Storytellers revive wintertime tradition

by Kamariea Forcier

A sliver of the moon shone over land, as the wind cast freezing air across the St. Paul campus. Snow lay everywhere, setting the perfect climate for an American Indian tradition — winter storytelling.
“These stories are only allowed to be told when the snow is on the ground,” said Brian Sago, a College of Liberal Arts senior who helped organize Friday nights’ storytelling event in the St. Paul Student Center.
As Ojibwe storyteller Ona Kingbird took the stage to begin the opening prayer as an audience of more than 500 stood to pay homage to the event.
With shoulders slightly bent forward, Kingbird looked tired. Her voice was soft, without much inflection between words. She thanked everyone for being there and then promptly left the stage while musicians played an honoring song on drums that pounded out a pulsing rhythm.
Later, as Kingbird took the stage to share her stories, she seemed transformed — like the characters she was speaking of — into a new being.
Suddenly her shoulders stood straighter. Her voice grew, portraying the voices of her many characters. She looked bigger, stronger and a little impish with her grin.
Long ago, she began, when the world was new, the Ojibwe creator Gichi-Nanidoo made all the earth and the seas and the animals.
And the creator called all the animals to him to pass out gifts, she said, reaching into a bag hidden behind the podium.
Pulling a moose hand puppet from her bag, she held him up before the audience and told of the gift he received: horns to protect himself from the people, who use his hide for clothing and his body for food. As she spoke, her free hand stroked the puppet lovingly.
Next in line, she said, is the beaver, who will show the people how to build things. The creator gave him sharp teeth and a tail to warn his family of dangers.
With constant movement to her bag and back to the center of the stage, Kingbird recited the lesson that each animal must teach the humans.
And finally, she said, the creator thought he was done when a little snake came climbing up to receive his gift. The snake was given the garden that he must care for and protect from others.
She laid the snake on the floor and reached into her bag one last time, pulling out a sun visor with ears attached. She promptly put it on her head to introduce the last character, a smart-alecky rabbit.
Hopping about, she played the role of the rabbit, twisting her body around when the rabbit was supposed to be destroying the beautiful garden.
She stopped, looked at the audience while taking a rest, and then sent the audience into roars of laughter with her next line. “Well, anyway, he got tired. So off he went,” she said, and pulled the visor off her head.
Laughter is an important part of the stories, said Harold Iron Shield, the 40-something master of ceremonies.
“In our stories, the way our stories are told, they have always had the flavor of humor,” he said.
The tall, former University student said storytelling was a way to acknowledge the humor of elders, as well as to share their teachings.
“So we understand the morals of the stories that are told to us,” he said.
Sago said the knowledge of the elders is a recognized asset by American Indian culture.
“Traditionally we tend to look at the elders for advice,” he said. “With emphasis on listening to what the elders say because they tend to have been around the block.”
The storytellers who were most popular with the audience were those who relied upon physical movement. Charlie Lumbar, 10, the youngest storyteller at the event, kept the audience laughing as he jumped about and acted out parts for his story.
But the man who received the standing ovation for his story was Colin Wesaw, Potawatomi and Mohawk storyteller.
“I am eagle,” his voice boomed out across the room without the aid of a microphone. “I can see where no man can see. I can fly.”
“For I am eagle,” he said. “And you are not.”
Wesaw’s story of two eagles’ confused identity brought laughter to the crowd, as Wesaw, arms extended, acted out the part of an eagle pecking the ground like a chicken.
The brother eagles were raised by chickens, said Wesaw. But one believed in his heart that he was more than just a chicken. When their true natures are revealed to the eagles, they are proud, said Wesaw, lifting his head as high as he could.
“You are what you are,” he whooped. “Never let people tell you that you can’t do something. Be proud of who you are.”