Winter falls like a blanket, cold and dark, so the world can slow, rest and recharge.
In many Indigenous cultures winter is a time of community and storytelling. During the long, cold nights, children were taught about their history, their spirituality, the creation of the earth and all the creatures that live among us. While this custom is as old as our cultures, it lives on in today’s communities around kitchen tables and living room couches. These stories could only be told during the winter months for so many reasons. Practically speaking, the other seasons are overflowing with energy, activity and life. People were busy growing, gathering, and hunting food as well as connecting, celebrating and engaging in community ceremonies. It was in the winter, into the chilling silence, the animals hibernating or quiet, that stories found their natural space.
First Nations people did not historically lecture their children, instead, life lessons were shared through metaphor. The Cree tales of Wesakechak and the closely related Saulteaux stories of Nanabush explained the creation of the earth and contained valuable teachings within them about life, relationships and belonging, the Métis Rougarous cautioned the young about following the right path and staying connected to community and the Haida shared customs for calling the salmon. Communities across turtle island shared lessons and knowledge, from general understandings to specific skills, all through stories passed through generations.
Today, to have a storyteller tell you a story is like receiving a gift. The drama of the stories is often enhanced by the storyteller through song, dance or activity so that the audience can experience the energy of it. Knowledge is one of the greatest gifts an Indigenous person has to give, it is a piece of our family, an extension of our community and the gifts must be acknowledged. The greatest way to show respect and appreciation when being told a story is to listen with respect and intent.
While some stories are “common knowledge”, others are owned by particular storytellers or families. Listen to how the speaker introduces the story, even the ‘childhood stories’ often contain family reference points. If you are requesting a specific story, to be respectful, a gift of tobacco (or tea for Metis elders) is offered to the storyteller before the story begins. The storyteller will often take the tobacco outside and place it on the earth as an offering to the spirits of the story, or pour you a cup of tea while you listen. The process is often as important as the story, because once it has been offered to you, it belongs to you and now it is your responsibility to keep it alive. Keeping the name connected to the story helps to maintain the story lines that run through families and nations. These story lines contain deep and interconnected knowledge of our relatives that is both contextual and infused in broader ways of knowing. They are the breath of our communities.
What stories, knowledge and learnings are important in your community? How can you move through the next few months in a way that honours both your stories and mine?