5 minute read

John (William) Bierhorst (1936-)


John Bierhorst became interested in Native American cultures in the early 1960s, which led him to create many volumes of translated tales, retellings, and studies that have been enjoyed by both children and adults over more than four decades.

Bierhorst studied engineering but switched to English, and after graduating, he studied piano. His wife-to-be, Jane Byers, who lived across the hall, was already a designer and art director for children's books when they met. While in Mexico City, they were visiting the Museum of Anthropology when he spied an Aztec poem translated to Spanish that had been carved into a stone wall. Bierhorst located the original manuscript that contained the poem and translated it into English. He continued to translate and edit the stories that he uncovered, many of which had never before appeared in English.

His first volume, The Fire Plume: Legends of the American Indians, contains versions of seven tales from the collection of Henry Rowe Schoolcraft, who had recorded stories told to him by his Chippewa wife. Bierhorst tells them in a way that makes them more understandable to younger readers.

Bierhorst's books are records of the oral histories of Native tribes and a source of tribal customs. Many are unique, such as Doctor Coyote: A Native American Aesop's Fables, a collection of Latin and Greek fables that were carried by the Spaniards to the New World in the sixteenth century. These were blended with traditional Aztec tales, and include the character of the trickster coyote.

Bierhorst wrote a series of three volumes that take a more anthropological approach. Mythology of North America, Mythology of South America, and Mythology of Mexico and Central America study similarities and differences between the various regions, including their mythology. Ursula K. Le Guin, who reviewed Mythology of North America in the New York Times Book Review, called Bierhorst's myths "moving and fascinating," and added that his "descriptions of the background and history, the connections and crossovers, of the myths and mythologies, and his glimpses of the world views of the various peoples and regions, are varied and thoughtful."

Lightning Inside You and Other Native American Riddles is the first collection of Native riddles ever published. In The Way of the Earth: Native America and the Environment, Bierhorst studies the environment and regional attitudes toward the place of man, animals, and plants within it. Seen here are ways in which Native peoples have cared for the land through crop rotation and for animals in established sanctuaries. Bierhorst suggests that modern society reconnect with the environment and adopt Native practices that protect it.

The Red Swan: Myths and Tales of the American Indians, first published in 1976, was reprinted in 1995 by the Society for the Study of the Multi-Ethnics Literature of the United States. Annette van Dyke reviewed the reprinted edition in Melus, noting that "not only has Bierhorst selected these tales, but in some cases he has translated them from the German, and in others he has made small changes in the wording—contributing to a very readable collection." The stories are arranged in sections according to theme, such as "Setting the World in Order," "The Family Drama," "Fair and Foul" (trickster tales), and "Crossing the Threshold." These are then subdivided into smaller sections.

After writing so many books about Native Americans in other areas, Bierhorst realized that little of the native literature from the Indians near his own home had ever been preserved in print. In The White Deer and Other Stories Told by the Lenape, Bierhorst records many stories from the Delaware, or Lenape as they call themselves, the original inhabitants of New Jersey, southeastern New York, and eastern Pennsylvania.

Bierhorst next compiled eighteen Inuit stories for The Dancing Fox and twenty-two tales for The Deetkatoo: Native American Stories about Little People. The latter volume features tales about the kindly magical beings of American Native folklore.

Bierhorst extends his study of Native traditions with Latin American Folktales: Stories from Hispanic and Indian Traditions, a collection of more than 100 stories from Mexico, Central America, South America, and the American Southwest that reflect the influence of Spanish colonialism. The first part of the book consists of Inca and Aztec legends, while the second part features stories in a variety of genres, including moral, heroic, anecdotal, religious, and comic. While some of the short tales are silly, others are scary and disturbing. Riddles are also included. Kliatt's Patricia Moore noted that these twentieth-century tales are "set out in the format of a velorio, or wake, nine nights of stories told to keep those mourning the dead awake throughout the night."

Sheila Shoup noted in School Library Journal that most of the stories in this volume are translated into English here for the first time, "making it worthy of any collection." They are listed in the accompanying guide titled "Register of Tale Types and Selected Motifs." Shoup wrote that "casual readers will gain maximum enjoyment by picking out whatever strikes their fancy."

Biographical and Critical Sources


Major Authors and Illustrators for Children and Young Adults, Gale (Detroit, MI), 2002.


Horn Book, May-June, 1997, Barbara Bader, "'They Shall Not Wither': John Bierhorst's Quiet Crusade for Native American Literature," pp. 268-281.

Kliatt, January, 2004, Patricia Moore, review of Latin American Folktales: Stories from Hispanic and Indian Traditions, p. 27.

Los Angeles Times Book Review, March 11, 1984, Jonathan Kirsch, review of The Sacred Path: Spells, Prayers, and Power Songs of the American Indian, p. 8.

Melus, summer, 1995, Annette van Dyke, review of The Red Swan: Myths and Tales of the American Indians, p. 161.

New York Times Book Review, January 31, 1982, Michele Slung, review of The Glass Slipper: Charles Perrault's Tales of Times Past, p. 27; September 1, 1985, Ursula K. Le Guin, review of The Mythology of North America, p. 7; October 19, 1986, review of The Monkey's Haircut and Other Stories Told by the Maya, p. 44; November 22, 1987, Blake Smith, review of Dr. Coyote: A Native American Aesop's Fables, p. 44; October 2, 1988, Carol F. Drisko, review of The Mythology of South America, p. 35; January 6, 1991, review of The Mythology of Mexico and Central America, p. 28; November 16, 1997, Natalie Kusz, review of the Dancing Fox, Arctic Folk Tales, p. 30.

School Library Journal, May, 2002, Sheila Shoup, review of Latin American Folktales, p. 180.

Additional topics

Brief BiographiesBiographies: Shennen Bersani (1961-) Biography - Personal to Mark Burgess Biography - PersonalJohn (William) Bierhorst (1936-) - Awards, Honors, Writings, Sidelights - Personal, Career, Member, Autobiography Feature