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Arts and Lifeways - Mythology and Storytelling

Bear

Storytelling and mythology play an imperative role in Native culture because it is a way to communicate and preserve history, rituals, and beliefs, as well as instruct younger generations of traditional Native lifeways.

Stories were often told during long winter nights because as one person explained, in the winter time the spirits and animals were “far away and could not hear, so they [would] likely not be offended.” (Indian Stories and Storytelling, Ella Elizabeth Clark, xi.) It was only on rare occasions that stories were recounted in the summertime. For example, warriors would relay their stories of victory and deeds as a way to prepare the other tribe members before a fight.

Stories are underpinned with religious or spiritual connotations and explain the origin of the tribe. Oft-times animals and supernatural beings are the central characters in myths and stories. As an example, for the Tsuu T’ina Nation the bear is a significant cultural symbol of medicine and healing. As passed down by Elders, one story explains that a bear healed a Native warrior’s leg wound. In the story the bear found the wounded man and said to him, “I came. I pity you. I will help you.” The bear licked the wound clean, afterwards asking the human to make a sweatlodge. Once the man created the sweatlodge, the bear joined the man in the sweat and gave him songs and a ceremony. The bear said “these are what you use to help other people.” The bear then took the warrior back to his camp. As the bear parted ways with his friend he reminded the man “remember the songs I gave to you, it’s for you to doctor people, to help people.” (Moose Mountain Tsuu T’ina/Husky Oil Traditional Native Cultural Properties Study)

In the late 19th century, while visiting the Blackfoot Peoples of Alberta, Reverend John Maclean disclosed his concern over the lack of oral history and storytelling being passed down to younger generations. As recounted in Ella Elizabeth Clark’s Indian Stories and Storytelling, Mclean states, “I have listened to some of these legends as told, over and over again… and I find that the young men are not able to relate them as accurately as the aged.” He continues to lament that “as children are growing up, they are forgetting these things.”  

Indeed Mclean’s concerns are valid, as passing down legends and stories are a vital part to sustaining Native traditions and beliefs. In contemporary times Elders are pleased to share stories with younger generations. By recounting the stories to young people, Elders are preserving their culture and inspiring children to embrace their heritage and continue the legacy of passing information to others.

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