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ISSUE:  Autumn 1933

A wise saying is probably the earliest form of a popular story, taking place as an observed experience many times before it is shaped as an incident. One finds them, at least, as Sayings of the Ancient Men among the treasures of tribal wisdom at a time when the current story which is not simply a myth, can scarcely be said to exist, in a form more complicated than the anecdote and of a profounder experimental shape than the cultural background implies. That one of the Paiutes, about not going out of your trail when a skunk walks in it and leaves a stink there, to prove that it is not yours, is, for example, from a deeper layer than the normal attainment of the Paiute community would imply. And the Zuni observation about the poor being poor in spirit as well as in appearance, might be essentially modern as well as American, although the only general trait which Indian proverbs exhibit, is that they seem to derive from a life more roundly communistic than do the sayings which arise among people more definitely entitled to the characterization of Folk.

In the selection of Indian tribal sayings, I have tried to be as representative as possible, but have not been able to avoid taking those examples which have to do with the communal interest, rather than the private experience, even at the cost of choosing those less ancient in human experience than instances which occur among the sons of the Conquistadors, who are much further along in history.

One realizes that the Spanish proverb about lying down with dogs and getting up with fleas, might easily derive from the time when men slept indiscriminately with the household dogs, and suffered a universal discomfort. It is also possible that the comment on the difference between a sparrow in the bush and a vulture flying, so widely is a similar observation on the relative merits of birds at hand and abroad distributed among mankind, is of older derivation than almost any other animal experience. The notice that a shroud has no pockets and that a wool grower knows a wool buyer are not only more sharply individualistic, but they are further along in the scale of economic history. They derive from a period in which the individual life comes in for closer observation, and there is sharper discrimination in the color of personal incidents. Although chosen out of a group of sayings that seem to belong wholly to the colonial period of New Mexico, they are advanced enough to have had their source in Spain, and are definitely of the class of counters by which the record of human experience is rung down on shopkeepers’ tables as a test of reality many times before they slip into the category of entertainment.

In the third group, we have the sort of transference of incident and comment which is pronouncedly of the quality of left-overs from a social status more opulent than that one in which they are found. They are the sort of thing that arise out of a richer past, and stick in the public memory, taking their values from the contrast they afford to a life that is recalled rather than natively afforded. The laugh is in the listener’s realization of the poverty of opportunity they imply, and the hint of superior occasions remembered. What keeps them in the form of sayings rather than tales, is their universality; the wide range within which the crystallizing incident may have occurred to the original human beings who produced the proverbial form. What we have here is the rise of the wise saying in communal experience, through the realization of the importance of the individual career, and its decay into amusement over the lost step of social progression.

I. Sayings of the Ancient Men

Never go to sleep when your meat is on the fire.—Black’ feet.

Would you choose a counselor, watch him with his neighbor’s children.—Siom.

If a skunk walks in your trail and leaves a stink there, do not go out of your path to prove that it is not yours.—Paiute,

If the poor be poor in spirit as well as in appearance, how shall they be aught but poor to the end of their days?—Zwfli,

The moon is not shamed by the barking of dogs.—Southwest.

II. Sayings of the Sons of the Conquistadors

Those that lie down with dogs get up with fleas.

The marrow of the meat is inside the bones.

A hungry stomach makes a short prayer.

After dark all cats are leopards.

A wool grower knows a wool buyer.

A shroud has no pockets.

One Take-this is better than two I-will-gives.

A sparrow in the bush is better than a vulture flying.

Use the whetstone or do without cutting.

He who does not wish for dust should not come to the threshing floor.

III. Sayings of Spanish New Mexico

He who is not handsome at Twenty, strong at Thirty, rich at Forty, and wise at Fifty, will never be handsome, strong, rich, or wise.

An old woman, being asked by the Padre if she could keep the ten commandments, replied: “No, Padre, I am so poor I can scarcely keep myself.”

Another woman in a poor neighborhood which was no parish but a visita, was asked by the Padre to say who made her.

Said she, “How should I know?” Whereupon the Padre asked a child who had been taught the catechism, who replied properly that God made him.

“Ah, well,” said the vieja, “he was made only the other day and may very well remember who did it. But me, I have been made a long time, and if I ever knew, have forgotten.”

A stirring and soul-piercing sermon on Hell being preached at Questa, a man was observed who appeared not to be moved by it. On being asked why, he replied, “Well, you see I belong to another parish.”


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