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Winter Storytelling Reflections (click here for content)

Winter Solstice, December 21, 2010

Once a long time ago, before words were written down to help us memorialize stories, history and traditions, human beings had storytellers. A traditional storyteller held a very important place in the tribe, clan, community. A sacred place. A responsibility to carry forth. In the natural, indigenous world, winter is the time for telling and hearing stories. In fact, within many tribes, storytelling is not allowed UNTIL winter, and the stories are only told DURING the winter. As we transition from the working seasons of planting, gathering, growing, harvesting, hunting, making sure our homes are in order for the cold season, we travel into the quiet season of winter, celebrating and marking this time of rest. These seasonal focuses and transitions help keep us, as human beings, stay healthy and connected to the earth and to each other as inter-dependent entities. The reflections, as given in storytelling, allow us a chance to pause and make note of what is important to us.

In this world of fast-moving, "hip" language and media, we are not allowed this pause very often. Attempting to intertwine old traditions in our modern society is a challenge, and we so appreciate the opportunity to gather in that old way and hear stories of long ago, stories that reflect our history and our importance to each other. Our connectedness to all our relations.

Red Earth Descendants has the vision to bring more of these natural cornerstones and ceremonies back into our community. It is for this reason that we host our four main events each year, to mark these old ways, to help keep them alive and important to us. We held our 5th annual "Winter Solstice Storytelling Conference" this past weekend in Ashland. This year's line-up of storytellers proved to be our richest and most poignant to date. We are incredibly grateful to all our participants--the storytellers and the listeners, the People.

Whistling Elk Drum kicked off the day with beautiful songs and prayers for the event.

Dan Wahpepah, Anishinabe, Kickapoo, Sac and Fox Drumkeeper and Master of Ceremonies, opened the Conference with an introduction about WHY stories were told, traditionally, the practical reasons--to help people get along in close quarters during the winter, to keep people in good humor and entertained, and why it is important that stories are still told today.

We were once again honored and blessed to have Tom Smith post the Eagle Staff in the Hall, open the event with a prayer, and then tell the stories of the meaning of the Staff and the Eagle Feathers. As a United States combat veteran, Tom also shared the significance of the being a Native American veteran, the healing work being done out at the Veterans Administration Domiciliary in White City by use of Native Ceremonies sponsored there. We were also honored to have in the audience some veterans who spoke in further detail about this important work being done by and for veterans in our community.

Dan told two beautiful stories from his lineage--about the origins of the Drum and of Sweetgrass, and how these sacred things came to the People.

Antoinette Claypoole, author and editor for many indigenous peoples projects and writings, representing Wild Embers Press and Ed Little Crow's book, read from her work, told of her history with Native people and how it changed her life, told of the reciprocity in "giving back to the people" as being so important to the healing between cultures--Native and non-Native. Antoinette introduced one of our young singers, Lucas Morgan, as he read excerpts from Little Crow's book, A Opchine WaLa Ohkon, Dreaming of a True World (Stories, Poems, Memories by Ed Little Crow). Ed Little Crow could not attend the Storytelling Conference as he was out of town at a Memorial, but he would have been touched and happy to see his young friend respectfully reading his words.

Wylie Bettings brought his acorn processing tools and knowledge to the event for people to see a hands-on demonstration of how acorns are made into food. He presented to the audience a wonderfully holistic overview of acorn as a food staple in our region, explaining all the steps in gathering, storing, processing, cracking, leeching and turning into flour for a highly nutritious food that everyone living in Southern Oregon has open access to. Wylie has become a self-taught teacher to the people, sharing his knowledge and gifting back to the community this tangible information as a way to survive and stay healthy. The audience was incredibly inspired and awed by his presentation, presenting him with dozens of questions. Wylie did a leeching demonstration throughout the day and made acorn cookies for the Feast!

Benson Lanford once again graced us with his eloquent speaking about the historical significance of Indian names--how names are given--through what might be expected of a person in their lifetime, through how a person might behave, how names might be temporary in various phases of life, how a person might have several names in a lifetime, and how indigenous names have been interpreted throughout history. Benson set the stage with a back-drop of historical photos and writings and spoke about the wealth of information through books and photographs of Native people. As a scholar and historian, Benson's huge volume of work is always appreciated by our community.

