printer friendly version of article
media tricks : Stories Have Their Way With Us
View this article in flash requires flash 7 >
Stories Have Their Way With Us
Whatever the medium, ancestral voices reach out to the listener
by Louise Profeit-LeBlanc
Tea with Old Jenny
The not-so-interesting day changed quickly, as the elder who I was having a cup of tea with began a story of her childhood. I had made it a habit to visit Elders in my village, to let them know where I had been, where I had traveled, and what I had learned. This was an occasion to inform Old Jenny that I had just come back from a Communications Conference in Rae Edzo, Northwest Territories. She was happy about that! Upon hearing my account her eyes lit up. She had relatives among the Dene.
They're the ones that come over them mountains. They travel in moose skin boat that time. They come over the mountain. Tough people those ones! They sure know how to sew good too. Them women here sure get jelloo for their work. They think they gonna snag their man, I guess!
A man's prize, in those times, was a partner who was a hard-working woman. A woman who could cut up a moose, make good dry meat, and tan nice moose hides for sewing beautiful clothes for her husband and the children. It had happened that way for her father, as her mother was a Dene from Fort Norman. Her mother's handiwork was known throughout the region as among the best. Her daughters had followed in her footsteps, and still made "slippers to die for", beautifully beaded and masterfully crafted.
My Mom musta liked this country. She came here. Never went back. My Dad, he was a real good hunter. Trapper too! He made good livin' for her and us kids.
Her mother was Dene, and by all accounts was the kindest woman in the village. But my visit over to her mother's country was not the only thing that Jenny was excited about. She had just got a TV! A secondhand portable, black and white. Her son had hooked it up that day.
He put a rabbit ear on it too! I guess he gonna turn around to pick up a good sound, that rabbit. Dunno why he put that tin foil on it, but that's why he make it shiny, I guess. Now gonna watch hockey game right here, 'stead of walkin' all the way up to Martha's place!
She poured me some really strong tea, placed the tin sugar bowl in front of me, and passed me a sticky spoon.
Have a tea, girl. Eat some Indian bread. You want drymeat soup? Geeh you, you're too skinny! Huh! Used to be TV long time ago. You know that? When I'm kid I see that kind! TV. I see 'im in cup.
I put my cup down and chewed bannock quietly as she started to tell me the details.
When I'm kid I cry lots. I'm spoiled by my Mama. She take me all over 'cause I cry for her. That's the time, we had that one guy here. You know him that Lonny Johnny? Him he used to be Indian doctor ya know? He make a medicine for people so they know where to go for moose, even. That's the time, he make a medicine to see.
My Dad, he wanna make sure he can go across with his dog. He got big dog team that time. He gotta know that ice gonna hold him up. He pay him, that one. All them women, she gotta go to that guy tent. They all sit around in there. Gonna make a prayer for that guy to do his work. He call my mama. She gotta go. Kid not supposed to be there. Justa same, I cry like hell and her, she take me. She push me behind her, tell me don't say nothing!
I watch what gonna go on in that tent. Springtime you know, ice he get rotten and you don't know, you might go 'cross, ice be gonna break up. Could be you go through in overflow. Danger that one.
Lotsa lady from town they in there. Lonny, he start a sing. He got a drum. And he sing loud. He make me scare little bit. I hide behind my mom. I hear him song that time. Those lady, they pray like a hell! Then he just jump right in front of my Mom. He grab her hangerchief. He got that cup of water there. He put that hangerchief on top, then he dance around again. He sing fast now. He give a little yell when he jump around! That's when I see what he do. He take that kerchief off that cup. He tell my Mom look inside. That's the time he see me cache there, I guess. "You too! You look!" he tell me. Yeah, I look in that one. I see my Dad with his dog team. He just go right up river bank, no sweat! He make it! Ice he good. That the time I see TV in cup. Now I see it in lotsa house. Must be that Lonny, he work on that one too. You gonna see what danger for the people. See which way we gotta go, I guess."
