ART OF INDIGENOUS STORYTELLING , MUSIC, THEATRE, DANCE
ORAL NARRATIVE CONT'D
As noted above, speeches/narratives were a crucial part of ceremonial occasions as the dance/music/storytelling dramas sought to ground Native people in their histories. Often long and complex, they covered a variety of topics and claims. The the best of the oral tradition was designed to pass on knowledge, history and ownership of, for example, important crests, totems, names, beliefs, history and territory. Narratives included: (1) of how to behave, (2) overcoming obstacles, (3) exceptional courage and sacrifice, (4) how to make clothing, prepare food, build long houses, carve totems, (5) dealing with cowardly denial, selfishness and jealousy, generally how to behave with others (i.e. manners, protocol), (6)understanding the world of the supernatural, and explanations about the place of humans in the natural world were vital to the overall health and future of the tribe. The spoken word and Truth were interconnected and it was with the utmost trust that Indigenous people received the tales of those who had gone before.
Most narratives contained malevolent and evil-doing spirits which had to be confronted or counteracted by an opposing positive power. Power was an important concept for Native people. It primarily was the property of the spirit world, therefore the ‘crying for a vision’ to acquire guardian spirits was an important event in the life of a young person, since one had to possess at least minimal amounts of spiritual power in order to survive in often harsh environments.
AND THEIR DELUSIONS
Of note, is the fact that there is no Indigenous word for "trickster"; each figure had its own name.
It was simply beyond the pale for the average missionary to contemplate them as akin to the level of Jesus Christ - that is a figure sent by the Universe to bring order to the world. Clutching rosaries and muttering homilies, Christian missionaries scuttled about, "Raven, Jesus, Coyote in the same sentence?" "I don't think so!" and so, the culture heroes were relegated to the only other place in Christian sensibilities, hell and Satan.
MYTH OR LORE?
Indigenous narratives defy simple classification. 'Myth' seems to be a popular category, but it is incorrect. Myth, by definition means the stories are not real because they refer to fictitious themes that include imaginary persons or things that were spoken of as though they existed. Indigenous story themes did exist and in real time, albeit sometimes in an altered or supernatural state. Narratives also passed down important claims and entitlements that included territory, crests, clans, names.
If labels are to be applied 'Lore' is probably closer because it invokes a teaching, or the act of being taught by someone who has knowledge of a particular subject of a traditional nature. Please lose the preface "FOLK". We are talking about a noble people whose rich, passionate, "stand alone" history, culture and social organizations are grounded in a set of deep knowledge and values!
A SINGLE DEITY OR SUPREME BEING?
Unlike the Christian concept of a single, male God responsible for the creation of the world, Indigenous people, as a general rule, did not believe in a single supreme, autonomous, and eternal being who was all-powerful and established the conditions under which all living things would live. This idea was imposed after the arrival of the missionaries.
To believe this was to disbelieve that the secular and supernatural worlds were inter-connected cohesive spheres of activity in which all living beings played an equal role. To the Tsimshian, for example, there are no Creation stories per se because it was assumed the world was always there. ASs noted above, there are however, a myriad of Raven stories.
For many tribes, there was no supreme puppeteer directing the action; each living being had its own gifts and talents, and as long as everyone knew their place and did their job, the world hummed in unison for another day. In other words, Indigenous people did not see themselves as superior to the rest of the natural world - everyone was thought of as equal, intelligent, self-directed and able to communicate their gifts and talents for the greater good of the whole.
Such kinship, respect, dignity, celebration and honour was accorded to all because it was believed everyone came from a common beginning. This is why Indigenous people usually end with the words 'all my relations'.
"We must broaden our way of thinking so that it recognizes the world as one human family, We are all children of one blood. It can be no other way, for there is a central source of humanity where all living beings were created." (Gandoox, Tsimshian Elder, my Mom).
In post-European contact some tribes, under the pressure of Christian dogmatism, conceded a "God position". A Creator/Great Spirit figure was adopted. An important distinction is the fact that Indigenous version was NON-GENDERED. It was a powerful deity made up of equal parts of female and male. Over time, unfortunately, Indigenous people became lazy and simply started referring to this entity as 'he' instead of Creator or, Great Spirit. It's a shame and wrong and buys into the whole male domination scenario. Thunderbird does not go there!
