Storytellers, in many Native cultures, carry lessons across generational lines. The women who tell these stories preserve traditional customs and confront contemporary problems.
“I am from the Buffalo People,” the beautiful woman dressed in white said. The woman was as a bright light to the two men who found her on the path. “They sent me to talk to your people. I want you to tell them that I will come to see them.”
Lakota and English words rise above the flames of burning sage, intertwining with the slow currents of smoke to join the stars above. The smoke stings the eyes of storyteller and author Virginia Driving Hawk Sneve as an eager young girl listening to her grandmother tell the story of Lakota culture. The words fuel the flames within the girl; the words bring her to a place before isolation on the Rosebud Indian Reservation in South Dakota. The story made an impact on Sneve, and she would later write her grandmother’s vision into her book, “Completing the Circle.”
As she spoke, one of the men had bad thoughts. He didn’t pay attention to her words, he tried to grab her. The other man, who had good thoughts, warned him, “Don’t!” It was too late. There was a crash of thunder, and a big cloud came over the bad man and the girl. When it cleared away, the bad man was a skeleton and ash on the ground. Ever after the White Buffalo Calf Woman protects girls from bad men.
The silence between the words of the story envelops the children, stirring their souls as they sit around their elder. Their fathers are away from the village hunting for dinner, their mothers are preparing the tepees, their grandmothers are writing history into the air and into minds as their words call out to the children. Words of meaning, words of instruction, stories showing where people come from, how they are, what they should be.
The other young man was afraid, but the woman told him that because he did not have bad thoughts, he would be all right. So he went back to his village and told his people to be ready.
Then she came, walking from the east with the sunrise, all dressed in white and so beautiful. In her hands she carried a bundle with a pipe in it. She said that she was the people’s sister and that she had brought them a sacred pipe. She taught the people how to use the pipe in seven sacred ceremonies and for healing and peace, not war.
These words echo in Philomine Lakota’s classroom at Red Cloud High School on the Pine Ridge Reservation. The high school students listen as she tells of the core values given by White Buffalo Calf Woman. The students are learning Lakota words, the words their parents were forced to forget.
She talked to the women. “My sisters,” she called them, “you have hard things to do in your life… But you are important because without you there would be no people.”
Storytelling is a diverse and powerful medium of imagery and description, and continues to provide the foundation of understanding Native culture through the diffusion of ideas and history through themes, as well as give guidance to the role of women as protectors of culture and values.
Although both men and women could be storytellers, grandmothers were often the main source of this learning due to the distribution of roles within the tribe.
When the adult men would go to hunt, women were in charge of the children, often grandmothers would tell the stories, which allowed the mothers to work on the tasks that required younger, stronger hands. The elders would educate the children about core values to maintain order and to encourage safety from an early age, ensuring that the children knew how to critically analyze dangerous situations and connect with the culture’s spiritual essence.
The storyteller would pass down religious motifs and origin stories, building pride and understanding in children. This central power to shape and form the minds of the youth gave women an influential voice.
Stories have many uses, often intertwining, from the use of educating values and serving as history books, to the preservation of culture and the soul. Stories both explain life and become life by serving many roles in society.
The purposes of storytelling:
- History stories document and illuminate the physical past while creation stories establish origin of life and values
- Education stories teach etiquette, lessons and morals
- Healing stories make an impact on the wounds caused by the past or present and seek to make a positive return back to strength, faith, tradition and family. The act of storytelling is also healing itself by giving a voice to the lost and silent
- Humor stories entertain and captivate audiences but also are a coping mechanism
- Stories reflect the cycle of life and the resilience of the Native way
Storytelling is both the key and the door to another time, people and culture. For cultures with no written language until post-contact, stories illustrated the lives and values of Native peoples. The stories provide perspective on life in America before contact, and stories reflect the dramatic changes to life after outside influence. Storytelling’s role in piecing together the past is important, but also, modern storytelling’s continued importance in Native culture shows the significance of changes to values, daily life and perspective.
Storytelling is writing the past, living the present and preserving the future. As storytelling undergoes radical changes due to the diaspora of Native people from the tribal community, the future generation holds the power to progress storytelling, but new and familiar challenges simultaneously threaten to extinguish the traditional form.
“I have a big fear that a lot of these ceremonies will be forgotten, we have too much competition with the modern world,” Philomine Lakota said.
Philomine Lakota talks about her fear that a lot of the ceremonies and the language will be lost because of competition with the modern world.
