This article was originally published by Indianz.com
The continuing legacy of the Native American people is one of courage and tenacity against seemingly insurmountable opposition. Because of this, maintaining our traditions is a paramount task. Efforts to keep our ancestors’ legacy alive take many shapes, with our cherished cultural traditions forming the necessary underpinning for our resolve. It’s through engagement with those traditions that we have been able to preserve our culture in a rapidly changing world.
Perhaps foremost among these cultural traditions is storytelling, a cherished ritual that gave vivid life to a system of values and beliefs for countless generations of listeners. For a culture that thrived without written language, these stories were the sole method through which our people learned about their cultural heritage. Storytelling isn’t just the medium for sharing Native American history, it is Native American history.
These cherished narratives were more than just history lessons, however. Legends and myths have been the delivery method for valuable allegories that conveyed meaning to a multitude of relevant beliefs, often even imparting a system of values, ethics and morals to Native Americans for generations. Although every tribe is unique, their stories share similar attributes, in establishing and reinforcing the values common within each tribe. These parables were entertaining, to be sure, but also formed the basis of a rich, shared culture.
The intertwining of history and tribal culture happens in the dramatic telling of traditional stories. Take for example a variation of the Habematolel Pomo creation legend. An especially illuminating origin legend, which research shows was one of many, centers on the land we call home, around Clear Lake. This land, according to one telling, once called Maiyi, was the sacred site where the lake that bestowed life upon our people was formed.
According to this tribal mythos, our people were hewn from willow sticks by Wolf and Coyote. In a different version, Coyote traveled to an old village of Yobutui, just southwest of the present town of Upper Lake. This old village had been inhabited by the people who lived on the earth before the great World-fire. Coyote eventually made Yobotui his home where he built a dance house and created people from feathers of birds. Our indelible connection to the land is made clear through these fantastical tales, so that generations of tribal youth can learn and understand our bond with the Upper Lake area through sacred lore. This, for all of us, internalizes the value of the land.
When we say that Native American storytelling propagates culture, it’s important to remember that culture is multifaceted. It’s not just a way to give personality to phenomena, but to reinforce mores and values. Especially when children are the audience, these stories demonstrate the ideals of behavior, to inspire the young and keep them respectful of familial traditions, so that they can live on in the manner of their forebears.
Many of these stories are considered today an attempt to make sense of the natural world. Ascribing natural phenomena to the emotional whims of powerful deities is recognizable as an early method of explaining things that were then unexplainable, like the forces of weather and gravity. Native American mythology may not have the same scholarly following as some of their European counterparts, but the stories’ similarity in tone and message make apparent the universality of such a communication system. To understand Native American storytelling is to understand something fundamentally and intrinsically human.
Legends and myths have been the delivery method for valuable lessons and morals to Native Americans for generations. These parables served as a form of entertainment but also were a reason for families and groups to gather, for esteemed elders to reinforce their importance and younger members to learn their valuable lessons.
The Native American storytelling tradition demonstrates the universal tendency to communicate through stories. Allegorical tribal stories that have survived to this day, like the Hitchiti Tribe’s The Heron and the Hummingbird and Crow Brings the Daylight of the Inuit people are striking in comparison to Aesop’s fables of ancient Greece, which similarly feature anthropomorphic animals in morality plays meant to illustrate cultural values.
We can acknowledge similarities with other cultures while respecting the traits that make our stories fundamentally ours. For countless centuries, native tribes were the only humans to know the American continent. Through stories like the Cheyenne people’s Yellowstone Valley and the Great Flood, these silent landscapes become vividly alive and are endowed with meaning. It’s tales of the land, the animals on it, and fantastical tales of the spiritual being that populated it that color the rich tapestry of Native stories, and make them uniquely ours.
The vibrancy of our ancestors’ stories is often lost in contemporary life or sadly in cultural arrogance that “my” definition of a Tribe’s culture is “the” definition. While cultural values come to the fore in the storytelling tradition, it also served to bolster and shape individual identities. Tribe members were able to add their personal touches to each narrative – perhaps altering the stories slightly over time, but keeping in the tradition of disseminating treasured beliefs. Our history is a tapestry, a collection of distinct personalities linked together to form something greater than the whole.
To let this fall into distant memory would amount to an erasure of the people who carried our rich cultural heritage through immense challenges. This diversity of narratives reflects the diversity of our people. When looking back, it can be tempting to neglect this fact, describe our ancestors as a monolith of values that we carry on. While there are certainly many universal qualities that we hope to emulate, the truth is that these past generations contained a diversity of voices and minds equal to that which we see in the present.
Preservation efforts have sought to keep these stories alive while respecting the multifaceted cultures from which they came. Initiatives like PBS’ Circle of Stories are helpful in imparting this message to the larger world, but it’s essential that we don’t mistake such outside interest for true viability. It is by looking inward, at the strength we’ve cultivated over countless generations, that we can find the story of our own lives.