By Jessica Kirby —
After nourishment, shelter and companionship, stories are the thing we need most in the world.” — Philip Pullman
These are the coldest months of the year. They spread out grey before us with the sparkle of Christmas left behind and the promise of spring just out of reach. As we hunker down by fires and in feather blankets, taking solace from icy sidewalks and darker days, we are drawn into the perfect storm of yearning, nostalgia, and coziness.
Before written word, music, dance, and possibly even speech, humans and their close evolutionary ancestors were telling stories to share experiences, impart warnings, encourage success, and pass the time when winter brought longer nights. We know for sure that stories arrived with speech, and the archaeological record suggests the use of pictures, grunts, or gestures to communicate simple concepts may have preceded language.
Stories have to be told or they die, and when they die, we can’t remember who we are or why we’re here.” ― Sue Monk Kidd, The Secret Life of Bees
In each of Canada’s six distinct cultural regions of First Nations, storytelling and oral tradition played and continues to play an essential role in sharing knowledge, moral teaching, education, and entertainment. Through stories, songs, dance, and ritual, First Nations pass along their history, relaying tales of adventures, ancestors, land, and animals to younger generations.
Among many First Nations, Canada’s long dark winter nights made them ideal for storytelling and it was during this season the craft was most often used for entertainment and to foster family connections. Cold temperatures and darkness threatened survival and confined people to their dwellings, increasing the need for high-caloric intake and heating fuel.
“Despite winter’s hardships, this was also the time for some forms of socializing and entertainment,” says author Harvey McCue. “This was the time for stories.”
According to McCue, in some First Nations, certain men and women had a greater gift for storytelling than others and travelled the camps in storytelling season, imparting their gift. They carried a bag filled with props and teaching tools—a doll made of corn husks or a crow feather—and would show it to a group to begin a tale. Stories often contained an open-ended, indirect moral lesson the listener is left to explore on his or her own, such as a Cree story that tells of a young girl asked by her grandmother to fetch water from the river.
She is warned not to swim because a giant fish may eat her, but the granddaughter shrugs off grandmother’s warning and those of several animal friends and jumps in to cool off. When she doesn’t return home, grandmother trusts that the granddaughter can take care of herself, until she heads to the river to catch some dinner and finds a large fish in her net:
“She started cutting up all the fish. When she finally got to the big fish, she slid the knife into the belly. Beulah [granddaughter] jumped out, very much alive. At first, Gookum was startled, but she quickly realized it was Beulah, who was covered head to toe in slimy, sticky fish innards. She shook her head at Beulah, and began to laugh at her. “I told you, I told you not to swim in the lake.” Beulah bowed her head and said nothing. She just went to the lake to clean off all the smelly fish slime.
If history were taught in the form of stories, it would never be forgotten.”― Rudyard Kipling, The Collected Works
Hopi poet and artist Ramson Lomatewama says the winter months, beginning with the Solstice, signify storytelling season and a sacred time “filled with mystery and power, because it is a time of reverence and respect for the spirits,” he said in an interview with Arizona Public Radio.
He recalls the signs of kyaamuya, a time of reverence for spirits, marked by the Solstice, when it was taboo to cut ones hair, dig a hole, whistle, make loud noises, or wander about after dark.
“I remember going back to the reservation this time of year and spending weekends with my grandmother,” he says. “A wood stove kept us warm. We had an old lantern that hissed and had a soft light … I remember those nights when old men came to visit. They’d eat supper with us but well before the table was cleared, someone would ask if they could stay and tell stories. And we always passed around a yucca sifter basket filled with kutuki, the Hopi version of popcorn. Some of the stories were long and could take hours. Some of the stories were short like ones about coyote, who would fall victim to his own plots, like the time he wanted to make his tail long like the snakes, but ended up burning it off. It wasn’t until much later that I made the connection between our stories and all those roadrunner cartoons.”
Lomatewama says he feels grateful to have experienced the kyaamuya stories, because they are no longer being told as often. Many appear in print, but it isn’t the same.
This is the plight of Aboriginal people around the world, struggling to retain their language and with it, cultural traditions and identity.
“Maybe it’s that we don’t experience kyaamuya quite the same way anymore,” says Lomatewama. “Maybe the reverence that many of us grew up with has been diluted by the loud cheering at basketball games or by the attraction of Christmas bazaars. I’m fortunate because those old men knew how to plant their seeds, their stories. As I grew older, those stories took root inside of me, little by little. I grew to become the adventure, the tragedy, and the journey. Now I realize that I am the hero of my own story.”
Embrace the darkness this time of year and connect with family and loved ones, kindling a shared experience and connection with the power of storytelling. Preserving the tradition is a tribute to Aboriginal and ancient cultures the world over, and might just warm your heart during these long, cold, winter nights.
Stories may not actually breathe, but they can animate … Stories animate human life; that is their work.” ― Arthur Frank, Letting Stories Breathe (2010)