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  • Writer's picturezhaawano

Reflections of a Storyteller, part 1: When There Is No Snow on the Ground

Updated: Oct 13, 2022

Binaakwe-giizis (Falling Leaves Moon) (October 12, 2022)



Boozhoo, biindigen, welcome to my storytelling lodge! Today, I will share with you a reflection, prompted by messages and comments I lately received by a couple of my readers.

Each year around this time I am asked the same question by the, what I like to call, “Only-When-There-Is-Snow-On-The-Ground Police.” Some approach me in a respectful fashion through Messenger; others see it more fit to rebuke me in public. And every year I tell them the same thing, which is (basically) this:

It does not matter much when it is you tell a sacred story. I do not think showing respect lies in the time of year, or day. Respect is shown by your intentions. The way you voice a story. The respectful way you speak about those you speak about. The humble, ritual way you call upon the Spirits to leave their sacred domain and enter the human stage is what matters.

I ask them, as far this taboo on "storytelling when there is no snow on the ground" goes: Am I really insulting the Spirits - or is it just you who is offended? I tell them not to always believe what others tell them. Be humble and do not parrot wisdoms without first thinking them through, I tell them. Blindly believing what is being said in the media and going all "traditional" about it on Facebook does not make you a textbook NDN. Oh yes, the ban on storytelling "when there is no snow on the ground" may apply to oral storytelling. But it does not apply to storytelling in writing, or through art. Compare it with a storytelling book, or a storytelling painting. Book stores and art galleries won't store the book or painting away in times when there is no snow on the ground or do they? I do not think there is a rule against walking into a book store in clear daylight and outside the winter season and pick up a storytelling book and leaf through its pages, looking at the pictures. I do not think this will offend the Spirits. When a story is told at night, let's say around a campfire or at a kitchen table, the Spirits might hear our voices, which some people think is impropriate. The sound of human voices will draw the Spirits' attention, haw sa, that much I can understand. Stories in writing, or told in social media, however won't wake them up or draw their attention (let alone insult them), will they? I am sure Wenabozho won't mind people talking about him on the Internet anyway. I think it gets pretty lonesome out there where he rests and knowing him, I'm pretty sure the Internet vibes that he may pick up (after all he is very smart) will put a grin on his face. Besides, since when did he go out of his way to avoid controversy? He has always been one who pushes boundaries. In most stories about him he is looking for mischief. He has never been afraid to stir up things a little, never been averse to some good old commotion in his life and ours. I truly believe that he is really fond of these stories and likes to listen, together with the children, to the fantastic tales told about him. I like to think that not only does he play the protagonist role with his habitual imagination and gusto, but he also even actively assists the storyteller in creating these sacred Wenabozho stories and sharing them on the Internet. On a practical note: In the old days, stories were typically being told during the long winter nights, simply because the hunting and growing and ceremonial season had come to an end, which meant our ancestors had more time on their hands. Winter thus became a time of family gatherings and communal reflection through storytelling. Also, there is reason to believe that this ban on storytelling only-in-winter is not very old at all. It is very probable it was the European missionaries who introduced the "only when there's snow on the ground" rule, for reasons that aren't hard to understand when one thinks of their zeal to Christianize our people. Of course, they believed it was in our best interest to minimize the number of days during which there was "pagan" storytelling. So, this "tradition" to not offend the spirits may not be so traditional after all. More likely a myth, meant to rob us from our stories under false pretenses.

Then there's another possible, very plausible reason how this tradition came about. It was shared to me by one of my readers. She said that "when the snow was on the ground, the people had time to hide themselves away from the Church. It may have been another way of keeping our stories safe and protected from the people who always were actively trying to kill our culture. Our elders worked overtime to see our stories, ceremonies, beliefs, and culture through. Only when the snow covered us was it safe." There is wisdom in those words, and it is worth contemplating. After all, we are no ayatollahs. We are NDNs. I believe we as NDNs should worry more about honoring and keeping alive the old tradition than about perpetuating modern-day taboos and misconceptions.

Mii i'iw, miigwech.


Illustration: "Debaajimood Sharing Stories with Wenabozho's Grandmother," art print © 2022 Zhaawano Giizhik. Visit the webshop to see details of the print.

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