For writers, it’s all about the story. We tell stories, whether it’s about a murder, planning a trip to Santa Fe, or a boy wizard conquering evil. They are all stories. And while readers read for multiple reasons—to learn, reduce stress, build skills, improve vocabulary—ultimately it’s the story that draws us in and keeps us interested.
Long before we had keyboards, typewriters, or writing implements to pen our stories, storytelling was already a rich tradition in Native American cultures. Oral storytelling could be dramatic or humorous. Both villains and heroes were present. Stories had plot points that moved the story along. And themes? These stories explained the world and how to live a good life.
Because storytelling was so valued, tribal culture and beliefs was passed down from generation to generation. Listeners remembered the entertaining stories that explained who they were and where they came from. Like any great allegory, Native American storytelling helped listeners understand how to survive and thrive. For the educators out there, look at the effectiveness of this form of pedagogy. Wow!
There are thousands of Native American tribes, each with a distinct culture, traditions, and language. Yet many share common threads in storytelling. Here are a few I most enjoy.
Actually, creation myths aren’t unique to Native American culture. Greek, Roman, and Nordic cultures also had stories about how the world came to be. Wanting to know where we came from is Human Curiosity 101.
Is the earth a great island suspended by four cords hanging from the sky? Did the Eagle mold the first human out of clay? Perhaps the gods Tepeu and Quetzalcoatl thought the physical world into being, and then wanting to be praised, created people from clay and wood. When these beings angered the gods, did the gods sent a great flood to take them away before starting over again? Did the Ant People help keep the Hopi from starvation?
One of my favorites is the Iroquois creation story and perhaps why I have such an affinity for turtles. When Sky Woman was pushed from the sky by an angry husband, the animals caught her. Little Toad gathered mud from the bottom of the ocean in his mouth. The animals took this mud and spread it over the back of Big Turtle. The mud spread and became North America. Sky Woman stepped onto the land, then created the stars, moon, and the sun.
Listen to a creation story.
Anything can be a protagonist or antagonist in a Native American tale, including elements of nature or the gods. They talk. They feel compassion or anger. But the majority of anthropomorphic characters were animals. And they taught lessons, like how conceit or vanity should be avoided. When Coyote felt invincible, he decided he could dance with a star. He ended up burning up.
Have you ever heard the story of Possum’s tail? Once upon a time, possum had a long, silky tail. He was very proud of his beautiful tail and made sure everyone knew it. The other animals soon tired of hearing about it. Rabbit told Possum he was invited as an honored guest at a council meeting, but suggested Possum clean his tail so it looked its best. After spreading a special medicine on the tail, Rabbit wrapped it in snake skin. Rabbit left instructions to leave the snake skin on until the council meeting. When Possum arrived at the council meeting, he ceremoniously unwrapped his tail and all the hair fell off. Possum fell to the ground and pretended to be dead, which he still does to this day. We’ve all heard of “playing possum.”
Listen to this animal tale.
As you can probably guess, Trickster played tricks, but he was so much more than that. He was incredibly sharp, and he enjoyed creating chaos. Trickster could be any animal. In Lakota culture, the Trickster was a spider named Inktomi. Trickster caused a split between the Sun god and the Moon god, which led to night and day.
Often, Trickster is a coyote, seen as a sly and devious creature. Yet even though Trickster is smart, someone can usually find a way to thwart Trickster. A common theme is that by working together, we can adapt and survive.
Learn about Te Ata.
Today, we may view stories as entertainment and escapism. But remember that stories are so much more than that. They teach us about ourselves and our world. And ultimately, they teach us how to survive and be better people. Here’s hoping you discover some wonderful stories this Native American Heritage Month.