Honoring Our Legacy through Storytelling
By Levi Chapin *originally in print at Mandan Hidatsa Arikara times*
“If stories come to you, care for them. And learn to give them away where they are needed. Sometimes a person needs a story more than food to stay alive.” -Barry Lopez
Winter is in full effect, snow is falling atop the earth lodge, people of all ages gather inside, eating corn soup, warm fry bread, and juneberry pudding. They are listening to an elder speak. He tells the audience about Coyote Chief, the trickster coyote, who fools unsuspecting ducks into becoming his dinner. A good coyote story will have you laughing out loud. The Mandan, Hidatsa, Arikara Stories are not all about entertainment, and each tribe has their own stories. Oral tradition was our way of education, cultural preservation and of values before educational or religious institutions entered the homelands.
MHA Tourism hosted “Elders’ Storytelling” at the Earth Lodge Village site Saturday, December 8, to carry on our oral tradition by connecting the youth and elders. Jason Morsette, an interpretive guide, encourages children to learn from elders rather than devoting all their time to video games. He explained, “With the oil boom and rise in technology, we are at risk of losing our culture. With storytelling we can carry on tradition.”Two elders from Ft. Berthold, Tommy Mandan and Alfred Morsette Jr., were invited to share stories passed on to them. Both men grew up in the culture and learned from their elders.
Traditionally, the Mandan and Hidatsa Creation Stories and Star Stories are sacred and only told during the winter. When daylight hours were short and nights were long, freezing temperatures meant long hours inside the lodge. This provided a perfect opportunity for teaching and strengthening the tribe through storytelling. Mandan/Hidatsa elder, Tommy Mandan shared with us some of those teachings; the Hidatsa calendar has 13 months, or moons, a lunar cycle lasts 28 days. What naturally occurs during the moon determines the month. Some examples of month/time identification (Hidatsa – English translation) are, “when you harvest from the garden”,” when the chokecherry seed looks like wood”,” when bull berries are sweet”, “and when geese fly south over homes”. Thirteen moons of 28 days give the year 364 days, a startling near accuracy to our current calendar of 365 days.
The time to stop telling stories or, “put them away” is when “Awatii” makes it thunder, or when the ice cracks. (Awatii is the Hidatsa name/word given to the Missouri River.) Before the Garrison Dam altered the river, the ice would split and make a loud cracking noise during the spring when it melted. It could be heard from miles around. Another way to know it’s time to stop telling stories is when the geese fly north.
Mr. Mandan imparted the importance of the earth lodge construction as well as the symbolism and prayers that went into it. The four center posts of the lodge were each attributed with a symbol for what the home would uphold: sage, representative of the energetic power and meaning words carry; corn, having food and providing nourishment for others, hand full of seeds, represent the spirit of life and procreation, tobacco, a universal offering, used for prayer and bringing peace to all who enter the home. Mr. Mandan also shared a Coyote Story about why the male wood duck has red eyes. Coyote Stories may be told anytime, they teach a [moral] lesson to a child, and explain why some things are the way they are. The story teller will let you know what kind of story is being told.
Creation stories are the tribal origin stories. They explain how the world began, where we come from, and how we got here. They evoke imagination. Set in a time of long, long ago, they draw us back to our Source, which is always Spirit. They teach the sacredness of all things, the living as well as the inanimate. For the Arikara people, as told by Alfred Morsette Jr., the creation/origin story includes their voyage across continents and oceans; reaching back to a time when the tribe voyaged from Iraq, through Africa, to South America and finally migrating up north through the Gulf of Mexico to where they are today. They traveled with their bundles. There are 12 Arikara clans, which relate to their medicine bundles, two are down south with the Pawnee, their relatives, of Oklahoma. There are seven clans on our reservation, and two others continued onward, traveling north and west, and one was sent back south, location unknown. Alfred reflected on listening to the stories, “The stories are a lot in detail, they take a long time [to tell], they put you to sleep telling the stories.”
Morsette told the story of how the horse became a part of the culture, when they came in contact with Spanish conquistadors; the horse replaced the dog as a traveling companion. Anthropologist Douglas R. Parks stayed with Morsette’s father and recorded their history and stories; he later published Myths and Traditions of the Arikara Indians. Anthropologists also recorded the history of the Mandan and Hidatsa, but it’s important to learn from the elders. Books are a great learning device, but learning from the ones you’re learning about is the best. “You have to have the real people in there, when you do something like that.”
Alfred Morsette Jr. shared the Arikara teachings and stories he grew up with. “Times have changed, ([as a result of colonization and relocation]), sacred bundles were put away.” He warned, “…in due time, when we don’t want to tell stories to our young ones, they’ll be lost.” Stories shape how we perceive and make sense of the world. Listening to his elders and learning from them has shaped him into being a more understanding person, “… It helped me to understand the cultures. They’re not all the same. They’re all different.”
He stressed the importance of identifying which tribe the story belongs to as well as its source, because being a culturally mixed people, we may get confused. “If you tell the story of a tribe, stay on one track. Don’t mix them up. I would start off telling about the tribe that you want to present, their culture, then after you can put in the coyote stories or joke stories… but be serious when you do it.”
Although there are many differences in culture, it is our story, the story of our people which makes up who we are today. Our story explains how we came into being. Our ancestors knew story was the framework for our worldview. Cultural heroes, leaders, and healers of our history are symbolic of the inherent potential within. Choosing to draw from inspiration opens the door to opportunity. Imagination allows us to dream big. Our ancestors’ stories of existence, hope, and survival are slipping through the cracks. We are the legacy of powerful and enriched societies. It is our time to share, to remember, reclaim, and reaffirm who we are as the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara Nation.