Storytelling from a First Nations Perspective
By: Ojibway Storyteller
Imagine 500 years ago along the shores of the Grand River in what is now Brantford, Ontario. Trees are so thick, it would take eight warriors, holding hands, to encircle the base of a common tree. You would not be able to see the sky over your head, you would not be able to see fifteen feet in front of you for the bush. Your people live inside of a village that is surrounded by acres of corn, beans and squash. A palisade, constructed of up to 3000 cedar poles protects your village from the cold winter winds, the elder brothers, the animals and your enemies. You live inside of a longhouse that is up to 1500 feet long. In your village, there are up to 20 longhouses as this is the summer camp. Living with you in your longhouse are members of your clan. Your grandmother, grandfather, aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews, mother, father, brothers and sisters all live under one roof along with up to 15 other families. You sit around one of 15 fires lit within the longhouse that hardly leave any smoke. You have harvested your fire wood over a year ago to dry it out so that there will be less smoke. You stomach is full with the bounties of the Creator’s gifts. Corn, beans, squash, deer, moose, fish and roots. It is a time before the Europeans traveled across the great waters to arrive upon Turtle Island’s shores. Your life is good. You live in balance with all living things. You are looking forward to a storyteller coming to your fire to share with you the answers to the questions that you have. Questions like, why is the sky blue? Why the great waters are salty but the inner waters not? Did bear always have that fuzzy little tail? You are young and you have not lost the gift of imagination. You look forward to hearing more stories of your people, and others, through the words weaved by the storyteller. The storyteller comes to your fire… “Do you want to hear a story, little ones?”
This is 500 years later. T.V., Playstation and movies are our children’s storytellers now. Children are being taught to lose their imaginations in favour of education so that they can live a happy life in today’s modern technological society. The gift of the storyteller is slowly but surely falling to a select few who still remember the times by the fire. First Nations people are naturally storytellers. Our history has been passed down to us from our elders and our ancestors. Our history was an oral one. Long before one person wrote one book with one opinion for many, many people knew many stories word for word. Because that was how we were taught. This is how we remember our past and our teachings. We remember the greatest gift to our children is the gift of imagination. When storytellers weave their words, they access our children’s imagination. Weaved within the words of the storyteller were teachings of respect, morals and discipline. So when our children did something as they grew up, our parents would say, “Do you remember the story of How Bear Lost His Tail? What do you think bear would have done if he were you?”
The Storytellers of the First Nations were highly respected. They knew the history and teachings of many peoples and not just their own. Storytellers would be welcome at all villages and towns no matter what nation they were from, even in times of war. They would travel for weeks, if not months, sharing the words of the past for the generations of the future. For us today, it is nothing to jump in the car and drive fifteen minutes to go the corner store. For storytellers 500 years ago and beyond, it was nothing to hop in the canoe and travel for months. They would have to be self-sufficient as there were no grocery stores, walk-in clinics or drug stores. They would need to know when to hunt, what to hunt and where to hunt it. They would need to know when the waters were right for fishing and when they were not. They would need to know which medicines grew at what time of the year in order to survive. The storytellers carried a great responsibility within their hearts and spirits. The words that they shared with the new faces to come, would be the future leaders, the future chief’s, the future clan mothers and the future mother’s and fathers. They also knew that if they could make you smile, they knew you were listening. When you’re listening, the storyteller can slip in teachings, and you didnt even know you’re being taught. Isnt that one of the best ways to teach a child? Do you remember the story of How Turtle Got His Shell? What would you do if you were Coyote?”
Being a First Nations Storyteller myself, I try to carry on that great responsibility for the generations to come. But living in today’s world, with today’s values, sometimes it is very hard to remember where my ancestors came from. In order to be successful today, you must have a white picket fence, a two car garage, two point five kids and a little white dog. In our world, 500 years ago, you were considered successful by how well your children were raised. If they were raised with proper respect, morals and discipline, then you were considered very, very successful. It was considered a crime to be greedy, to be selfish or to be egotistical. These teachings could well be used today with not only our youth, but with our adults, our leaders, as well. Whenever I work, perform on stage, share stories, act or create art, I think to myself that anyone who sees me, listens to me, views my artwork or reads my words are six years old. Because when you’re six, the whole world is new. You havent been corrupted by the adults yet. Your imagination is still open and your mind is still free to new things, new thoughts and new ideas. I love being on stage as a storyteller. I get a kick out of it. But the thoughts that always go through my mind are always the same. I picture a child, sitting by the fire, smelling food cooking waiting for me to answer his question through a story. Whether I am working with adults or youth, this is the thought that stays with me. This is the thought that keeps me grounded. Reporters, T.V. and movies are great things to be involved with in today’s society. It is a way to get your words and your performance “out there” to new people, new nations and new minds. But I will still always remember that child sitting by the fire no matter where I am. I will always try to remember my ancestors and my elders. I keep one deer hide bracelet around my left wrist to remind me of my connection to the animal world. I keep one deer hide anklet around my right foot, to remind me of the plant world. Without these things, my children’s, children’s, children will not survive. So no matter where I am, flying at twenty thousand feet, or riding the subway in downtown Toronto, I can keep that connection with me.
My way of sharing the First Nations story’s is both entertaining and educational. I try to carry myself with dignity, humour and discipline when I am about to perform, because I do carry that responsibility. Making people smile makes me smile. Having the audience quiet and still and then scaring the heck out of them is also fun. Seeing the eyes of a child open in wonder, or having them follow along with the words, or having them remember me from years past, this is my job. This is my responsibility for the new faces to come, for the next generations of them.