Our featured storyteller, Esther Stutzman, Kalapuya from central Oregon Yoncalla area, introduced herself and her origin, starting by teaching about the challenges traditional people face in the ominous shadow of screen-time and media over-consumption in our society--especially as it affects our youth. As a traditional storyteller from a lineage of her Kalapuya ancestors, Esther was trained to take the role of storyteller, to be that special person in the tribe who carries forth the oral, historical and cultural tradition of "carrying the stories." She explained how important it is to keep those stories of her People sacred, how the stories can NOT be re-told by someone else, making them "theirs'." This would be considered stealing the culture, and she explained that, unfortunately, it has been done a lot (usually by non-tribal people). Esther taught the audience that most her Kalapuya stories exist to tell a lesson--gently--to be used throughout the tribe in various ways to remind people to behave correctly. For instance, she told a story about how snake came to be, that he was always telling people what to do and how to do it. If someone in the family or tribe was behaving in a bossy way, another person could say, "don't be like snake!." And thus, a gentle reminder is given to take a look at one's behavior. In her graceful and gentle way, Esther told several stories about snake, coyote, love and marriage, horsemanship and how the Kalapuya People were able to stay in their home country in Scotts Valley, Oregon, entrancing the audience with these hauntingly beautiful stories.

During a dinner break featuring delicious venison stew (provided by some of our young hunters) and salmon (gifted to us by the Klamath Tribe), folks were able to peruse the local vendors--we had everything from Jack's organic whole wheat fry bread cookin' alongside his hand-painted ornaments to Antoinette's Wild Embers Press books, R.E.D. t-shirts, Dan's Native-bling decals, Benson's beads, Tom's display of artifacts and Wylie's demonstration table of acorn processing. A very nice balance of vendors, and we thank you all for providing all your wares and services.

Toward the close of the dinner break, Jack Falls Rock, accompanied by his son, Lowicha Falls Rock, sang hand-drum songs from their Pit River people. Jack explained some of the significance of the songs as he gave blessings to the people there. Lowicha and his younger cousin, Tasker Crow, then sang more hand-drum songs while we prepared for the evening session.

What a surprise to have Brent Florendo, Wasco, Native American Studies Professor at SOU, break out his beloved saxophone to kick off the evening storytelling! Brent told the story of how this instrument was gifted to him at a Pow Wow a few years back, in the "Indian way," and why it is so important to him. He told us that he's played the sax since he was a young child, and it is now part of his culture, part of his "story." In this lesson, Brent reminds us that stories are both old and contemporary; they emerge and tell the stories of culture--both past and present. Giving us a song through this modern instrument, this saxophone, is still a story from Brent's culture. Brent told several stories and gave us several lessons in the process--again, beautiful, some sad, but mostly about how to be a good human being. Brent also paid R.E.D. a high compliment by thanking us for providing the space to gather for this Storytelling Conference, saying that we, as an inter-tribal community, need to do this more often, and he's very grateful that we're carrying forth the tradition. I will add that we, in R.E.D., are honored to provide this space. It is our vision to continue to do so. The space is FOR the Native People to carry on this storytelling tradition, and we are very touched and happy to hear it is appreciated.

It was a grand way to close the evening, with Brent's stories, holding the audience in laughter and thoughtfulness. Whistling Elk Drum sang some closing songs. We thank you, our community, for filling Pioneer Hall with your presence, for your listening and absorbing these precious stories.

Also, a few special thank you's I'd like to send out--to Christine for helping schlep all the kitchen wares early Saturday morning and for helping set-up, to Benson for his stage back-drop, to Antoinette for holding down the kitchen and cookin' the venison stew, to the folks who helped clean-up, and to Kathleen, Van, and their daughter, Joya, for staying to the end and cleaning/sorting the kitchen! MUCH appreciation to all the helping hands!

Also thank you to McKenzie River Gathering Foundation and Potlatch Fund for helping fund this year's Storytelling Conference and to the City of Ashland for giving us such a great deal on Pioneer Hall for the day.

Warm Winter Solstice wishes and prayers to you all,

Red Earth Descendants