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The Time for Stories

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Traditionally, especially in the northern territories, the time for Native storytelling was between first frost and last frost. It was said that if a storyteller told stories in the warm weather, then perhaps the birds, the insects and the animals would stop to listen. If the story was engrossing, then those creatures might forget about their responsibilities. They might not remember that their babies were at home crying for food or that they needed to fatten up and put away enough food for the cold time to come. That story reminded the people that spring was the time to collect maple sap, prepare the gardens and plant the seeds. Summer was the time to weed, gather berries, fish and repair their homes. Fall was the time to harvest and dry foods. All of those activities had to be completed within a specific time frame in order for the people to survive the long, cold winter. It was a matter of life or death. It was not wise to tell stories during warm weather.

Winter was when the people would spend more time inside. The days were shorter and the nights were longer and so much time was spent around the light and the warmth of the fires. It was a good time to make and mend clothing and repair tools. Men, women, and children would sit in close proximity to one another and enjoy each other’s company while taking the opportunity to discuss issues, report on various events, joke, tease one another, and tell stories. That was the entertainment in the time before TV, computers and texting. It was a time of close human interaction and the strengthening of bonds between family and friends.

There was great respect and appreciation for the person who could remember and describe an event, share a teaching, or tell a story with colorful, descriptive details and hopefully with humor. Speakers were encouraged to speak for as long as was needed to make their point clear. Clarity, as opposed to brevity, was admired and appreciated. Utmost attention was given to providing as much context as possible in the attempt to paint a vivid, mental picture in the minds of the listeners and to avoid possible misunderstandings. Words were chosen carefully and with much thought.

Nowadays, many of our storytellers are asked to tell stories all year round. The time for storytelling has expanded to include all seasons. It is true that there are certain stories that should only be told by certain people and at certain times. Those restrictions must always be respected. We, however, remember that winter is the traditional time for us to gather together and make sure that we pass on the stories so that the future generations can learn from them and apply them to their own lives just as our ancestors passed on their knowledge to us. The stories must be told to be remembered.

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Kay Olan (Ionataie:was) is a member of the Mohawk, Wolf Clan.