American Indian group celebrates storytelling

by Elizabeth Putnam

Every morning Jerry Dearly throws tobacco out his truck window on his way to work. But he said he’s not being wasteful. He’s giving back to the earth.

Each audience member at the American Indian Cultural Center’s annual winter storytelling was encouraged to do the same. A pouch of tobacco sat open at the front of the Northstar Ballroom in the St. Paul Student Center on Friday for audience members to take, pinch by pinch.

Dearly, Dakota master of ceremonies for the event, said sharing tobacco is traditionally done at American Indian gatherings as a symbol of good stories, thoughts and prayers.

This night, however, the warm weather kept some from coming to hear the stories.

Aasamaanakwut from the Ojibwe tribe said the temperate winter weather has caused people to be hesitant in telling stories for fear of being heard by the animals.

“Because the ground isn’t frozen and there’s no snow, we are very careful,” he said.

Aasamaanakwut said every story is centered on animals, and it is only in winter that they can be told.

He told the story of Wenaboozhoo, the cultural hero and original man of the Ojibwe tribe, who created the animals, giving them each a purpose. Winter symbolizes hibernation, making it safe to speak of the animals.

“We are able to talk about them in stories when they are asleep,” Aasamaanakwut said. “If we talk about them in summer, then they could harm us in some way.”

But the warm weather did not keep Dakota storyteller Colin Wesaw away.

Wesaw said television is the modern version of storytelling, but said it has caused many to forget their past.

“Go back to the stories you were brought up with,” Wesaw said. “It revives our culture and teaches us the value of life.”

The Dakota Language Society spoke in native Dakota and then translated the stories into English.

“The most important thing about the culture is the language,” said Wayne Wells, a University junior and Dakota tribe member. “Just one word has so much meaning and a story behind it.”

Another Dakota member and University junior, Peter Sweo, said learning the language helps to better understand the stories.

“A lot of meaning is lost in the translation,” Sweo said. “We must learn it so the language and culture doesn’t die out.”

Christina Wells, a freshman and Lakota member, said she grew up hearing the Lakota language, which is similar to Dakota.

She said storytelling helps her understand her past and carry on traditions.

Dearly said these languages are native to Minnesota, and he said even non-Indian residents should make an effort to learn them.

“It you moved to Germany, you would want to learn their language – their native language,” Dearly said.

Bradley Downwind, a Dakota tribe member, told two stories incorporating his own wooden flute.

Downwind makes flutes and hopes to teach his son how to play.

“The flute comes from the heart of a tree; the music comes from the heart,” Downwind said.

Dearly said the event will continue to educate others about different American Indian cultures.

“This is a gathering of all teachers to disseminate the knowledge they have,” he said.

Elizabeth Putnam welcomes comments at [email protected]