MAIN CATEGORIES OF THE INDIGENOUS ORAL NARRATIVE
The Creation of the World can be loosely categorized under two main headings:
EARTH-DIVER STORIES (CREATION STORIES) - Like all the earth's people, my Ancestors were no different in wanting to understand their origins. Where did they come from? Who sent them? How did they emerge in their present form on the earth. Many stories tell of a great flood that covered the earth thereby setting the stage for the magical creation of the earth, the origins of the cosmos and the interrelations of its elements.
Here the Earth Diver myth of the Eastern Woodlands, Northern Plains, for example, has either Great Spirit or the Transformer (Culture Hero) diving or ordering other animals to dive into the primeval water to bring up mud, out of which the Earth would be fashioned. There is a Lakhota story in which the Creating Power "sings" a great flood into existence in order to destroy an unsatisfactory first creation; then, when a turtle brings mud back from the depths of the waters, the Creating Power "sings" an entire new world into existence. Music, thus, creates as well as destroys.
There is also the bogus explanation that Turtle Island's Native people came across a land bridge known as Berengia (Bering Strait); wherein it sells books and satisfies the average academic's driving need for empirical evidence, there is not a thread of truth to it.
"There is a commonly held belief that thousand of years ago as the world
today counts time, Mongolian nomads crossed a land bridge to enter the
western hemisphere, and became the people known as the American Indians.
The truth of course, is that Raven found our forefathers in a clam shell
on the beach at Naikun. At his bidding they entered the world peopled by
birds, beasts, and creatures of great power....at least that's a little
bit of the truth."
EMERGENCE STORIES - For many other Native tribes, people did not originate in an already created world (like the Garden of Eden), but, rather, they emerged from the womb of the Earth Mother; they were called out into the daylight of their Sun Father. Most widely developed among agricultural peoples, the Emergence story narrates the original passage from darkness to light, from chaos to order, and from undetermined to distinctly human form. The dynamic of evolution—that life evolves from one form to another—serves as a fundamental metaphor for transformations of all kinds.
Examples from the Pacific Northwest Coast:
AND THEIR CONTRIBUTIONS TO THE WORLD
Frequently, but not always, the stories represent the Cultural Hero, as primarily a comical character who engages in shape-shifting buffoonery while stealing light, fire, water, food, animals and even humans; this character often lost them or set them loose to create havoc in the world. (Raven among the Nuxult, Tsimshian, Haida, Hare; Nanabush among the Anishinaabe; Frog in the Columbian Plateau; Coyote among the Blackfoot).
This is a very superficial and not very flattering picture of a much loved, and very important figure in the Indigenous oral narrative. The stories are legendary about Culture Hero, Raven and his ability to shift shapes in order to help organize the world. He shifted back and forth between human and raven. Shapeshifting was not random, it was always done with a purpose and was the responsibility of the Culture Heroes. Some examples of the culture heroes: Glooscap (Mi'kmaq), Wisikawejak (Cree), Nanabozho (Ojibwa), Iktomi (Spider), Plains, Napi (Blackfood), Michabo (Algonquin)
Culture hero’s represent change/transformation and are beloved, magical, compassionate and practical figures (i.e. Pacific Northwest Coast Raven) that helped change the external (physical) form of the world as well as the inner nature of it using often miraculous means to do so. In North America, Culture hero is characteristically portrayed as a figure that was capable of traveling back and forth between the secular and supernatural worlds because at the time only a thin veil of mist separated the two. The magic of Culture Hero was its catalytic magic to change the world. It has a perfectly balanced left and right brain to solve problems and the ability to utilize a variety of human traits in the quest to settle the world, and also for the good of humans, because it loved them. For example, logic, creativity, patience, impatience, honesty, dishonesty, love, hate, joy, sadness, greed, seriousness and humor were all employed in varying degrees depending on the situation. Many Creation stories revolve around the ability of Culture Hero to use these gifts to overcome complications quickly, and with a high degree of shapeshifting energy, physical agility, mental discipline, good humour and for the most part good intent. Very human! Culture Hero simply did what needed to be done and what had to be done. In other words, there was no difference between need and duty when good intention was the goal.
