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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Native American Winter Tales

Air Date: Week of

Storyteller Joseph Bruchac shares stories from the Iroquois and Abenaki traditions with yarns about a constellation of winter stars, and the singing of chickadees. According to Bruchac, these traditional tales provide both entertainment on long dark winter nights as well as information about ecology and the need for respect among all living things.


CURWOOD: In many traditions including Living on Earth's, winter is the season of storytelling. The cold invites us to put on the kettle, gather together, and spend some times just listening to stories. Here's an encore presentation.

BRUCHAC: Long ago, the Iroquois people say there were 7 boys who wanted to do just as their fathers did. To have a special medicine lodge society. In such a lodge, they would play a drum and they would dance and sing and they would have a great feast afterward, and so they went to their parents and told them what they wanted to do. But their mothers and their fathers, they laughed at those boys: "You are too young to do this sort of thing! Go and play some other game that children play."

Those boys became very angry. They began to walk out of the village, and as they walked out, an old man was there near the edge of the village holding a drum. He said to them, "Here. You can have this drum." They took that drum, and they continued on until they reached a place on the other side of a hill and there began to dance and sing, louder and louder, so loud that the sound of their dancing and singing reached back to the village. And their mothers and fathers hearing it, said, "Who is having the meeting of a medicine lodge society? Who could that be?"

They followed the sound of the drum. They came to the hilltop and they looked down and they saw those 7 boys dancing in a circle, playing the drum and singing. But they were so angry that as they danced and sang, the power of their singing and dancing was such that their feet were no longer touching the ground. Higher and higher they danced, higher and higher. Their parents called out to them, but they continued to dance. Although it is said that one of the smallest ones looked back and fell down as a shooting star.

The others danced right up into the sky. They dance there to this day, those 7 dancing boys that are now called the Pleiades by European people. But those are those boys from long ago, whose parents did not respect them.

CURWOOD: Joe Bruchac, thanks for joining us on Living on Earth.

BRUCHAC: Mm hm. Thank you.

CURWOOD: You're a storyteller. You're a writer. You live in Greenfield Center, New York. That's in the foothills of the Adirondacks. And you remember the Abenaki Nation. But you also have roots in other traditions, too, right?

BRUCHAC: Yes, Slovak and English, that's also part of my ancestry.

CURWOOD: Well those all have some pretty strong oral traditions. And perhaps, not coincidentally, some long winters.

BRUCHAC: Well, winter is the time for telling stories in many traditions, especially for the Native people of this continent. Because the days were very short and the nights were very long, it was a good time to tell stories. And you would need a good story to get you through those long nights. It's also true that the stories were not supposed to be told in the summer. For example, a good story is so powerful that everything wants to listen to it, including the snakes who are awake in the summer time. So if you don't want snakes in your house, you don't tell these traditional stories when the days are long.

CURWOOD: (Laughs) Okay. What gave you this bug? Why do you tell stories?

BRUCHAC: I was raised by my grandparents. And although my grandfather, who is Abenaki Indian, did not tell traditional stories, he ran a little general store and a gas station and people would come there and sit around the potbellied stove and trade tall tales. Usually from the Adirondack traditions. And I think if you grow up around elders and you listen, in a way you can't help but become a storyteller.

CURWOOD: Anything else you want to tell us from your Native American tradition?

BRUCHAC: This is a story that again comes from the Iroquois people. The great midwinter ceremony takes place traditionally at the solstice time of the year, although nowadays it takes place in January. They've moved it so it doesn't compete with Christmas. And at that solstice time, when the 7 dancing stars are in the exact center of the sky, they play a game called the bowl game in which you put a number of stones, painted black on one side and white on the other, into the bowl, shake it, and depending on how they come up facing black or white, you either score a point or you fail.

The story goes that long ago, Grandmother Moon looked down on the Earth and was not happy with what she saw. She said, "Life on Earth must end." Now the good mind, who was always a defender of the people, he said to his grandmother, "Grandmother, is there no way we can prevent this from happening? She said to him, "I will tell you what. We will play the bowl game and the one who wins will decide whether or not life will continue."

So the good mind went to the chickadees. He said to them, "My friends, I want you to help me." And he told them what he needed. And they said, "Of course. You can borrow our heads, which are black on one side and white on the other, put them in the bowl, and we will do what we can." So when the good mind took the bowl and he shook it, the chickadees flew up, their heads flew up looking just like little black and white stones, singing in mid-air. They flew around and then they landed and gave him a perfect score.

So it was that he won, and life on Earth continues. And so it is to this day that in the middle of the winter, you could hear the chickadees singing and celebrating the continuance of life.

CURWOOD: I guess I'll never look at the chickadee the same way again. You know, Joe, one thing that always intrigues me about Native American stories is and those from other traditional cultures is the way that you see the natural world in sort of human terms. Anthropomorphic, I think, is the long word. That the elements, that animals and plants have human qualities. And that's very different from the way that we generally see things in the modern world.

BRUCHAC: Well, the thing about traditional stories is that they remind us everything is alive and deserving of respect. And those stories have on the one hand the purpose of entertainment, but the reason they entertain is so that the lessons they teach will come across that much stronger. So if animals and plants are seen as being the equal and just as important as human beings, we're teaching a lesson that we need for survival. That was how my ancestors see it, and that is how I still see it to this day.

CURWOOD: Joe, we're just about out of time, but I saw you brought your beautiful drum. Could you do something with that for us?

BRUCHAC: What I want to share with you is actually a tradition from the Abenaki people, a tradition that is still carried out to this day. At this time of year, the December solstice, it was the time when people went from house to house greeting each other. And what they would say when they greeted each other this time, what they would say was, "An halom mawi, casia palwea walang." Which means, "Forgive me for any wrong I may have done you in the past year." And that was then followed by a friendship song and a friendship dance bringing the people together, back into the circle of life, forgiveness and respect restored. So I want to share with you that traditional friendship song. And its translation is very simple. It basically says, "I like this, and I like that." And that idea of caring for the people and the living things around you is at the center of the friendship song.

(Beats drum) We gai waneaaaa, we gai waneaaa, we gai waneaaaa, we gai waneaaa...

CURWOOD: Joe Bruchac, thank you very much.

BRUCHAC: Wole wanea, thank you.

CURWOOD: Joe Bruchac is a storyteller from New York State. He's also the coauthor, with Michael Caduto, of Keepers of Life: Discovering Plants Through Native American Stories and Earth Activities for Children.



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