That same man, Lonny, eventually met an untimely death by hypothermia. To him I owe a debt of gratitude, for his mentoring, and for allowing me a glimpse of another level of existence.
This particular account of Jenny's suggests that people of the past also had invisible communication systems moving through electrical fields. They had other ways of transmitting stories across generations, in order to help people make sense of the present. Stories like this one, from earlier days, carry as much power today as they did in times prior to the introduction of electricity, radio, television, computers, and telecommunications technology. Jenny's rendering of a memory from her childhood provides us with a means of understanding our environment (both natural and supernatural) on several levels. By telling this story, Jenny emphasized that it is important to stay in touch with all these levels, if we are to survive as a people.
It would have been interesting had Jenny been able to see, today, what satellite communications have done for the world, and how things have changed since the Internet was introduced. I am not certain that this would have intrigued her - it might simply have been interpreted as a tool for aiding travel in unknown environments, much as her father was assisted prior to taking his dog team across treacherous spring ice. But it might also have been interpreted as a way of seeing and hearing the warnings of today - the very same warnings that have always been there, ensuring the protection and safekeeping of stories - but now transmitted in a new language necessary for the modern times we live in.
As I write this, I recall Grampa John Joe, who was in his late eighties when he arrived in a certain city. His first stop was at the bank, where he received several two-dollar bills, much to his wife's consternation. She knew that he was going to give them to the thirsty ones who would come up to him and beg for money. He would give each one of them a two-dollar bill. With a twinkle in his eye, he told me at the time:
You never know, that guy might be Crow. That's the guy, he can change himself into whatever he wants, even into a spruce needle!
That hot summer day my brain experienced a 360 degree shift across the ages, slipping past scientific explanations and cultural practices of virtuous generosity. This old man was simply protecting himself from the potential trickery of Raven! There is no separation between the world of the past and the world we live in today - it is all in real time.
Stories have their own power. They are resilient. They can and do adapt to whatever medium they are being transmitted through. They are like Crow! Able to change, able to adapt and become something to everyone who comes upon them. Like Crow they can fool us, trick us into knowing. And like his stories, they too will last a long, long time...
The Sacredness of Stories
Storytelling, like other art forms, is an involvement with the sacred. An artist, as a creator, depends upon assistance and blessings from the Creator. Whatever their discipline, artists are involved in the process of bringing the unknown, that substance that is the world of imagination, into the world of knowing. This is a connection with a mysterious life force from another dimension: one that inspires the development of certain techniques and styles or sounds within one's work as an artist. This is the unique aspect of traditional storytelling: it involves in many instances the voice of the past, the voice of the present, and the voice of the future, all folded into one neat bundle, ready to be opened or closed as the story dictates.
What for you ask you me question. You, you know everything already!
This comment from Lonny offers a clue: that we all have a great potential - the potential to know everything - because we are influenced by our ancestors. Today, those of us who have taken up the responsibility of being story-keepers are ever cognizant that information and knowledge is continuously being transmitted to us by our ancestors. Their spirits are engendered at the beginning of all telling. They are our spirit helpers.
The orature of the storyteller provides us with role models that we can look to for support and wisdom, within which each generation may hear, and not just read, the truth of their past. I hold these stories in my heart, and in my mind I am ever hopeful, because I know these stories have a life of their own. They have the strength and ability to endure, as long as someone remembers. Stories have their ways with us!
So how do I deal with this privilege, this responsibility of holding stories for those who have gone on before us? Carefully, and with wisdom. There are times when I am better at it than others. And I need all the help I can get. So, at the advice of my grandmother, I always begin by saying a prayer. When the prayer is offered, I ask the original teller for their aid, inspiration, and guidance, so that I will be able to tell the story that my audience has come to hear. Mentioning the name of the original storyteller pays them honor, and allows me to express appreciation for the story that has been passed on. This is an inter-generational, inter-spiritual connection that remains intact throughout the entire journey of the story. I thank the ancestors for this, and ask the Creator to guide me in presenting each story as a gift to the people. I ask the Creator to protect those whose hearts and minds may not be able to handle this gift. And lastly, for myself, I ask for protection from the negative energies of those who do not wish me well.
