Imagine if our ancestors didn’t pass on their stories and knowledge. How would we grow and evolve? Storytellers are a vital part of our communities. They are highly honoured because our people consider their skills and knowledge to be gifts from the Creator.
Elders tell stories to entertain as well as to teach traditions, history, responsibilities and cultural views. The elders expect children to listen without interrupting. Asking a lot of questions is considered to be disrespectful. Stories are meant to be heard with twice the concentration because we are given two ears, and less talking because we have one mouth. We must listen with respect, an open mind and heart; this is because we believe many of these stories are living.
The breath of a storyteller brings the story to life, evoking its spirit. Many grandmothers and grandfathers whisper, “Watch what you say, words are medicine.” In this example, medicine could be a thought, or words, or strong feelings. If thoughts, words and feelings are positive then it is “good medicine.” For example, laughter is considered to be good medicine because it is healing. If thoughts or words are negative and are meant to hurt another, then it can be considered to be “bad medicine.”
When Europeans first came in contact with Indigenous peoples, the Europeans marvelled at the skills of First Peoples’ orators – both men and women. Those skills lived on and we honour the memory of famous orators like Chief Dan George (Coast Salish), Louis Riel (Métis), Pauline Johnson (Mohawk/English), Black Elk (Oglala Sioux) and many others.
Today our storytellers are not only family members and specially gifted elders, but also the radio, television, Internet and books. Most stories are in English, since many young people do not understand their native tongue. Many famous people today use these new media to tell their stories; people like: Basil Johnson (Ojibwe), Buffy Saint Marie (Cree), Marie Campbell (Métis), Thomas King (Cherokee/Greek/German), Drew Haydon Taylor (Ojibwe), Jimmy Herman (Cree/Dene), Gordon Tootoosis (Cree/Stoney), Dale Auger (Sakaw Cree), Alex Janvier (Dene), Alanis Obomsawin (Abenaki), Zacharias Kunuk (Inuit) and many more.
Personal Story: Where I Heard Stories
My most important storyteller has been my grandmother. She would tell us grandchildren stories late at night, before going to bed. She would tell us not to cry at night because Macimanito (bad spirit) would come and bang on the windows. Of course all of us children would be scared and we wouldn’t fool around or cry. She would tell us stories about Wesakijak, the Little People and other characters. She would repeat many of these stories and we would also hear them from our other grandmothers and parents. So we knew that these stories were true and that many people have experienced them.
I also remember hearing creation stories and legends at summer camp. Stories would be told late at night when many of us would be tired. Family and friends would sit around a campfire, cooking bannock on a stick, then one of the old-timers, usually it was a man, would stand up and start talking. He would start by saying, “I was told this story by . . . and this is how it was told to me . . .”