Storytellers draw the listeners into the time and place of the story. It’s a spiritual space in which everything and everybody is interrelated and in which each has a unique responsibility to help maintain the universe’s balance and harmony. We were also given ceremonies to help us remember our responsibilities. For instance, when hunting, eating or tanning hides, we must offer tobacco and a prayer of thanksgiving in order to honour the spirit of the animal. There are consequences if we do not honour or give thanksgiving
The Wolf Clan and the Salmon
A story from the Nass River illustrates this. It tells how, in a canyon near the head of the river, there was a wonderful place that the tribespeople could always visit to find salmon and wild berries. The villagers who lived nearby were wealthy enough to trade with others and were much respected. As time went on, the younger people forgot the old traditions; sometimes they killed small animals and left the carcasses for the crows and eagles to eat. Their elders warned them that the Chief in the Sky would be angered by such foolish behaviour, but nobody heeded them. In one case, when the salmon season was at its height and the fish were swimming up river in their myriads, some of the young men of the Wolf Clan thought it amusing to catch salmon, make slits in the fish’s backs, put in pieces of burning pitch pine, and put them back in the water so that they swam about like living torches in the river. It was spectacular and exciting, and they did not think about the cruelty to the salmon, or the waste of a good food fish. The elders as usual protested and as usual the young people took no notice. At the end of the salmon running season the tribe made ready for the winter ceremonies. But as they prepared they heard a strange noise in the distance, something like the beating of a medicine-drum, and grew worried. As there was nothing very threatening about it, the young people said, ‘Aha, the ghosts wake up, they are going to have a feast too.’ The old people guessed that the young men’s thoughtlessness in ill-treating the salmon had brought trouble on the tribe. After a while the noises died down, but within a week or two the beating of drums became louder and louder. Even the young warriors became very careful about what they did, because they were frightened. The old people noted the young men’s fear, and said it would be their fault if the tribe perished. Eventually a noise like thunder was heard, the mountains broke open, and fire gushed forth until it seemed that all the rivers were on fire. The people tried to escape, but as the fire came down the river, the forest caught fire and only a few of them got away. The cause of the conflagration was said by the shamans to be entirely due to the anger of the spirit world at the torture of the salmon. Thus the powers of nature insisted on a proper regard for all their creatures (Burland 1965: 36-37).
Stories tell us who we are, how we fit in the world and community; they also tell us what our roles are. For example, it was through Tailfeather Woman’s prayer that she was given instructions from the Creator to give the drum, songs and ceremony to the men. The men were constantly at war. The drum was a gift to bring them together in a circle facing the drum, to use drumsticks rather than arrows, to sound the drum rather than to fight. The women were to stand behind the drum, supporting the men and making sure that they did not break the peace. That is why the ceremonial powwow drum is also called the peace drum and why women have traditionally not done the drumming.
Many First Peoples believe that a woman’s medicine is her power to give life. Traditions and stories suggest that this medicine is so powerful that in some circumstances it can be harmful to other people, their medicines or ceremonial items. This is one reason why special protocols regarding the handling of drums and other sacred objects, are carefully passed down through the generations.
After listening to myths what did you learn about the people and the land?
Is there a connection between the land and people? How do myths work in developing people’s identities?
Enter the Circle
“Like the Medicine Wheel, the drum is circular. At ceremonies, socials and powwows the drum is at the centre. The singers sit in a circle facing the drum, behind them is a circle of women, then dancers, then family and friends, and so on – circles upon circles with the drum, the heartbeat of our nations, at the centre”.
I have been a part of several Healing or Sharing Circles and have learned so much from other people as we all sat facing one another. There was no person sitting in a position of authority, everyone was made to feel equal.
Each time I was a part of those circles I was reminded of where I come from and how I should think as Elders or teachers would then begin talking about the circle and how one should treat one another. Each person would speak, one at a time, and other people listened wholeheartedly. I always left those circles feeling good and a part of a larger family or community.
The Medicine Wheel
All of our oral histories remind us that every act is a spiritual connection to all life forces. The circle is an important symbol of that belief. It is one of our most meaningful teaching tools. Within the circle all life is equal: “We are all related.” That belief guides how we walk, talk and view the world.
An example is the Medicine Wheel. It is a circle divided into four equal parts; each part can represent, for example: one of the earth’s elements (fire, water, earth and air), one of the four seasons, one segment of the day (dawn, noon, dusk and night) or even one aspect of our human nature (spiritual, emotional, physical and mental). The east represents birth – the first stage of life, while the north is the last stage – the Elder stage. But the circle is in motion, so as spring follows winter, rebirth follows death and the perpetual cycle of creation is maintained.
Like the Medicine Wheel, the drum is circular. At ceremonies, socials and powwows the drum is at the centre. The singers sit in a circle facing the drum, behind them is a circle of women, then dancers, then family and friends, and so on – circles upon circles with the drum, the heartbeat of our nations, at the centre.