Stories deserve respect - especially stories from ancient times. Each teller gauges their audience, and it is the audience's character that usually determines which stories surface in the teller's mind and heart. As mysterious as this may sound, I have nevertheless found it to be true in my practice. Some stories are not to be told in mixed company: for example, some are specifically for women, and are shared only with them when the time dictates. My preference is always to tell stories in a comfortable venue, with or without a microphone, depending upon the space itself and the number of people in the audience. Cabarets and bars are not my choice of places to do a performance! When questioned about this, I simply explain that the Elder who has given me their story would want the full healing force of the story to penetrate the minds of the listeners. This might be difficult with a person who is inebriated or under the influence of other drugs. Again, it is all about respect.
The Voice of My Grandmothers
Voice is the common thread. The human voice is a powerful tool. It can lift you up, put you down, make you laugh, make you cry, make you brave, make you fearful, make you happy, or make you sad. The gift of voice is used in storytelling to help us get in touch with these natural emotions, which enrich us and mold us into better human beings. The voice weaves its way through all sorts of mediums. The voice can be read (and heard in our heads), or received via film or digital screens, or heard in plays or musical renditions, live or recorded. Whatever the medium, story makes itself known to the listener. It has a destiny: to reach the mind of the seeker, the one who wishes to know.
I occasionally catch myself telling a story using the voice of my grandmothers or aunties. It is as if they have lent me their voice, their sense of the story, for that moment of telling. Even now I can hear one of them saying...
You see my girl? These stories have animals that used to talk just like you and me. That's when animals were human too. Now we have to be more human. That's why they don't talk anymore, because we become more human. We shouldn't act like animals anymore, but they help us with their story. We got to respect them for that. That's us in those stories, trying to be more human. Them animals, they help us to be better people, and teach us how to treat each other in a good way and prevent us from being tricked into things that might harm us.
Not So Pretty Tales
Some stories from our ancestors are likely to be misunderstood by some people. They may even anger those who don't understand the storytelling process, wishing that the stories had died with the original teller. Not all stories are pretty! They sometimes depict shocking truths that evoke difficult emotional reactions in those who are not ready to hear them. Some people prefer that the truth go away, for fear of having to deal with conflict or grief. Storytellers do their best to temper disturbed reactions, by telling difficult stories (whether historical or mythological) in ways that promote emotional stability among their listeners - a stability that can be thought of as emerging from the true inner meaning of the stories themselves.
A dear teacher and friend, Kitty Smith, told me just such a story - a creation story that was not only beautiful but also hard at times to hear.
This story is of a woman whose two firstborn sons were killed by their own father, the Great Chief in the heavens, a being who was so powerful that he could hear your thoughts before you even thought them. As the younger of the Great Chief's two wives, she was well cared for by the older wife, who taught her many things, making certain that she look after herself properly during her first pregnancy, by eating the proper foods and surrounding herself with beauty and happiness. The older wife built a small birthing hut, and assisted the young woman through a safe delivery. But when the young woman left the birthing hut to pass her waters, her husband killed the baby, devastating the new mother. Ultimately, however, she accepted this fate, concluding that her husband must have known something about this child's future that was not good.