Culture Hero, he often appears as an extraordinary human (i.e. Glooskap) who possesses supernatural powers, and who brings the world into its present form by heroic feats. In the Columbian Plateau and Great Plains, there are said to be two Transformers (more precisely, a Transformer and a companion who is a brother, sister or other relative). They try to outdo each other in feats of strength, ability or cunning that result in the formation of the world as it now exists. Raven of the northwest coast has stories of a brother associated with him as well, known as the Lazy One, who is more likely to follow along and let his brother do all the work and then try to steal his ideas. (Photo above, status in Millbrook, Nova Scotia)
In other words, Culture Hero is either a shape-shifting animal or supernatural figure with human traits. There are literally hundreds of them from all across North America. They are credited with pretty much all of Indigenous culture from how to dig a well, to bringing fire, humans, games, weaving, existence of light, making tools, creating arrowheads, creation of food, trees, plants, grasses, rituals and ceremonies. It is endless. Shapeshifting was not permanent, it was simply a way for the Culture Hero to get the job it was involved at the time done.
Culture Hero examples
Raven (Pacific Northwest Coast; Nanabush (Ojibwe); Glooscap of the Mi’Kmaq,
Maliseet, Abenaki), Ptesan Wi (White Buffalo Calf Woman, Lakhota),
Gaqka or Crow
went to the south and, listening to the earth, learned all the stories,
and brought back storytelling to the Seneca. These figures were not
'Creator' figures, but rather responsible for bringing order to the world.
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MORE THEMES AND CATEGORIES
Many stories tell the origin of the Sun, Moon and Stars. There is usually a tension between the heavenly bodies; e.g., the cool moon by night is said to be necessary to counteract the burning of the Earth and the killing of people by the heat of the sun in the day. An Inuit story tells of the sun and moon as brother and sister, but since they have engaged in incest in their human lives the are doomed to eternal separation. Another humorous telling, has Grandfather Sun and Grandmother Moon in perfect harmony with each other for the simple reason that they never see each other - ah! a lasting relationship!
can cage the singer, but not the song....Songs reach deep in the
Stories range from lamentations of pain and despair to exhilarating action, joy and rollicking good humour. They are, in other words, expressions of a culture that goes back to the time before recorded time and that have brought forward rich histories to the present day,
I think it can be successfully argued that the modern day MUSICAL found some of its roots in Indigenous theatrical presentations. After all, they contained all the components for a magical time. A really good Story, Music, Vocals, Instrumentation in the form of drums, flutes and shakers, Actors, Narrators, Stages, Sets, Props and Costumes. I revel in being able to tell my stories from an Indigenous perspective using as many artistic mediums as possible while staying true to traditional Indigenous artistic integrity. Many of the stories are all about good character: Truth, Honour, Respect, Wisdom, Courage, Love, Humour, Passion, Sharing, Caring, Humility. They are reconnections to the vital rhythms and currents of Indigenous cultures all across Turtle Island. They demand that you LISTEN, UNDERSTAND, ENGAGE, FEEL and CARE.
Traditional Stories when framed within contemporary expression can leave audiences breathless with the sheer beauty and spirituality of the experience. Such productions resonate with the uniqueness of the Indigenous voice.
Music genres such as rock, hip hop, rap (provided lyrics are non-violent), modern dance all meld beautifully and are often the best way to introduce Native youth to their rich history. Even better when they find the courage to perform the stories themselves on hand or big drums.
PACIFIC NORTHWEST COAST
Speeches and Stories were a crucial part of Yaawk (Feast) ceremonies. ('Potlatch' is the commonly used term, but I don't use it because it is a hybrid word that came out of the Chinook trading language). They covered a variety of topics and claims which passed on knowledge, history and ownership of, for example, important crests, totems, names, beliefs, history and territory. Beautifully carved masks and costumes added to the drama and colour of the performance. Often a huge curtain woven out of red cedar was used to divide the supernatural world from the physical world. The performances were vivid, sometimes violent, always entertaining. Pounding drums, vocals and music also accompanied the show making it a true Indigenous musical.
Stories contained malevolent and evil‑doing spirits which had to be confronted or counteracted by an opposing positive power. Power was an important concept for Native people. It primarily was the property of the spirit world, therefore "crying for a vision" to acquire guardian spirits was an important event in the life of a young person, since one had to possess at least minimal amounts of spiritual power in order to survive in often harsh environments. The acquisition of power was a common theme in storytelling in a pan-Native sense.
It starts as guests arrive in their elaborately carved canoes for a Feast Extravaganza called a Yaawk. Eagle stands and waves a greeting as the guests approach.
Everyone steps ashore and the host family with drums pounding, wearing their best regalia greet the guests with a traditional sprinkling of white eagle down over their heads as sign of peace and harmony.
