The power and beauty of oral storytelling
April 24, 2019
It took a while for the boys to settle into their chairs. One was busy tinkering with the spoon in his teacup; another anxious to show anyone willing to listen, his magic deck of cards. A third was fidgeting with his ear buds.
And then the sweet grass was lit, marking the official start of our togetherness and some quiet.
These youth, along with a half-dozen others, are clients at Wood’s Homes. They were gathered recently in a circle that included special guest Elder John Crier, and Wood’s Homes’ Indigenous Liaison Tye Rhyno. They were here to listen to the Elder who had stories to share.
But before things got started, each boy was asked to introduce himself.
“My name is…., and I like basketball”, said one boy. Another said he enjoyed “any sport”. Another softly offered his name and said he comes from up North.
As part of the sharing, a smudging was offered. This sacred smoke, created from the burning of medicinal or sacred plants, is recognized by many cultures but is a practice common to Indigenous peoples. Some of the boys welcomed the smoke; others were not yet ready.
It was a few minutes into our sunny afternoon on Wood’s Homes’ beautiful Bowness campus when the calm snuck in. A stillness in the air as we waited anxiously for our storyteller to begin.
There are some who say that ‘oral storytelling’ is a lost art. I believe it is at risk – especially among a generation raised to be dependent on electronics in order to communicate. Our circle makes me think back on the importance of oral storytelling in my own life.
My mother, now in her late 80’s, is full of stories; stories of her growing up in war-torn Germany. The beauty of her storytelling is that it comes with a richness in voice and tone, something that can’t as easily be translated into words. My mother and I share regular phone calls from her home just outside Toronto. She does not want to trade texts or emails (despite my prodding). Rather, she prefers to hear my voice as we share weekly updates of our lives.
In our circle at Wood’s Homes, the Elder begins the story of a young lost child who is taken in by an old bear, called ‘Grandfather Bear.’ The bear takes the child with him into hibernation, providing safety and security. Following their long stay in the den, the child is transformed into a little bear. Grandfather emerges to tell the little bear that he suspects he’ll be killed for taking the little one away. He instructs the little bear to grab his legs as the men pull him out of the den. “Hold on tight Grandson, once the men see you they will recognize you.” You must give them these instructions so you can turn back into a boy. Grandfather tells the little bear that he must go into a sweat lodge for 4 days, after which he’ll emerge as a human again.
As Tye explains: “As I have heard this story numerous times, I can tell you that the symbolism for me is that as we get pulled in many directions in our lives we need to return to Ceremony to stay connected to our spiritual selves. Ceremony is a powerful place for Indigenous peoples and offers many teachings to those in attendance.”
The story is meaningful and charming, as is the Elder’s sprinkling of magical anecdotes throughout. But the story is not the point here. The gathering, the silence, the sharing of voices, space and time is what’s relevant. The Elder’s warm and gentle smile makes you believe – believe in the power and beauty of oral storytelling if not, for just one reason. It is a time to put down our tools (literally), pause in thought, and remember those who walked before us, who enjoyed the magic of voice, of oral teachings and of calm. This tradition should never die.
What did we all take away from that day? The moral of the story, or the powerful moment in time, marked by a sense of peace and well-being? Whatever stays with us becomes part of our own story.