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nativestories_turtles

Photo: Lukas Vermeer, Flickr
There’s a strong connection with the turtle and the story of creation in indigenous traditions. Native American tales told recently on Public Radio International include tales associated with winter and tales tied to the gradual return of life.

Most indigenous people have oral traditions about the seasons, the origins of life, and the duty to protect the Earth. Recently I heard some Native American winter stories on the radio and learned that when tales are not written down, it’s important to include the name of the person who first passed the story to you.

What follows is part of a discussion that Steve Curwood at PRI’s “Living on Earth” had with Joe Bruchac, a storyteller from the Nulhegan Abenaki tribe in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom. The radio show covered traditional winter tales and Native Americans’ respect for the Earth.

“CURWOOD: Years ago, I went to visit the Menominee and I met their forester, [who] explained to me that the Menominee only cut the trees that are too old or ill and that as a forester, he was cutting trees that had been designated by the foresters before him that they had been prepared, they would be mature, and that he was going ahead to make preparations for what would be cut in later generations. …

“The Menominee were forced to give up their land, along [Lake] Michigan. But they were permitted in negotiations to keep a couple hundred thousand acres of forest land inside. And they decided that this was their legacy forever. And they started with an estimated billion and a half board feet of timber. Over the years, they’ve harvested over a billion board feet and they have more than what they started with today, because they’ve only cut with what’s too old or too ill to keep growing. It’s amazing. …

“JOE BRUCHAC: It was Stephen Marvin Askinet, who was the elder who told me that story when I was visiting Menominee. He since passed on but he was a wonderful tradition bearer. And one thing I always try to do is to remember to acknowledge those people who shared those stories with me. For example, that rabbit snow dance story can be traced back through people such as Arthur Parker, who was a Seneca storyteller and writer who recorded many of the traditions of his people. …

“CURWOOD: [Do you have a tale about] the solstice, the changing of the season, then getting dark and getting cold? …

“JOE BRUCHAC: Well, there is a tradition among the Abenaki people which has gone back for a long time, called the New Year’s greeting. And it is this when the new year comes, everyone goes from house to house, and they say …

[HE SINGS THE ABENAKI GREETING SONG]

“Which means, ‘Forgive me for any wrong I may have done to you, including wrong that I may not realize I have done to you.’ For it is important to realize that the things you do affect others around you. And sometimes you may not even know that you’ve caused an offense or hurt someone’s feelings. But at the start of the year, beginning again with those words, were able to have a clean slate. …

“As a friend of mine who is a Cheyenne elder [told me], if you carry guilt, it’s like carrying bad water in a cup. You can never fill it again with good water. Instead, pour that guilt out and then do better so that you do not accumulate more of that guilt and you can have fresh water to drink or to share. And that again, is an idea for the beginning of the new year. …

“CURWOOD: This is the time of year when we celebrate life. … Perhaps you could tell us along those lines?

“BRUCHAC: One of the traditions that I have learned over the years, my Mohawk and other Haudenosaunee, Iroquois, elders who are friends of mine, such as Tom Porter, a Mohawk elder, is that the first person who came to this earth was a woman.

“That long ago there was a land in the sky, and that a woman fell from that sky land, holding in her hand, the seeds of the flowers and plants. The birds flew up to catch her on their back, and then the great turtle swam up from below the surface of the water for only water was here. And animals began to dive down to bring up Earth.

“The one who succeeded the one who made it was the little muskrat. She brought up a paw full of Earth and put it on the back of the turtle. And then that woman stepped from the backs of the birds and began to dance in a circle with slow, small steps as women dance today in the Haudenosaunee tradition.

“The earth got bigger and bigger, and where her feet stepped and made footprints, she dropped the seeds, the flowers and the trees and the other plants. So life came to be on earth through the agency of sky woman, who is always remembered among the Haudenosaunee people as a Mother, the first Mother of us all. …

[HE TAPS A DRUM]

Which drum do we hear first? We hear the heartbeat of our mother, even before we are born. We’re listening to the music of life and dancing in that water within our mother’s body. So when we are born, we’re listening for the sound of the drum. …

“[We] say the drumbeat is the heartbeat of Mother Earth, and that we as human beings must always remember it when we hear the drum to respect our mothers and respect our Mother Earth.”

More good stories here, including the one about the rabbit who loved snow a little too much.

 

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Photo: Library of Congress/Wikimedia
Frances Densmore at the Smithsonian Institution in 1916 during a recording session with the Blackfoot tribal leader called Mountain Chief for the Bureau of American Ethnology.

I can understand that one might be able to resurrect a mastodon that was frozen in ice, but how do you resurrect an extinct language? Turns out the answer is lasers and wax recordings. (Takes me back to my father’s clunky wire recorder and what I had to say in my 6-year-old voice on the static-filled recording we call “The Birth of Willie.”)

