Lesson 1 – The Teachings in Our Stories
The breadth of knowledge and wisdom found in our traditional and personal Native stories is vast and teaches the listener many things if they familiarize themselves with how storytelling works.
At one time, before reading and writing, storytelling was the way that people learned and shared and taught and communicated. It is innate within all of us to hear and tell and learn by stories.
Some who study this area believe we humans are “hard-wired” for storytelling. We really can’t understand a concept without a story to explain it. As we look at social issues that effect Native youth and adults and elders and communities we need to find stories that help the listener understand at multiple levels that true and complex nature of those issues.
For example the issue of alcohol abuse touches almost all of our communities and families in some way. We can certainly look at the human physiology and chemical reactions and interactions and how they might cause an addiction to alcohol. But if we look at some of the old stories of Coyote or Raven or Rabbit we see that an addiction is more than chemicals. There are social and psychological and spiritual aspects that must be considered as well and these elements can best be understood through the metaphors and wisdoms found in a story.
In the stories Coyote might find he should have listened to the advice of his elders or Raven learns he must consider possible consequences to his behavior or Rabbit might learn that he can’t earn people’s respect by selfish actions. And as these characters learn their lessons we can see ourselves in them if we approach storytelling as a teaching process.
Storytelling works on two basic principles; repetition and reflection. First we need to hear a story over and over, not just once. Some storytelling teachers tell their students they must hear a story eight times before they can tell it after the eighth telling the story becomes a part of the listener; the story is in their heart and it is a part of them and flows out of them.
Second, the listener needs to reflect upon the story and find their meanings in the story. Why did the character do the wrong or right thing? How do I make these decisions in my own life? Am I like this character or that? What would I do if that happened to me? What alternatives can I see to what happened in the story? Stories do not give answers; they give the listener a framework to find their own answers for that is how issues are best resolved. Find your own answer.
Not just the mythic and legendry stories teach us in this way. The personal stories people tell share the same wisdom and knowledge and teachings if we look at them in the same light. This project will rely on the personal experiences people share as carrying equal importance for within them are things that can teach us if we look deeper.
The power of our ancestor’s knowledge and experience comes to us through the stories, but also through their experiences and the wisdom that comes from experience. As we will discuss in the Wisdom of the Elders section their personal stories and advice are as meaningful as any traditional story. We will listen to the teachings of Agnes Pilgrim, a Siletz elder who shares her life stories and lessons and wisdoms with us in her interview. These teachings she bestows upon us will be linked to the story concepts we will address in each section.
Stories also teach us how to be a good person and how a good person lives in the world according to the ethics and morals and expectations of their culture. They show how difficult it can be and how the balance of good relations needs hard work to be maintained and what happens if we forget to do that work.
Let’s look at a simple story called “Beaver and Field Mouse”. It is a Snohomish/Tulalip story told by Raymond Moses, Sr. Read the story twice before going to the following paragraph.
Beaver and Field Mouse
A Snohomish Story
A long time ago Beaver was wandering through the woods, looking at all the trees.
Now Beaver leads a complicated life, if you ask me. He chews down a tree to make a dam. He makes a dam to build a pond. He makes a pond to build his house in. That is a lot of work, but that is Beaver.
Beaver saw Field Mouse that day. Field Mouse is the little mouse that lives in the grass. Beaver thought she was the cutest thing he had ever seen.
“She is so cute!” he thought. “I wish she would talk to me, but she would never do that because she is so cute and I’m just old Beaver.”
He would walk by her and sneak a look at her. Sometimes he would hide behind trees and peek at her.
“Oh, I wish I could talk to her”, he said. Finally he asked his cousin Squirrel, “Cousin Squirrel, you are the smartest of all my relatives. Do you think I should talk to her?” Squirrel said, “Yes, you should.”
Beaver worked up all of his courage. He walked out of the trees towards her, and as he walked towards her, all the animals could hear his heart pounding like a drum. He was really scared!
He walked up to her and in a shy and nervous voice stammered, “Hi, Field Mouse.”
“Hello.” She said.
He was so nervous. Then he blurted out, “Field Mouse, will you marry me?”
She answered right away, “Eek! No! You are too fat!”
Beaver began to cry and ran back into the woods. “Why did I talk to her? She doesn’t like me. She thinks I am too fat.”
He wandered the woods for days and days thinking about his problem. “I know!” he thought. “I could go on a diet!” He realized that was not a good idea.
Then he remembered Cedar Tree. Cedar Tree is the great gift giver. From Cedar Tree the people can make their clothes, their houses, their canoes and baskets, ropes and nets. They can even make baby diapers from the tree. Beaver knew that Cedar Tree would help him so he went to the tree and tore of a long strip of bark. Then he tore it into smaller strips. And then he wove those strips together until he made himself a big belt. He wrapped the belt around him and pulled it tight. “This belt makes me look skinny!” he thought. “Let’s see what she says now!”
He walked towards her again and this time she thought he looked a lot cuter. He came close and bent over to ask her the question again, but the belt broke! It snapped and hit poor Field Mouse across the head! It knocked her out of the woods and into the grass.
She wobbled around and walked in a crooked line. And that is why field mice no longer run in a straight line, but in a crooked one.
That is all.
This simple story tells of how Beaver wanted field Mouse to like him and his efforts to please her. He liked her so much he was willing to change how he looked to gain her friendship and love. He made a girdle that changed his appearance (since that was how she was judging him) but found it didn’t work.
Remember each listener finds their own answers in the story. The thoughts and insights I am about to share are the ones this writer found after telling the story over 100 times. They are unique to me and not the “real meaning” of the story. The real meaning is yours alone to find.
I will look at this story by asking questions.
Why was Field Mouse punished in the story? I think it was because she was rude to Beaver in her response, “You’re too fat!” Could she have been nicer? Of course, but instead she was mean so she got hit across the head by the belt and now she runs in a crooked line as a reminder of her actions. What can we learn from this part of the story about our own behavior? What are possible consequences to our own rudeness to others?
Beaver tried to change how he looked to make her like him more. Is that all he changed? It seems he also changed what he believed about himself, that he was not good enough as he was. We might ask if we change what we believe or feel to make others like us more. Will we do things we were taught not to do to fit in? How do we feel when we do this? What alternatives do we have?
Did Field Mouse judge Beaver by how he looked? She did because she thought he was too fat to be with. Did Beaver judge her and her appearance? It seems he did. He thought she was cute and therefore must be nice. Was she nice? Her behavior says not really. Can we judge people by their appearance? If not what do we base our judgments on?
So from this simple story we find ourselves discussing personal beliefs and morals and philosophies. This is what storytelling can do. This is what this section of our project seeks to examine. What can we learn about ourselves in hearing the traditional stories about animals, heroes, tricksters, and monsters that go beyond the surface of the story and look for deeper teachings?