Creation and History
Virginia Driving Hawk Sneve, a Lakota Sioux author, knew her grandmother Flora believed in the creation stories of their ancestors. The words and essence of the story flowed in Flora’s blood, and in Virginia, and connected them both to the past and future.
“Flora told these stories because they were part of her heritage. She didn’t know that they were called legends or that they sprang from a people’s need to understand, explain and accept the nature of humankind or the supernatural,” Sneve wrote in her personal memoir, “Completing the Circle.”
Creation stories established the point of origin for Native peoples, often indicating a sacred place where life began and emphasizing a communal bond with nature and the land. Each tribe has a different creation story, ranging from tribes emerging directly out of the earth to the divine breathing life into medicine bundles.
Women were seen as keepers of the faith due to their responsibility and recollection within the oral tradition, but they were also featured in many creation myths as the life-giving deity.
Many examples of goddesses can be found in Native cultures: Hard Being Woman, who breathed life into the man and woman who would become the Hopi tribe; the Laguna Yellow Woman; Coyote Woman; Grandmother Spider or Spider Old Woman; Thought Woman; Iyatiku; Earth Woman; Corn Woman; and the Lakota White Buffalo Calf Woman.
The women in these stories are more than fertility goddesses and mothers, acting more as foundation figures for the tribe.
Philomine Lakota, Hohwoju, Itazipacola and Oglala Sioux Lakota, teaches the Lakota language at Red Cloud High School on Pine Ridge.
In Lakota, the word for the principal male is a word meaning mouth belonging to the tree of life, which is a word that refers to women. In other words, the male was intended to be the mouth of the woman, not to control her, and Philomine Lakota says that is one thing that has been lost in the culture.
“A lot of people think that us women are not leaders, but we are the heart of the nation, we are the center of our home, and it is us who decide how it will be,” Lakota said.
“We have yet to relearn that.”
The oral tradition is also how history was passed down through generations. With a written language developing later, words and memories were the best ways to transmit information. Some art told narratives through patterns of knots, some records were kept, such as winter courts, but the majority of Native history was contained in the words of elders to children.
Accounts of battles, displacement and families were remembered through the oral tradition.
Modern storytellers, such as Stella Long, Choctaw, don’t always focus on the past, however. Long was named contemporary storyteller of 2002 by the Wordcraft Circle of Native Writers & Storytellers. Native culture focuses on the preservation of culture for future generations, which includes the long past and the current reality.
“I don’t always dig into the past because stories are out there now. And someday, what I tell will be history,” Long said. “That’s what a man told me one time: ‘Your stories are important. It’s stories of today, but 20 years from now it’s going to be history and people will be wanting to hear it.’”
Storytelling doesn’t heal a broken bone or sooth a cough; but it does hold the power to mend the spirit, strengthen and empower.
Difficulties plagued the Native experience throughout history. Most of the obstacles and afflictions have been caused by the Anglo-Europeans through bad or ignored treaties, relocations, disease, famine and purposeful destruction of language and culture. All of these have weakened the fragile web of Native identity, but storytelling, the backbone of tradition, has prevented some of the damage.
The suffering led to high rates of depression, alcoholism and suicide among Native people, which has created a need for another kind of story. The healing story seeks to connect people through experience and thought, to facilitate a mending of hearts, minds and culture, to recover what has been lost and gain strength through unity.
When Long ends her stories, she uses Choctaw healing songs to facilitate the mending process.
“At this stage of my life,” Long said. “I have no regrets for living the emotional hardships – for I have gained wisdom and perspective from those years. Therefore, I tell my healing stories to support people to find their own way to healing physically, emotionally and spiritually.”
Long first realized her role as a storyteller as a young girl in the tuberculosis clinics of the ’50s. Her father had died of TB when she was very young, and she was terrified of death. She was removed from her family and sent to one of these clinics. One day, a man who was dying sent for her, saying he had heard she knew things and was special.
She was reluctant but eventually came to him. On his deathbed, she began to talk and let the words flow from her to him. Her words created a bond between the two of them, and he felt at peace. And through her interaction with him, she overcame her fear of death and the grief she carried over her father.
Long said she looks at the hard times as opportunities for growth.
“We can make that as learning or we can stay back there and regret forever what has happened to us,” Long said.
The most unique aspect of Native storytelling is the use of humor as entertainment, a learning tool and a survival technique. The trickster character, Iktomi in Lakota, who is often portrayed as a coyote, appears throughout Native storytelling as entertainment and a learning tool. Trickster stories are often used as cautionary tales about disobedience and not listening to elders. Post-contact, modern humor in Native stories has become decidedly bitterer than the previous jovial humor.
