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Let Me Tell You a Story...

Kay Olan
5/24/11

Perhaps you’ve noticed that the Indigenous tradition of storytelling is not only alive, but it is thriving. There is interest in learning and remembering the stories that have been passed down through the oral tradition. It is recognized that there is value in the storytelling tradition and that it isn’t just for children.

These days, it is more and more common to find at least one storyteller at Native Festivals and Powwows. Some of those storytellers tell the traditional stories that have been passed down from generation to generation. But some also tell contemporary stories which underscores the fact that we are still here and that we know who we are and from where we have come. Contemporary stories bring the past into the present and/or address current situations. Storytellers may be orators, painters, dancers, writers, poets, singers, sculptors, potters, weavers, quilters, beaders, jewelry makers or architects. The past, present and future are being portrayed in an increasing number of ways. There are so many stories to tell. There are more every day and there are many ways in which to tell them.

When I first started teaching elementary school over four decades ago (yikes), it was difficult to find mainstream resources about Native Americans. There were so few. Most of the available materials at that time were stereotypical, demeaning or inaccurate. There were even fewer that were appropriate for use in an elementary classroom setting. The few that were meaningful were hard to obtain. But, we’ve come a long way. Today, there are so many worthwhile books, movies, CD’s, DVD’s, websites, newspapers and magazines. Even better news is that more and more of these resources are being written and produced by native peoples. We are telling our own stories in our own words and with our own multi-media equipment. Our stories are being told the way we want them told. Our voices are being heard loud and clear, near and far.

Why tell Native stories? It has always been and still is an important educational tool for the transmission of values and traditional knowledge. It is a way to open doors to thought provoking discussion. It is a way to dispel stereotypes and provide accurate information. It is a way to initiate bridge-building which can lead to a greater mutual understanding and respect between peoples.

Some types of stories are told just for entertainment. We need to have fun and laughter in our lives. Other stories are told so that we will always know about our history and our treaties. Some stories describe how the universe came to be and what our relationship is to every part of the Natural World. Some legends explain why things are the way they are, e.g. “Why does Rabbit have long ears?” Stories may remind us of how we should interact with one another in order to maintain peace and harmony. They help us transmit values and ideals from one generation to another. The child who misbehaves may be told a story in which the character exhibits the same behavior. In that way, the child learns about appropriateness and consequences, but without undue embarrassment or damage to the spirit. (Adults benefit from periodic reminders of those same lessons, as well.)

Listening to stories can help us emotionally and psychologically. Listeners are transported to a place where they can forget about their every day trials and tribulations, at least for a little while. At the conclusion of the story, they return feeling refreshed and reinvigorated because they gave themselves a virtual vacation. That story-traveler might just return with a new way of looking at life and possibly with some solutions to nagging questions. Sharing a story can also be a way to reach out and initiate discussion on topics that are totally unrelated to the story.

“Let me tell you a story.” When I hear those words, I relax and put aside whatever it was that I was thinking about or doing. I prepare to concentrate on that which I’m about to hear because those words are a special invitation to step into another reality, into another time or into another way of thinking. Listening to a story may result in my shedding a tear, bursting into laughter or gasping in amazement. I may become more sensitized to the feelings of others as I find myself experiencing the world from another perspective. Hopefully, I will learn something new.

Too often, it is assumed that storytelling is just for children. That’s too bad because stories can be meaningful for everyone and on many levels. The shared experience offers the opportunity to bring friends, families and strangers together, which is especially relevant in this age of running from one activity, job or appointment to another. Listeners sit in close proximity with one another, hear the same words, but apply their own thoughts and life experiences to the stories they hear. Many stories offer multiple levels of understanding and so listeners may process stories differently. Therefore, it is important, whenever possible, to allow time for discussion and sharing so that each listener can benefit from hearing other interpretations. Hearing stories more than once is valuable too, because it is not uncommon to pick up on details we didn’t notice or remember from previous tellings.

Storytellers tell stories from their own perspective. There is more than one way to tell a story. Storytellers tell stories in their own style and so may differ in how they place emphasis on certain details or events, but they try to do so without changing the basic essence. Storytellers embellish or simplify depending on who the listener is and where the story is being told. They take advantage of the teachable moment as do parents and educators and tell the story that needs to be told at that moment. The storyteller is aware that there are certain stories that should be told only by certain people, at certain times and/or in certain situations. Mentioning from where the story comes and providing cultural context in order to give the story dimension, validity and respect is important.

Storytelling is a living tradition. The Story Bag is constantly growing fuller. It includes stories that have been passed down from generation to generation. But, it also contains the stories that come from our own family histories and from our personal experiences. We all have stories to tell. We need to make the time to tell them so they won’t be forgotten. We need to tell them in order to maintain our connections to one another. We need to stay connected so that we will remember that we are all related. Why should we encourage storytelling? Because when we take the time to sit together and tell our stories, we discover that we have more in common than we have differences. We find that we have similar hopes and dreams for the future generations. We remember that we can accomplish much more if we learn to communicate and work together.

Kay (Ionataiewas) Olan, Mohawk educator and storyteller, has been giving presentations about the Haudenosaunee for over twenty-five years, is a former Director of the Mohawk community of Kanatsiohareke and has released a Mohawk Stories CD.

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