Allison Meier writes at Hypoallergic, “Among the thousands of wax cylinders in the University of California (UC) Berkeley’s Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology are songs and spoken-word recordings in 78 indigenous languages of California. Some of these languages, recorded between 1900 and 1938, no longer have living speakers. The history on the cylinders is difficult to hear. The objects have deteriorated over the decades, mold eating away at their forms, cracks breaking through the sound.

“A project underway at UC Berkeley is using innovative optical scan technology to transfer and digitally restore these recordings. … The initiative aims to preserve about 100 hours of audio. he collaborative restoration project involves linguist Andrew Garrett, digital librarian Erik Mitchell, and anthropologist Ira Jacknis, all at UC Berkeley, and utilizes a non-invasive scanning technique developed by Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory physicists Carl Haber and Earl Cornell. …

“Anthropologist Alfred Kroeber began his field audio collecting in 1901, a month after becoming the curator of the then-new museum. Although the recordings are limited, each only a few minutes long, and were captured at a subjective start and stop by Kroeber, they are invaluable for understanding the diverse languages of indigenous life in California.”

According to Hypoallergic, the project website warns that “due to ‘the culturally sensitive material of the content on these cylinders, and out of respect for the contemporary descendants of many of the performers on the recordings, access to the majority of the audio being digitized is currently restricted.’ One of the publicly available recordings is that of Ishi, recognized as the last surviving member of his Yahi tribe, who lived out his final years at Hearst Museum. His voice, among many being recovered from the noise of the wax cylinders, leads the recently-shared video from [National Science Foundation] below.”

More at Hyperallergic, here.

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With no wish to detract from the joy that Italians take from their countryman’s spirit of adventure or the pride that Americans feel for positive developments that followed the First Encounter, it’s hard to deny that it wasn’t the best thing for the people already living here. So without beating a drum that isn’t mine to beat, I’ll just share a gentle poem by a major Native American poet, a member of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation. It’s a poem that is good for all people.

Eagle Poem by Joy Harjo

To pray you open your whole self
To sky, to earth, to sun, to moon
To one whole voice that is you.
And know there is more
That you can’t see, can’t hear;
Can’t know except in moments
Steadily growing, and in languages
That aren’t always sound but other
Circles of motion.
Like eagle that Sunday morning
Over Salt River. Circled in blue sky
In wind, swept our hearts clean
With sacred wings.
We see you, see ourselves and know
That we must take the utmost care
And kindness in all things.
Breathe in, knowing we are made of
All this, and breathe, knowing
We are truly blessed because we
Were born, and die soon within a
True circle of motion,
Like eagle rounding out the morning
Inside us.
We pray that it will be done
In beauty.
In beauty.

More at the Poetry Foundation.

Update June 21, 2019: Joy Harjo became the first Native American US Poet Laureate in 2019. Click here.

Photo: Wikipedia
Joy Harjo in 2012.

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Photo: Star Tribune
Ojibwe poet Jim Northrup

I have been trying to learn something about tribal cultures in the United States. I liked Spokane/Coeur d’Alene tribal member Sherman Alexie’s Thunder Boy (a charming picture book for young children) and The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven (an early, painful collection of short stories). Now I am reading some Native American poetry.

One poet, Jim Northrup, recently died. Here is a beautiful obit by Jana Hollingsworth in the Duluth News Tribune.

“Jim Northrup was a ‘tough man’ who taught his eldest sons to survive in the elements by living in a tepee on the Fond du Lac Reservation for several years, when money and jobs were scarce.

“But it was more than physical survival, said his son, Matthew, on Tuesday, the day after his father died from cancer-related complications. He taught them how to be strong in a world that didn’t treat everyone the same, he said, using humor — and education — as tools.

” ‘ “When you have really nothing else,” he said to me a lot, “you have your humor,” Matthew said. ” ‘When you grow up poor on the rez and when you grow up a lower class in society, you realize that.’

“Northrup, an award-winning writer of books, columns, plays and poetry — and a prominent member of the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa — died [in July]. He was 73.

“Northrup was a storyteller, known for his stark and honest writing about his experience as a U.S. Marine in Vietnam and his early years at a federal boarding school. He was funny and pointed in his writings about everyday life on the reservation, politics and change in Indian Country. He wrote as a way to heal himself from some of the trauma he experienced during the war, he said earlier this year.

” ‘I knew my poetry was being used in vets’ groups to help people open up (and) maybe even write their own poetry as part of their healing,’ he told the News Tribune in March. ‘It worked for me, so I hoped it helped (others).’ ”

More here, where you can hear Northrup read a poem in Ojibwe about passing along the culture. Read the whole obit. It’s really lovely. I hated to cut it.