After some time, she again wished for a child - but this time a girl child, believing that the chief didn't want another man to share his place in the heavens. Unfortunately, the young wife bore another son, and again the Chief took the baby's life. Distraught and overcome with grief, the young woman left the Great Chief's household. On the way to her new camp, she lay down next to the sea, covered herself and waited for death, intending to be drowned by the rising tide. Three times, she felt something tugging at her blanket - but each time when she looked around to see who it was, she saw no one. The fourth time, through a hole in the blanket, she saw an old man coming up out of the sea. As he reached to tug on the blanket, she shouted to him, and he shouted back at her! Each asked the other what they were doing, and the young woman's face flooded with tears as she disclosed the hardship of losing her two babies at the hand of their own father. Hearing of this, the old man instructed her to go to her camp, where she would find a rock that she could see through. He told her to heat it up in a fire, and after getting some water ready, swallow the red-hot stone. The young woman soon carried out these instructions, hoping that the old man had been sent to help end her life quickly. But it was not to be. Instead, after consuming the hot rock, she fell asleep, and slept like she hadn't been able to sleep for a long time. Upon rising, she even had an appetite. Her spirit had lifted, and she felt good to be alive. She also discovered that she was pregnant. Soon after, the young woman gave birth to Raven, who, according to our legends, created the world.
In addition to this story, Kitty Smith also shared some of her personal stories with me. She told me about her struggle with tuberculosis, and how her first husband remarried, thinking that she had died in the sanitarium. As in the earlier creation story, Kitty too had been forced to swallow a hot rock, so that her life could go on despite the loss of her husband and the hardships of her sickness and separation from her community. After surviving all of these events, Kitty married her second husband, who treated her kindly - unlike her previous husband, who had been cruel. All of these stories, personal and otherwise, are closely linked to Kitty's life, and through her telling they are now inextricably linked to mine.
Not all stories are pretty. One teaching that my Auntie Angela Sidney shared with me is to remain ever cognizant of the needs of my audience. She instructed me to always preface my telling with a prayer, and ask for forgiveness before any offence is taken. "Everyone should go out with a good heart, no one should leave with sadness," was her assertion. These instructions continue to live in my head and my heart, helping me to remember that there are many layers to our stories, apart from the content. Storytelling is about communication skills, conflict resolution, decision-making, and building human abilities. The emotional, mental, and spiritual education of each one of us - including the storyteller - depends upon our ability to decipher stories and understand how they speak to our own needs.
Life Lived Like a Story
The finest moment of my storytelling practice came one day when Angela Sidney, one of the strongest matriarchs of Yukon oral tradition, lovingly shared these words with me:
Louise, if there is ever anything that I have been able to teach you, I hope that it is this - that you live your life like a story. So when you go, they will have a good story to tell about you. That is how I have tried to live my life.
I have had the opportunity to develop my storytelling practice through print, radio, digital recordings, plays, and film. In all of these cases, I make mention of the original teller, and then I simply tell the story. I avoid including an analysis of the piece, because that is the work of the listener. The methodology of storytelling, according to my mentors and teachers, is to let the listener do this work, to let the story work on the listener.
The story must come to you. Let it come to you, embrace you, move through you, and then settle gently within your heart and mind, held there to fulfill the purpose for which it was originally intended. If only one person in my audience has been able to grasp the essence of the story, to incorporate it into their process of healing and understanding, then my job is complete. I have been able to help one person that day, by sharing a story.
Whatever medium is used for storytelling, whatever form the telling takes, it is my duty, my honor, to carry on so that the voices of our stories - voices of the past, present, and future - continue to be heard. I must ensure that the messages they convey endure, to be held in the hearts of all persons who take the time to hear them. This is my hope. This is my story.
(Dedicated to Kitty, Angela, Jenny, Lonny and Grampa.)
Louise Profeit-LeBlanc is a professional traditional storyteller from the Nacho N`yak Dun First Nation in Yukon Territory. She is presently Aboriginal Arts Coordinator for the Aboriginal Arts Secretariat of the Canada Council for the Arts. In the past, she has worked with many Yukon Elders, recording their histories and stories. She helped to establish the Yukon International Storytelling Festival [www.yukonstory.com] in Whitehorse, and is a co-founder of the Society of Yukon Artists of Native Ancestry (SYANA).