For the indigenous peoples of North America, oral traditions have traditionally provided an indispensable guide for coming to know and successfully navigating their mythic landscape, as well as a means of perpetuating that landscape.
The oral traditions chronicle the primordial age of transformation when powerful mythic peoples molded the world into being and brought forth all that would be necessary for the human peoples to prosper.
It is this landscape, inhabited by what are often referred to as the Animal Peoples with great spiritual powers, as well as dangerous monsters of all kinds, that the shaman must be capable of negotiating with skill. This is also the landscape traveled during a rite of passage into adulthood, during a healing ritual seeking the return of a sick relative’s wandering soul, or during the final rite of passage upon a relative’s death.
In telling the oral traditions the shaman, as storyteller par excellence, helps educate the young and reiterates to the old the meanings and identities that are uniquely the tribe’s heritage. In the characters and actions of the Animal Peoples are disseminated many of the archetypal personalities imbued in the human peoples, including the shamans themselves.
And in the ritual act of telling the creation stories, the shaman speaks that landscape into existence, helping continue the meaning and vitality of all the world’s inhabitants. To know and speak the oral traditions is to know and perpetuate the mythic landscape of the shaman. The oral traditions comprise a vast body of stories, including those of the mythic beings of the primordial time of transformation before the arrival of humans, as well as those of human heroes and others of the age of humans.
It is the powerful mythic beings, some of which are referred to as the Animal Peoples, who transformed a barren and foreboding landscape and prepared it for the coming of human peoples. Among these many mythic beings are Sedna (among the Inuit of the Arctic), who from the parts of her own fingers created many of the animals and fishes of sea, as well as establishing the rules of fishing those creatures. Good and Evil Twin (Iroquois of the Woodland Northeast), in a contest to see who was the most powerful, created the Rocky Mountains; in his defeat, Evil Twin established the False Face Society for curing sickness. Salmon (Plateau tribe) established fishing techniques and the character of such animals as the rattlesnake and wolf; Raven (Northwest Coast) first brought daylight and fresh water to a dark and polluted land. Changing Woman (Southwest) created human beings and the girl’s coming of age rite, Kinaaldá.
In their quest to find their father, Changing Woman’s twin sons, Monster Slayer and Child of the Water, with great cunning and deceptive skills destroyed many of the treacherous monsters that once roamed the land. Scare Face (Plains), having been bullied by others for his distorted face, fasted, refusing all food and water, in the mountains and gained the aid of a guardian animal spirit. As a consequence of this “sacrifice,” his scare was then removed, his despair overcome, and he became a prominent man among his people. Prominent among the mythic beings is the trickster. In his various adventures and misadventures, the trickster is seen as having molded the land from the mud brought up from the sea’s bottom, and then created the animals and plants and finally humans themselves. With his skills at deception he established the proper ways of behaving toward kinsmen, as well as toward an enemy. The trickster is known by many names. Among the Tsimshian of the Northwest Coast he is called TxäsEm, Raven, while among the Blackfeet he is known as Napi, Old Man, the Crow call him Isaahkawuattee, Old Man Coyote, and the Sioux, Iktomi, Spider.
And for many of the tribes (of the Plains, Southwest, and Plateau) he is known simply as Coyote. In the collective actions of these mythic beings, the landscape is shaped into form and embedded with all the gifts human peoples will come to need to survive. Among the gifts are the various plant and animal species, the forms of the tribal and family organizations, the ceremonies upon which the human peoples would depend, the teachings and ethical lessons, and the spiritual power itself (called, for example, baaxpee among the Crow and suumesh among the Plateau Salish; commonly referred to as medicine) needed to accomplish a rite of passage, or a hunting or healing ritual. As accomplished storytellers, it is the shaman and the other elders of the community who are the caretakers of the oral traditions and responsible for continuing to tell the creation accounts and hero tales.
Among the storytelling techniques employed to bring the stories alive are the judicious and skilled use of voice fluctuation and intonation, pauses, and hand gesturing and body language. It is not uncommon for the storyteller to continue his telling only as long as the listeners provide a verbal or visual cue of their continued involvement in the story. Should no such acknowledgments be offered, the story would cease at that moment, whether the story had come to its conclusion or not. All these techniques coalesce to help the listeners of the stories become participants in them, traveling with Coyote as he plays a trick on his younger brother or as he slays some monster threatening the other Animal Peoples. In sharing the oral traditions, the storytellers re-create for the participants the primordial time and place.
