PORTLAND, Ore. – No matter who you are or where you’re at, the stories elders pass down and those we acquire during our lifetimes cut to the chase. Storytelling is cross-generational and cross-cultural. Elders are often called wisdom-keepers, but they also speak to the wisdom that each listener carries.
A small powerhouse of a nonprofit, Wisdom of the Elders, has gathered traditional stories from 26 nations on the eastern and western sides of the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail and additional tribal stories about art, culture, health and healing, as well as contemporary and traditional music. Wisdom has supported elders and others who tell their stories and share their songs through radio programs, recordings, school materials, apprenticeships and workshops since 1993.
“The main focus this year is on health and wellness for our people,” said Rose High Bear, Deg Hitan Dine or Alaska Athabascan, who co-founded Wisdom with the late Lakota spiritual leader and traditional healer Martin High Bear. “Storytelling can heal our people suffering from historic trauma.”
High Bear’s organization formed the Northwest Indian Storytellers Association in 2005 to preserve, promote and share the traditional stories of the Northwest tribes.
These masters will present on Friday and Saturday nights, and run workshops Saturday and Sunday.
“When we tell these stories,” said Arlie Neskahi (Diné name Hataali Chee, or “Red Singer”), who is program host for the radio series, “we are connecting to the intellectual, spiritual and community wisdom of our ancestors. It is important to have a direct connection when you tell a story. Stories are spiritual DNA.”
One of the eight master storytellers, Elaine Grinnell, a Jamestown S’Klallam elder, basket weaver, linguist and traditional cook, became interested in storytelling as a young girl during the blackouts of World War II.
Grinnel was inspired by the stories of her grandparents who, during World War II blackouts, would share with her around their stove; she never forgot that feeling.
Another festival S’Klallam storyteller, educator and artist Roger Fernandes from the Lower Elwah reservation, often uses heroes’ journeys.
In these stories, elders appear to provide guidance. Heroes’ journeys help people “make sense of the world,” he said for a recent recording project.
“It’s a very important aspect of the journey. You need an elder to guide you – to help you to figure things out, but I’m not the kind of teacher that tells you what you’ve learned. You will tell me what you’ve learned.”
Others sharing at the festival include: Vincent Wannassay, Cayuse and Cowlitz elder; Esther Stutzman, Komemma Kalapuya and Coos elder; Darlene Foster, Warm Springs and Wasco; Woodrow Morrison, Haida; Elizabeth Woody, Warm Springs; and Ed Edmo, Shoshone-Bannock, Yakama, Nez Perce and French. Invocations will be made by Jim Amburn, Comanche and Max Defender, Ojibwe and Dakotah.
In July, Wisdom launched its foray into stories and songs for health and wellness curricula to be used with local Native client organizations.
Additional funding has been provided in part by the National Endowment for the Arts, United Way of the Columbia-Willamette, McKenzie River Gathering Foundation, Regional Arts and Culture Council, and Multnomah County Cultural Coalition. Festival hosts include the Indigenous Ways of Knowing Project at Lewis and Clark College.
The festival runs Friday and Saturday evenings Nov. 13 – 14 at 7:30 p.m., the Emerging Storytellers Workshop is Saturday, Nov. 14 from 9 a.m. – 5 p.m. with a Tribal Storytelling Symposium Sunday afternoon, Nov. 15 at 1:30 p.m. at Lewis and Clark College’s Agnes Flanagan Chapel, 0615 SW Palatine Hill Road, Portland, Ore.
For more information, contact the Northwest Indian Storytellers Association at (503) 768-6155 or NISA@wisdomoftheelders.org.