An individual given the right to portray Raven, for example and wear a mask must be a member of the nobility or royalty and initiated into a secret society. Upon initiation, he or she could practice Halaayt, the ritual manifestation of power. The Privilege portion of Halaayt, therefore is simply being a member of the elite and therefore having the right to practice halaayt. The Naxnox (Wonder) is the mask and the mask wearer considered to be a single entity. The right to wear a mask was passed down through families, and a Yaawk was usually held to acknowledge the "changing of the guard" if a wearer died or retired. Nothing was left to chance, in other words. "The wearing of masks is ultimately a statement that one accepts that ultimate transformation – the one transformation that occurs without human choice – and the wearing of the mask is literally an embracing of that fate.”
The masks were always carved with eyes that dominated the mask. This was meant to convey the importance of being able to see and use insight into understanding the Tsimshian world view.
“The eyes of the mask look to see the spirits that hid behind material reality. Seeing and hearing are important to our culture; people who do not take the time to look and listen mindfully are considered unworthy. Seeing and hearing properly lead to understanding wisdom.”(Listening to Our Ancestors: The Art of Native Life Along the North Pacific Coast. Washington: National Museum of the American Indian, Smithsonian Institution, pg. 104.)
Mastering the intricacies of the ceremonies took years and years of training, never mind the sheer physical requirements of wearing awkward and heavy masks carved from weighty red cedar. In the case of transformation masks, i.e., Raven changing to a human, there was usually a mask within a mask, the outer one opening and closing using a series of ropes. The Raven Dancer on the right in the above photo is wearing a mask with a four foot beak - powerful physiques, neck and shoulder muscles were a definite must!
INDIGENOUSMUSIC & DANCE -WHY DO WE SING & DRUM?
SONGS OF THE AGES: INDIGENOUS ‘LIVING’ ART
To all People, let's create music and song because:
· Indigenous Music, Drums, Storytelling and Dance are inseparable. Before European contact, however, most singing was functionally employed to accompany dancing which explained the liberal use of vocables such as way-ya, hey-ha, hey-yo (the First Nations version of do, re, me, fa, so, la, ti, do!). Songs were created in three ways: (a) vocables, (b) Indigenous language, (c) a combination of language and vocable.
Call and Response songs were popular as a way of teaching children their language in an entertaining way. In later years music became more stand-alone, and harmonies were added, but movement was never far away. You simply cannot stand still when the drums are pounding! What hasn't changed is music, like Indigenous life in general, is community based. Indigenous communities follow the traditions of the great circle where all things are connected. There are some solo parts, usually the first line of each round of a song, but not long solos. A combination of language and vocable is the most popular method of producing traditional songs today. This is how I write all my traditional music. This way, everyone can at least sing the vocable part.
INDIGENOUS PEOPLE SING BECAUSE:
Let's sing because this is simply the way of it.....Wilwilaasyk, All my relations.
WHY DO WE DANCE?
We dance because this is
simply the way of it....
ABOUT THE ORAL NARRATIVE: AN OVERVIEW
As Father Sky continued to turn (meaning as the years went by) more and more technology has entered the lives of humans, and my role as a keeper of sacred knowledge began to fade. It all started "back in the day" with the invention of the printing press which started the erosion of the oral narrative. The stories became words in books, but the subtle nuances, understandings and knowledge were lost. They became 'stand alone' narratives and the connections to the culture from which they originated was irretrievably severed. Moreover, the Internet has shrunk the planet even more and people can move around wherever they desire even to the most remote places with the simple click of a mouse. It seems that this encroachment into unfamiliar territory includes collecting and retelling cultural histories without a real understanding of the culture from which the narratives come. And....we no longer have the patience to sit quietly and listen to the truth.
Unfortunately, today the modern teller is seen merely as an entertainer primarily for children, who works for very little (expectation usually being no payment) and simply recites words. A far cry from the once important person who had professional status in the community.
As a chronicler of Indigenous culture, I am reclaiming the honour and professionalism as a cultural guardian charged with the responsibility of being a powerful voice of change within the modern world. This vital aspect risks being lost in the mists of time as the world speeds up and our attention spans wane.
The true role of the Narrator is to teach about our cultures cultures, morals, spirituality, laws, and social values, that govern a community. Using the Oral Narrative as the forum, knowledge, values and beliefs are passed to future generations. Wilwilaaysk, All My Relations.
A Variety of Stories & Meanings