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Storytellers bring tribal lore to life

MARTY, S.D. - Reviving fading tribal traditions and bonding among Sioux women on the Yankton Sioux Indian Reservation was the goal set by the Water Lily Storytelling Institute.

Native storytellers brought tribal traditions and teaching to life at a center shared by the Braveheart Women's Society and Men's Society during a three-day event early this month.

Traditions of the Sioux and author Ella Deloria's written accounts of the excitement of the sharing of tribal stories in White Swan were brought to the stage by Carlotta Kaufmann, a Nez Perce from Pacer, Ariz., a guest of the Braveheart Women's Society. She delivered riveting performances at the Marty Indian School and before all ages at the center during the weekend event.

Her humorous stories about the creation and the role of the coyote left youngsters and tribal elders laughing and reliving the lore of their ancestors.

Mary Louise Defender from Standing Rock Reservation told creation stories and brought a 150-pound stone with her from North Dakota. It is one of four believed to be images of the woman who turned to stone.

The story is about a young woman's yearning to be closely tied to nature and her journey in learning from her grandmother the roles each animal plays in the backdrop of an ancient tribal setting. She wills herself to stone and is considered a model, watching over nature with the promise of help to all who seek out her stone image.

Defender keeps the stone, discovered near the Missouri, at her home when she isn't traveling with it.

"We always believed there were two women, on each side of the Missouri,"

Defender said, explaining that according to the legend, the women represented north, south, east and west. Defender's stone was found west of the river near High Timber Butte near Highway 6.

Ancestors on the Yankton Sioux Indian Reservation believe a fourth stone, not yet recovered, may be along the banks of the Missouri on the reservation not far from the White Swan area.

"A long time ago, when we were telling these stories, we told them in the dark," she explained, having resumed her presentation following a series of power outages. "Maybe that's why the lights went out," she joked.

Defender spoke of the role animals played in the lives of the Lakota people, using cuddly toy animals for each as they surfaced in her legends.

She talked to teens of traditional beliefs regarding sex. The men and women slept separately, she said, women and girls on one side of the lodge and the men and boys on the other. Sex never took place in the presence of the children who were alone, in a separate tipi, she said.

A cross section of the community, able to travel the icy roads, joined the young people during the event which included more than just storytelling.

Youngsters shared and bonded with elders, watching them cook traditional tribal foods, quilt and make crafts as a part of their own storytelling.

Elder Judy Drapeaux added stitches to a quilt which will include stitch work from all of the Braveheart members and those who honor their center with a visit.

Drapeaux, who has spent much of her life living the tribal culture, said she doesn't know how to speak her Native language, but she wants to learn.

Students from the nearby tribal college listened to lectures about the language and better ways for learning it. They were told to seek out their relatives and practice speaking it.

Tribal elders related childhood experiences along the banks of the Missouri River when White Swan was a community.

Christina Medicine Man said she remembered the ground shaking and asking her grandfather what it was. He told her it was the work being done on the Pick-Sloan dam project. Later, a little girl who ran through the prairie while playing on the hills along the banks of the Missouri was forced, with her grandparents and others in White Swan, to move. They left homes for the lesser homes in Lake Andes, she said.

"It makes me really happy to see we are not the only ones trying to do something. It makes me feel good there are so many who want to walk with us," said tribal elder Sharon Drapeaux, a grandmother who helped organize the event.

Leonard Little Finger, a professor at the University of South Dakota in Vermillion, talked about the history of the Lakota and shared recordings including the voice of Dewey Beard, considered the last survivor of the Wounded Knee Massacre.

The recordings took listeners through more recent history as well as a sampling of older tribal songs played on some of the first broadcasts of American Indian music on the state's public broadcasting station.

He encouraged youngsters to learn their Native language and to embrace academics. "We've seen the bringing back of traditions. You will take it further.

"The language tells you who you are. It's amazing how many kids today don't know who they are. It's important."

Bonding for those who attended the weekend event fuels bonding within the tribe and with other community members, fostering stronger leadership activities, said co-founder Faith Spotted Eagle.