From the story of White Buffalo Calf Woman delivering the instructions for living to her people to the cautionary trickster, stories provided structure for everyday life.
As soon as girls were old enough to retain and understand information, the less tangible lessons of morals, ideals and ethics were taught through stories. According to Carolyn Niethammer’s “Daughters of the Earth: The Lives and Legends of American Indian Women,” girls were instilled with knowledge on how to build the home, gather food, create art, as well as how to act and function along with the tribe’s standards.
Storytelling was often told alongside daily chores in the home in a casual and constant way.
Modern education through storytelling serves a different purpose. Many living on and off the reservations do not have access to a storyteller outside the sessions the reservation schools sometimes provide. Books of myths are available, but Sneve highlights the importance of the human voice as something that can never be duplicated with written word.
Sneve blames the mobility of society for the transition into nuclear families.
“We don’t have the mixture of generations that we used to at all,” Sneve said.
Many Native children first learn their heritage and language in the classroom rather than in the home. This is largely due to the generational gap created by the forced boarding schools, which were intended to eliminate “the Native problem” by stripping Native people of their culture, traditions and language.
“They wanted us to be like other people, like themselves in a way, forget our culture,” Long said.
In the classroom of Red Cloud High School, Philomine Lakota tries to incorporate as much of the culture and language in her classes as possible, from teaching students the times of day to be thankful and to pray, to their beginnings.
“I talk to them about our origin stories, where we come from, the Black Hills,” she said.
Lakota says her students are very enthusiastic and curious, asking many questions like where the name of their tribe, Ogallala Sioux, comes from. She told them the version she was told as a girl, where a man was telling another man who he was, so he picked up the earth and poured it on himself. The word Ogallala means “pour on self,” so the man did this “to say that I come from the earth and that’s who I am and that’s where I will go back to.”
One of Philomine’s biggest fears is the culture being lost and that bringing the culture into the schools will not be enough to save it.
“I am worried that we don’t have enough time to save our language. It saddens me to know that nobody may not grow up the way I did, Lakota everywhere.
“That is a fear I have, but I have hope… We have to start one word at a time,” Lakota said. “I hear (students) using the words more and more, and that’s where my hope lies.”
Continuation/Power to remain
Women’s responsibility to continue the culture and sacred ways occurs in many Native cultures. The woman holds the past, present and future in her hands through her knowledge, compassion and strength. Despite repeated attempts at annihilation, Native people remain. Tenacity and fortitude have made them survivors.
Storytelling is a way to further the continuation of life in modern society.
“I think that as women we are making a great contribution to restoring the protocols that were in place before the acculturation happened,” Philomine Lakota said. “That is, that women are sacred. They are lifegivers.”
The power of stories to endure time mirrors the power of people to persevere.
She teaches English at the Oglala Lakota College on the Pine Ridge Reservation. She requires her students, ranging from 20-year-old high school graduates to 40-year-old dropouts, to write stories about their experiences. In the process, the students have shown her how the harsh history and experiences of Native people shaped them as individuals and the importance of their voices to counter the views of mainstream America.
“Sometimes I get tired of the sort of idealism, the romantic notion of Native America, when I know these real people,” she said. “I don’t know if you could separate the reservation from these (students)… They are struggling with the incredibly positive side of that and with the incredibly negative side of that. And it’s real for them.”
The ways that both the methods of storytelling and the stories have changed reflects the circular, opposed to linear, path that most stories follow. The cycle of life key to most Native beliefs is a way of looking at life from an anachronous and fluid perspective, where things come full circle and eventually work out.
Tina Merdanian, director of public relations at Red Cloud High School, believes modern storytelling has changed the format, but not the message of storytelling, and still maintains the essence of what those stories are meant to reflect
“Storytelling of today … is still sharing that same common goal, that same common mission, (only) you may be throwing in statistics, you may be throwing in a lot of information,” Merdanian said.
“But you are still telling the same story. It’s just fitting today’s audience and how you do that is based upon your creativity.”
Filmmaker and actress Valerie Redhorse, Cherokee Sioux, said, “Storytelling… is engaging the eye, ear and the soul.” Her form of storytelling is art, through film, but the essence of storytelling remains the same. Its power to change, influence and create understanding activates all the senses and emotions.
Storytelling continues to survive extinction through film, novels, schools and generational contact.
And the stories will go on. The stories endure.