Native American Storytelling
Like many parts of American Indian culture there is a proper time and place for all activities. For many tribes traditional storytelling is reserved for the winter months. This was a practical choice given the fact that during the other seasons, people were busy growing, gathering, and hunting food. It was in the winter, with the long dark evenings, the snow and wind blowing outside, that telling stories was a way to entertain and teach the children. Another reason is that many traditional stories contain animal characters. To be respectful, people waited until the winter when animals hibernate or become less active, so they cannot hear themselves being talked about.
To have a storyteller tell you a story is like receiving a gift. To be respectful, a gift of tobacco is offered to the storyteller before the story begins. The storyteller will often take the tobacco outside and place it on the earth as an offering to the spirits of the story.
While most Natives no longer live in teepees*, I’m pleased to report that the tradition of storytelling is still alive and well. I personally know several Native Americans who have gathered together family stories and published them - often with magnificent illustrations - so that people of all ethnicities can learn and appreciate these home-grown tales.
Story-telling is most vividly expressed in traditional pow wows, which nowadays are conducted throughout the year. The various dances we see today grew out of the triumphant return of hunters from successful hunts, or warriors celebrating success on the battlefield. After a hunt the participants would act out the events of the hunt, the valor displayed by particular hunters and thanks to various animals for sacrificing their own lives so that the two-leggeds could survive and thrive.
Each step of the various dances represent various participants in the hunt and their role in the adventure. My favorites have always been the strutting prairie chickens and other animals whose feathers represent their species and movements show how they evaded the hunters, provided sport, or were eventually captured. The wide variety of animals represented are revealed in their regalia (never call a Native Dancer’s garb a “costume”). You will see bears, deer, buffalo - just about any animal hunted on the prairie, the desert, or wherever these tribes hunted.
Battlefield triumphs of course were celebrated not only for protecting the clan from harm, but training the youth in the art of warfare and gratitude for the safe return of valiant warriors.
With Native American pride in their pow wow traditions growing, there is a thriving circuit across the country which many Natives participate in and make a good living. It is somewhat akin to the well-organized Rodeo Circuit of the American West - but less dangerous! It is nearly as expensive though, because part of the competition is increasingly elaborate regalia, as dancers are judged not only on their dance techniques but the quality and design of their regalia. Drum groups are a large part of this movement, whose rhythms and songs are every bit as vital to the entire contest. The larger the pow wow the greater the purse, and usually multiple days of competition with ever-growing audiences.
Having lived in Indian Country since I moved to South Dakota back in the sixties, I have been to many pow wows and watched the gratifying growth of this economic as well as prideful movement.
The competitions have grown quite sophisticated over the years and include many categories such as separate women’s and men’s competitions, children, young adults. The Grand Entry is incredibly impressive and includes every single competitor (which can make the opening ceremony extremely long (and sometimes crowded, depending on the venue). The procession is always headed by flag bearers representing every single military force in the country. The traditional warrior and hunting sector of the population is very highly regarded by all Native tribes, and former and current military personnel are always accorded the top spot at all ceremonial events. The drum accompaniment to the procession is accompanied by very slow steps, so this processional is not only solemn but lengthy - but if you are a people-person, worth every second.
Individual dance competitions follow the Grand Entry. The categories are many and myriad, and as I mentioned, strictly segregated by sex. The energetic young girls favor shawl dances, and the jingle dance - which is a latter day innovation developed well into the settlement period of our country’s western history. Natives tended always to favor shiny beads, baubles and bells available from even the earliest traders and trappers. But these were expensive, and when tins of tobacco became available, many Native dancers started cutting the tin lids and bottoms off these cans and rolling them into cone-shaped decorative objects that produce a delightful jingling sound when attached in tightly spaced rows to leather or fabric skirts. They make a tremendous racket when the girls are gathering for their events, much to the delight of all participants and observers!
Young children (and even babes in arms) are evident everywhere from the Grand Entry to the final contest. The Pow Wow is a festive event, a chance to catch up with family and friends, and the youngest of these are omnipresent dancing around the periphery of the dance floor throughout the event, whether registered to compete or just reacting to the addictive drumbeat. I also enjoy contestants sitting in the stands sewing on their garments, or attaching last-minute beads, feathers, or other decor before their event begins. Regalia can be purchased or commissioned, but it is a point of pride among men and women alike to fabricate their own regalia. I personally think this is really cool.
There is much more to the tradition of storytelling: food vendors, sellers of jewelry, all manor of art work and art supplies. I have acquired wondrous works of art at Pow Wows over the years. But it is the experience that keeps me coming back.
How to locate a Pow Wow near you:
Recommended authors of Native American storytelling:
Don Montileaux - Muscrat and Skunk, Sinkpe na Maka A Lakota Drum Story
Paul Goble - The Girl Who Loved Wild Horses
Virginia Driving Hawk Sneve - The Trickster and the Troll
Luther Standing Bear - My People the Sioux
The Ledgerbook of Thomas Blue Eagle
Black Elk Speaks - John G. Neihardt
Life's Journey―Zuya: Oral Teachings from Rosebud, by Albert White Hat, Sr.