Deep winter has been a time for storytelling in Indigenous cultures…a time for reminding the People of who they are, where they have come from, and their collective purpose in this earthly life. It is a teaching time through mythological stories, but these stories are not just for children and they are not just for conveying teachings, such as the Seven Ojibway Teachings of respect, wisdom, honesty, love, bravery, humility and truth or the Coast Salish Teachings of respect, reverence, responsibility, reciprocity, holism, interrelatedness and synergy (Archibald, 2008). It is our Western mind that reduces such stories to just lessons or wisdom for living.
As a Laguna Pueblo from New Mexico, Paula Gunn Allen (1986/1992) points out what is more important is that there is ceremonial motion to “Indian time”. In a ritual understanding of order and harmony, one seeks to be in sync with “the revolving of the seasons, the land, and the mythic reality that shapes all life into significance” (p. 154). Allen says (1991) these stories are ritual+magic+stories for those who are on the Medicine Way or the Good Red Road.
Ritual often surrounds story, to mediate between the human and supernatural, as the story listeners join the Storyteller into a voyage through mythic space. In the Old Ways, Storytellers were the power guides teaching, through stories, how to harmonize mind and body with the spirit world and the natural world. This is very hard for our reductionist, linear, science-impregnated minds to grasp…especially as grasping is part of the Western mind too. Overall, this requires a very different approach…
Joseph Campbell (1972, 1988), one who came close to this approach, describes some commonalities among the world’s Origin Stories. Most importantly, Origin Stories convey the covenant between the spirit world, human world and natural world, often known as the Original Instructions. These Instructions are specific to the locale a People find themselves in.
Typically, they involve animals who are envoys of the unseen, magical beings, and thus their parts may be used ceremonially. Rituals are offered to invoke the cooperation of the animals as part of the mystique of living in this matrix of spirit, human and nature. The Earth is often understood as the Mother from whence we emerge, but to which we return, as with all living things. One key food has been given to the People with which they have a particularly sacred relationship – Buffalo, Salmon, Corn, Rice, Taro, Deer, Sheep, Reindeer, etc. This species holds the power of life and death for the People. Origin stories are also often taught during developmental passages; when becoming an adult, married partner, or parent, learning new collective responsibilities. Origin stories celebrate the beauty and mystery of being alive and can be deeply transformative.
A Cree friend describes that their Creation Story takes over a week for the telling. The story is not only sacred but alive. Based on time, listeners, and what the story is saying to the teller, only selected parts may be told. Stories are gifted to specific individuals who are carriers of these stories. In the case of Origin Stories, these Storytellers are given rigorous training and responsibilities to be a Story-holder. It is a crucial role among a People, as these individuals are the peoples’ library, one of the repositories of knowledge remembering who they are collectively, and the spiritual and physical context they emerged from and exist within. The Storytellers provide a structure for a way of life.
Australian Indigenous people exist within a matrix of Songlines…songs that tell the mythological stories of the land. The stories are sung while walking, addressing the mythological events that occurred nearby, or that created landmarks or footprints of the Ancestors, or the spirit dwelling places. They are living narratives which guide the people from one place to another and connect them to the Dreamtime, the spiritual plane of existence. The melody and rhythms correspond to the movement of the walker as well as the contour of the land and the event that occurred there. In this way, a musical phrase becomes a map reference; the music is a memory bank for finding one’s way around and for ones’ identity linking past, present and future in the moment (see Bruce Chatwin’s book Songlines or Paul Daley in The Guardian). A Walkabout is undertaken by a young person in the transition from adolescent to adult so that the individual must learn the story to survive their walk. The story communicates directly with the individual during this solitary time as they find their way from one place to another.
Among the Pueblo in New Mexico, Storytellers are often grandparents who gather the people, especially children, around them at the fire or dinner table. This led to the handcrafting of Storyteller red earth clay figurines using local clays and native plant dyes and minerals. Storyteller figures are typically portrayed with their mouths open, teaching children through stories and songs, surrounded by food, baskets, plants and animals of the daily round as well as the ancient sacred symbols of their meaning. The Storyteller has the responsibility to pass on personal, religious and cultural histories to each child, as each child is highly regarded and loved. Storytellers act as Guardians, preserving knowledge for future generations, maintaining continuity and fostering belonging among the people and land.
Much of this human Storytelling tradition has been lost, partly since the pre-eminence of scientific knowledge, the Enlightenment in which the rational mind took priority, and the consumer and entertainment society. A Cree friend encouraged me to search out my People’s story, as it was lost long before the Cree stories were being lost. I found my People were refugees who fled several homelands due to religious wars and poverty. This story was never told as part of our family history. There were only fragments of stories without any larger context.
I spent several years tracing the history of my People, following these fragments. A storyline emerged of our Protestant heritage and its adopted Biblical stories (remember the Passover story as it is ritually told within Jewish families). It told of our family's refugee flights from oppressive circumstances, but even further back, I found our Pagan heritage. Reaching back into this storied heritage is where I can learn about the land we belonged to, the spirituality that expressed our belonging, and the way of life that emerged in synchronicity with this place. But this is one strand of our story, to be held lightly.
It is also clear that some stories have outlived their usefulness, particularly outmoded ideas of reality. We are in a profound moment, as profound as when Copernicus proposed that the Earth revolved around the sun. Since Einstein, interestingly much of quantum physics coheres with many Indigenous beliefs and so our stories of reality are in need of much change. I have written about this ontological shift extensively in my academic writing.
It is also clear that adherence to some stories are hastening the coming Dark Age. The story of the continual need for fossil fuels, the necessity of a consumer society, the imperative of economic expansionism and colonization accompanied by military might, and personal success as related to income or professional status, all have backed our societies into a difficult corner that has now become self-destructive. One way to change this is to tell other stories, for as humans, we love story. Glimmers of new stories are all around us if we care to search and see....
Wherever we find ourselves now, we are likely the product of many family stories, located in one place of habitation although there may be multiple homelands, likely with a composite spirituality, only one of which is native to that land. From these markers, there are stories that create a new matrix from which to live, needing an avenue for emergence. This is other vital strand of our story. How can we participate?
Telling Ritual Stories
For the month of January, explore your family story. Once you have a story line, ritualize the telling of the story within your family. Which parts of the story can be told at which times? How can these stories convey a purposefulness and a sense of belonging for your family members?
Can this larger family story contain the personal birth stories of yourself, your children, and your grandchildren, to be retold on birthdays? How can the oldest in the family teach the family stories? On the elder's birthday, can the oldest be served by the youngest ones, to formalize this important relationship of continuity and respect for elders?
What is the spiritual story of the land you now inhabit? Explore this to understand the beings that are mythic to it, the stories of the landscape and landmarks, and the species that are still alive or perhaps lost. How might these stories provide a sightline and ethics by which to live there? Are there original inhabitants that may be willing to teach you, and can you be a respectful story listener, following in the oral tradition?