The participatory dimension of the telling is further strengthened by the performative nature of the native languages themselves. It is commonly held that what is spoken aloud has the power to bring forth that which is referred to. The “breath” is a channel to the animation of the heart. When one leaves after a visit with someone, to say in one’s native language, “I’ll see you later,” helps to create such an outcome, but to say “Goodbye,” could lead to never seeing that person again. When an Indian name is ritually conferred, the descriptive nature of that name helps nurture the child to become that name. One should never speak of a particular illness, or one runs the risk of contracting it. When the ancient words of an oral tradition are woven into the rich fabric of a story, the spoken story helps bring forth and animate the mythic landscape referred to. The oral traditions embody the creative power to help perpetuate the world and its many inhabitants. For the members of the shaman’s community it is essential that the oral traditions continue to be told. The benefits are varied yet indispensable. The oral traditions help instill an affective component in community life. In the humor and drama of the narratives the stories bring laughter as well as tears, contributing to the ethos of the community.
Coyote’s antics are sure to bring a smile and a laugh. The stories of tricksters and heroes thus serve as a primary means of entertainment. The oral traditions provide an educational component to community life; they are textbooks. For the young of the community, the oral traditions provide an essential means of gaining knowledge of their culture, as well as the skills it will take to be successful within it. The stories convey the essential teaching and ethics of the mythic beings. With his competitive skills and self-serving intentions, Coyote can demonstrate just as easily how one should not behave toward a kinsmen, as how one can behave toward an enemy rival. In the example of Scare Face is established the structure of any vision quest: Someone is in need of help; he journeys far from home into the mountains to fast and pray; if his sacrifice is judged worthy, he is adopted by a guardian animal spirit and receives a medicine. The narratives instill among the youth and reaffirm among the elders a sense of their unique identity and heritage.
For the shaman in particular the oral traditions provide a map of the mythic landscape. As it abounds with monsters and dangerous paths, this is the landscape the shaman must know intimately in order to successfully travel it during a healing or hunting ritual, or some rite of passage. An Inuit angakkoq (shaman) must know of the numerous challenges that await his journey to the bottom of the sea and a visit to Sedna—huge rolling boulders, the snarl of a vicious dog, an abyss to be crossed, among other dangers.
The narratives provide a symbolic language of cues and signs to better interpret the activities of an enemy, the buffalo, the camas roots, seasonal changes, or the dreams in which the Animal Spirits appear. Indeed, the generalized actions of the Animal Peoples of primordial age provide shamans with an archetype of their role. As the mythic beings, with their spiritual potency, transform a dangerous land, so too must shamans, acquiring the same potency and applying it in the various ritual transformations they attempt, be they rites of passage, or rites of healing, fishing, or hunting. The specific personalities of Animal Peoples can also become the model for a shaman’s character.
The shaman may identify himself as the self-serving, trickster Coyote, being manipulative and deceptive in the face of an enemy. Or the shaman can be self-effacing, like Scare Face, seeking to help others as a healer, or as a fishing or hunting shaman.
The oral traditions also provide an integrative component within the shaman’s community, helping perpetuate the perennial landscape of the creation time. In the ritual act of giving voice to the oral traditions, the potency and meaning of the mythic age is brought into the immediate sense of time and place.
Those people who listen to the stories become participants in the mythic landscape, and the animals, plants, humans, and spiritual inhabitants of that landscape are revitalized and rendered meaningful. With each of the stories anchored in the particular teachings of the Animal Peoples, to speak of the mountains and rivers of the oral traditions is to animate the landforms with the continued significance of those teachings.
During the retelling of the oral tradition, a participant might run with the mischievous Coyote or travel with the anguished Scare Face. And after the telling, that same person might become Coyote or Scare Face as he confronts an enemy in battle or seeks his vision on a distant mountain site. Stories make the world.
Written by : Rodney Frey
Last updated: March 11, 2015 at 10:25 am
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