
Midnight Robber: The Crime Minister
Moko Jumbie: Dancing on stilts in Trinidad & Tobago
Santa Rosa First Peoples, Carnival and Characters
Gilbert, Helen and Joanne Tompkins. Post-Colonial Drama : Theory, Practice, Politics. New York: Routledge, 1996.
King, Thomas. “The One About Coyote Going West.” One Good Story, That One. Toronto: HarperPerennial, 1993. 69-82.
Articles, Essays and Newspapers:
Ingram, Amelia K. "Reading History, Performing Carib: The Santa Rosa Festival and Amerindian Identity in Trinidad." Caribbean Studies 36.2 (2008): 65-94. Web. 24 Jan. 2018.
"Midnight's Children and the Legacy of Nationalism." Callaloo 20.4 (1997): 737-52. Web. 24 Jan. 2018.
Marshall, Emily Zobel. "Resistance through 'Robber-Talk': Storytelling Strategies and the Carnival Trickster." Caribbean Quarterly: A Journal of Caribbean Culture. 62:2: 210-226. 2016.