Native Americans & Storytelling
A key influence in the shaping and preservation of Native American culture and tradition comes from the telling of stories through many generations. Passed down through a variety of different mediums, these stories are told not only for entertainment and educational purposes, but also offer a strong connection between current generations and their ancestral past, and provide a record of historical events that shaped the societies, knowledge and technologies seen in many tribal traditions today.
Story-telling in Native culture is seen in a variety of different forms, and is primarily used as a method of education. A common method is oral tradition, whereby these stories are passed verbally from the tribal elders to younger generations. Though the stories themselves are often rather abstract, they hold an immense amount of meaning and it is up to the listener to interpret and correctly apply this meaning to their own life. Other methods of story telling include prayer, singing, dancing, paintings, weavings and a wide variety of other artistic mediums. These different approaches allow Native American communities to ensure that the values and morals central to their culture are passed down for generations to come.
Northwest Coast Native Americans employ many of these techniques to share origin stories, life lessons, historical records or to predict events. A common avenue to portray these stories is through totems, where the imagery carefully carved into these monuments visually narrates a family or clan’s history, certain rules and rights, or other mythological or real-life events. Often depicted on these totems are representations of animals native to the area, each of which holds their own valuable meaning to the community. For example, a bear represents power and strength; an owl represents wisdom, vision and knowledge; a killer whale represents strength, dignity, prosperity and longevity. Each creature with it’s assigned meaning in association with one another paints a bigger picture and conveys a much deeper message.
The Chief Johnson totem pole stands 55 feet high in Ketchikan, Alaska. This totem was carved by Tlingit Master Artist Israel Shotridge and depicts the Tongass tribe story of the Fog Woman}
Oral tradition is also a frequently used technique to pass along this knowledge, and there are a variety of common stories and themes used to explain and educate in the Northwest Coast Native communities. An often invoked creature that holds great value to these communities is the Raven. The Raven is thought to be the creator of the universe who brought the sun to light up the world. He is also known to be quite mischievous, and this trait is often used in stories to teach lessons on patience and warn about foolish behavior. Gene Tagaban, also known as “Crazy Raven,” is a Tlingit-Filipino storyteller who has made many wonderful contributions in the Native American community through the animated and vibrant stories he passes along. Many different animals and creatures are woven into stories in a manner similar to those about the Raven, each fulfilling it’s own educational purpose and reinforcing the morals central to the culture.
“Tlingit Storyteller Gene Tagaban - “Crazy Raven”
Image from: www.storytellingraven.com”}
Though Native storytelling is traditionally passed down through spoken word and other artistic methods, many of these stories are now found in a large selection of books, often accompanied by beautiful Native artwork to help tell the tale. This creates another medium for these powerful messages to be conveyed, and provides opportunities for Native and non-Native people alike to benefit from the wisdom of generations of Native elders. Whether through oral tradition, totem carvings or any other story-telling medium, Native Americans continue to pass on their heritage and most important lessons to younger generations, ensuring that the integrity and the core values of each community remain intact and are not forgotten.