Blackfoot Confederacy, Calgary, Alberta – On December 30, the Blackfoot Confederacy hosted the first of its story telling gatherings during the Christmas holidays at its Calgary office to celebrate language and culture with Siksikaitsitapi Elders. All four Chiefs were in attendance from Kainai, Siksika, Piikani and Amskapipikuni. And, as with all Indigenous peoples, the Blackfoot have deep connections to storytelling and passing knowledge from one generation to the next, and yet no other culture has been the subject of more inaccuracies, mistakes and falsehoods. In the Siksikaitsitapi tradition, the ancient practice of storytelling has always been about transferring cultural information from one generation to the next, so that our grandchildren may know the ways of our grandparents. It’s the Blackfoot system of transference; we are living in the generations.
In his opening statements, Makiinima (Chief Roy Fox) spoke about the importance of carrying on that tradition, and breathing life into our creation stories, our connections to the land, historical accounts, traditional ecological knowledge, teachings, language and cultural stories that have been kept alive through oral traditions for thousands of years. “These stories and accounts have been passed from generation to generations rarely ever being transcribed, so we are here today to ask for permission from our Elders to record this important gathering so that we have a record and to encourage more meetings like this so that we don’t lose the language – and that information continues to be retained and shared.”
Chief Fox received permission to allow videotaping to record the day-long event which just barely provided the essence of how important storytelling is to keep our language and history alive (that information has been transcribed and will be shared in the future). Already, plans have been made to host another gathering next month in Browning, and another event at Maakoiyii’pooka’s (Bruce Wolf Child) residence in the spring, where he will be erecting his tipi to host a two-day gathering.
Throughout the storytelling, Elders reminded the Chiefs and others in attendance that we are rapidly losing our precious resources in our elders and our ability to speak Blackfoot fluently. Maakoiyii’pooka encouraged us to “listen well,” and that language is so powerful and our stories are very important for human understanding and spirit. He spoke of his experience sitting and listening to his grandfathers share stories, and while dismissed, he was called back in to listen, so that these accounts can be passed down “iissoohkts,” (in the future). “There’s not going to be a lot of people able to tell these stories and a lot of young people are going to want to know. I was responsible for serving tea and keeping the fire going, listening.” Wolf Child told the story of ‘Oot’saanaan,’ a “strange” baby who
was different and kept disappearing into the night. The parents decided to keep an eye open to see where she would go at night. Eventually the baby slipped out under the tipi-liners and was discovered to be a cannibal, sneaking into other tipis to feed. Eventually, Oot’saanaan was killed – via the little finger – and was burned. Bit of a gruesome story but like all stories, they provide teachings and beliefs among the Blackfoot, in this case, how to prevent bad spirits from returning, or reincarnating.
The Elder talked about how they came to their stories and who influenced them growing up. Oral traditions retain the history of Indigenous Peoples through these practices. Oral histories preserved cultural traditions, especially when they were forced underground, during the era of assimilation in which our people were forbidden, by law, to practice traditions, and children were forbidden to speak their languages or practice their culture while at Indian Residential Schools. This history was also shared. Miinii’pooka (Peter Weasel Moccasin) asked, “what would have happened if all the history, knowledge and cultural beliefs had been written down and the people had relied upon those (transcriptions) and stopped sharing the stories? It would help but the spirit of our stories would have all been lost. So language and understanding is very important.”
The most important qualities of our culture are our language and our stories. In oral traditions, telling stories is how we pass on the history and the teachings of our ancestors. Without these stories, we would have to rely on other people for guidance and information about our past. Teachings in the form of stories are an integral part of our identity as peoples. If we lose these stories, we will do a disservice to our ancestors – those who gave us the responsibility to keep our spirits alive.
Our Elders are the historians, teachers, spiritual caregivers, language experts and advisors. “Sit with them,” we are told. With collective input, support and guidance – such as the Blackfoot Confederacy’s efforts to honour and support language retention – “we can ensure deeper understanding and safeguard our languages, cultures and institutions.”
It has been said that our collective Worldview is “rooted in Family and our connection to Creator, Mother Earth and All living things.” The safety and survival of the people has always been a priority and we must continue to work hard to revive our language and heritage for future generations. To be vigilant and continue to develop, maintain and strengthen our relationship to the land, the water and the environment, to ensure the integrity of our societies and maintain our historic and ongoing connection to our lands. Learning from place. Failure to honour this is disrespectful of our connection to the land.”
Other teachings included the reminder that our processes pass on critical teachings and a management system based on generations of knowledge and information about our lands. That it is critical to the long-term survival of First
Nations’ cultures, our way of life and the well-being. Makiinima spoke of how our ancestors would discuss important aspects of our history and those prominent people in our communities to share and pass down the knowledge for future generations. “They would often gather to confirm and correct the oral record. To help each other make sure the history is correct,” he said. “Today we celebrate our ancestors, as we share with you their languages, traditions and teachings, especially for the sacred gift we all have in our children so that they too may stand here and share with you, for generations to come. A new way of life had to be adopted because of the loss of the warrior days and the ways of the buffalo. But we also knew that our people would need to be educated in order to survive.”
The life lessons brought about in storytelling are essential for Indigenous peoples to make sense of the world and to teach about values, history, significant events, relationships, cultural beliefs, and sacred stories and songs. Stories can vary from the sacred to the historical. Some focus on social, political, and cultural ways and are often entertaining and humorous. Many stories shared that day told of personal or of the nation’s experiences. Some can only be told within our holy societies that reflect the perceptions, relationships, beliefs and attitudes of a particular society. We are taught that storytelling is a method used to teach about cultural beliefs, values, customs, rituals, history, practices, relationships, and ways of life. It’s the foundation for holistic learning, relationship building, and experiential learning.
You know when you listen you also have to watch very carefully. Our Elders storytelling involves an expert use of volume, voice, hand and body expression, intonation/tone, the use of verbal imagery, facial animation, context, plot and character development, natural pacing of the telling, and careful recounting of the story.
There is so much more to share, so much to tell. Go sit with an Elder, a grandparent. Patience and trust are essential for preparing to listen to stories. Listening involves more than just using your ears. Listening encompasses visualizing the characters and their actions and letting the emotions surface. Some say we should listen with three ears: “two on our head and one in our heart.” Do not interrupt with questions, do not seek or expect constant eye contact and do not ask questions – questions can imply disbelief, which can be an insult – remember the saying “there’s a reason you have two ears and only one mouth!” Wait till story is finished before asking. When being told a story, be sure the storyteller has finished speaking before saying anything.
Storytelling is a way to instill knowledge of the mind, body, and soul in connection to the earth through experienced and trusted “knowledge keepers” who teach values, family histories, significant events, relationships, and cultural beliefs. Especially through our Naapi stories, that hold parables and warnings about how we treat each other and the world around us. Like nursery rhymes, they teach us how to react to the world around us.
Some times there are many versions to a story. But the root or teachings will remain the same. Some time stories are like old friends. We’ve seen them a hundred times. But it’s always nice to visit old friends. Sometimes, “stories are wondrous things.” And sometimes “they are dangerous.”
In The Truth About Stories, Native novelist and scholar Thomas King explores how stories shape who we are and how we understand and interact with other people. From creation stories to personal experiences, historical anecdotes to social injustices, racist propaganda to works of contemporary Native literature, King probes Native culture’s deep ties to storytelling and reminds us that storytelling carries with it social and moral responsibilities.
“Don’t say in the years to come that you would have lived your life differently if only you had heard this story. You’ve heard it now.”