Critical Commentary of The Legend of the Big Dipper

Through his retelling of the Big Dipper story and evidence from his biography, it becomes clear that Clarence A. Smith was an assimilator. Firstly, the main theme in the biographical work done on Clarence A. Smith was that he was relatively happy and motivated to be at the Carlisle Indian School. He received strong marks his entire time at the school, he left behind no family on the reservation and desired to make something of himself. Another large indicator of his happiness at the school was his stellar health record, his student files indicate that he was sickly not once during his time at the school, which is often overlooked as a way of judging mental health. He finished his time at the school and appears to have found success in Wyoming, writing the school that he was “getting along well” ( and eventually it appears that he may have had a family. Through this understanding of where Clarence may have stood mentally, a more in-depth analysis of his retelling of the Big Dipper story can be made and through that analysis it only becomes clearer that he was an assimilator.

Clarence’s The Legend of the Big Dipper may have been based on a story that he remembered being told as a child, but he wrote it in 1909, after being at the school for three years, and it is riddled with Anglo-American and Christian influence which supports the fact that he was open to the idea of assimilation, and allowed it to take affect on him. The first instance of Anglo-American influence on the story is actually the title of Clarence’s work; in the primary sources scribed by Kroeber and Dorsey the star formation is never once referred to as the Big Dipper. It is actually thought that the reason the Big Dipper is referred to by that name in North America is because “in Africa, the seven stars were sometimes seen as a drinking gourd, which is believed to be the origin of the name the Big Dipper, most commonly used for the figuration in the U.S. and Canada” (, and when Africans were first brought to the Americas in the slave trade the name came with them and was eventually adapted by the Anglo-Americans.

So, obviously when Clarence says “I used to take great delight in listening to the stories told by my folks. Here is one I can recall from memory” (Smith, 16), it is very unlikely that they referred to it as the legend of the Big Dipper and much more likely that they called it something like “The Bear” or “The Girl Who Became a Bear” as Kroeber’s retelling did.

Another instance of Clarence showing the success of his assimilation by the Carlisle Indian School is his reference to the Anglo-American game, Tag. In his retelling he says “One day they were playing “tag”. The sister had scarcely been tagged when she was suddenly transformed into a bear” (Smith, 16). Again, the use of this term was completely absent in the other two retellings of the Big Dipper story offered by the anthropologists, although the game that they described does seem somewhat related to the idea of Tag. Kroeber’s retelling is as follows:

When they played, she said: ‘Bring the claws.’ Then she would tie the claws to her hands. They played that she was a bear, living in the sand-hills, and that about her den berries were thick. The smaller children would come, to gather berries, and while they were picking, the one that played bear came out and attacked them. (Dorsey, Kindle Location 5312).

Meanwhile, Dorsey’s retelling of the story does not include a game at all but instead it is a story of seven brothers rescuing a girl from a bear.

The final, most notable, difference between the three retellings of the story is Clarence’s inclusion of “the Great Spirit”; while Dorsey’s and Kroeber’s accounts are different in most aspects, neither mentions the Great Spirit or its role in creating the Big Dipper as Clarence claims happened. Clarence claims that the story ends with “The Great Spirit changed them [the seven brothers] into a group of seven stars” (Smith, 17) in order to save them from the bear that was chasing them. The other two accounts say that the brothers were saved by kicking a ball which sent them into the sky and thus saved them from the bear. In Dorsey’s retelling the escape went as follows: “When sister sees bear gaining, she stops and kicks shiny ball. Ball ascends, one of brothers goes up with it and lights in the sky. Thus she sends all brothers and herself up to sky” (Dorsey, Kindle Location 9810). Kroeger retells this part of the story almost identically, making it the most similar part between the two anthropologists work. The discrepancies in Clarence’s retelling of the story seem that they could have originated from a Christian influence, furthering the idea that he was an assimilator. The fact that Clarence redefined the kicking of the ball as the works of a single higher power is very similar to the way that Christians would define miracle such as the one in this story as a work of God. Secondly, the creation of seven new stars in the sky would surely have to be a work of God from a Christian viewpoint, after all he is “the maker of Heaven and Earth” (Pslam 146:6). Clarence may have been remembering a story told to him by his parents long before his time at the Carlisle Indian School, but due to the fact that he was an assimilator, he allowed the school to make changes in the way that he retold the story and added Anglo-American and Christian influences to it.

Clarence A. Smith’s work belongs in this canon of works because it is an incredible cross section of the combination two very different cultures to form a new story. It shows how powerful the assimilation of the Carlisle Indian School could be and how it could force itself into every aspect of the culture of the Native Americans who attended. As Paul Lauter said “literary works arise in the intersection of historical reality with cultural tradition” (Lauter, 1991), and this piece absolutely did, it rose from the historical realities of forced assimilation and Native American culture. Clarence offers such a unique view of how intertwined cultural tradition could become with the views of the Carlisle Indian School, and for that uniqueness it is required that he be included in the canon. Through the understanding of Clarence’s work and the way that assimilation changed the original story, the rest of the stories from the Carlisle Indian School can be analyzed more effectively and the impacts that assimilation may have had on them can be identified more successfully.

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