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A Native American chef trained in French cuisine has a mission to teach the world about an older, unrecognized culinary tradition that has influenced most of us. Hanna Choi reported the story for National Public Radio.

“When Nephi Craig enrolled in the culinary program at Arizona’s Scottsdale Community College, there was nothing like ‘Native American Cuisine 101’ in the curriculum. Craig identifies as White Mountain Apache and Navajo, and the first mention he can recall of anything remotely related to his background was a class discussion on fry bread, a crispy fried concoction that ‘is really a taste of American colonialism,’ he says …

“Since then, he increasingly came to sense a sort of dismissiveness and sloppiness towards Native Americans and indigenous food ways in the mainstream culinary world.

“Craig grew up immersed in his culture through art, music and ceremony, and food always played a large role. He wanted to find a way to bridge the gap. …

“Upon graduating from culinary school in 2000, Craig launched the Native American Culinary Association. Based in Arizona, NACA is a network of Native chefs — professionals and those just starting out — dedicated to the research, refinement, and development of Native American cuisine. Since 2011, the association has organized a yearly Indigenous Food Symposium, bringing people from different fields together to share and learn about Native foods, agriculture and landscapes.

‘Craig is also the executive chef of The Summit Restaurant at Sunrise Park Resort in Whiteriver, Arizona. … Craig’s culinary team there is staffed entirely by cooks and other food workers who identify either with the White Mountain Apache tribe or as Navajo/Dineh.”

In the NPR interview, Craig tells Choi, “I had always been cooking since I was a kid, growing up here on the rez with my mom and my family. We didn’t have a lot of money and so we would bake and sell our goods and I would bag up stuff in sandwich bags and sell them as a little guy.

“I’ve been cooking my entire life, all through my adolescence and I had ultimately wanted to do something creative. …

“I had no idea the world that I would be entering in the long classical legacy that is French cuisine. But that’s kind of where I started out, just in childhood, and then realizing just by pure observation that we were left out of this picture of world cuisine even when about 70 percent of foods consumed around the world today were developed and domesticated by Indigenous peoples of the Americas.”

Craig explains more here. Check it out.

Photo: Evan Sung/Nephi Craig
Nephi Craig, executive chef of The Summit Restaurant at Sunrise Park Resort in Whiteriver, Arizona.

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I’ve been telling Suzanne and John about a free children’s hour on Thursdays at the Tomaquag Museum in Exeter, Rhode Island. I thought it sounded like fun for the kids.

According to the website, the program teaches “the history and culture of the Narragansett Tribal Nation through music, dance and storytelling. … Children’s Hour targets pre-school and homeschoolers during the school year and the families during school vacation. …

“Each week will have a different theme or focus. It will include music, dance, storytelling, engagement with exhibits and art or science activities. Each activity will be scaled to fit the ages and abilities of the youth. We will encourage peer mentoring between older and younger participants.

A typical Children’s Hour consists of: Traditional Greeting & Narragansett Welcome Dance (weather permitting); Narragansett Lesson/cultural concept (in our museum); Scavenger Hunt connected to theme where kids can explore exhibits; Social Dance to our Pavilion building; Storytelling/book share; craft or game depending on the content; Closing circle

The museum just won a national award for museum and library services. Executive Director Lorén Spears and Narragansett tribal leaders went to Washington last week, where Michelle Obama presented the award.

More here.

Photo: Tomaquag Museum Executive Director Lorén Spears

 

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In September, Emily Fox did a feature at Michigan Radio on efforts to preserve a dying Native American language. The initiative is focused on preschoolers.

“Anishinaabemowin is the language that was spoken by tribes in Michigan for millennia,” Fox says, “and it’s near extinction in the state.  Many Michigan tribes don’t have any fluent speakers left, while those that do are only reporting between one to three fluent speaking elders.

“Michigan tribes are doing what they can to bring the language back. Some are doing language immersion weekends. Some are creating programs to learn Anishinaabemowin online.

“A lot of tribes are teaching community language classes, or bringing it to the public schools and day care centers.

“The Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe in Mt. Pleasant only has one fluent Anishinaabemowin speaker, but they have been able to pool enough resources together to have a four-day-a-week early childhood language immersion school since 2009.

“Isabelle Osawamick, with the Language Department for the Saginaw Chippewa tribe, says the teachers at the Sasiwaans Immersion School only speak in Anishinaabemowin. The language is used in class lessons and in every daily activity. …

“She says with immersion, the kids start to understand Annishinabemowin quickly.

“ ‘I’ve seen them listen and in a matter of two months they comprehend 100%,’ Osawamick says.”

Click here to read the details and to listen to the recorded broadcast.

Photo: Emily Fox / Michigan Radio
Two-year-olds at the Sasiwaans language immersion school in Mt. Pleasant get a lesson in the Native American tradition of smudging.

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