Storytelling is Healing and Teaching
By Roger Fernandes
A long time ago…
Raven was walking down the beach. He came across a large pile of clams on a cedar mat. They looked good and Raven was hungry. He looked around and down at the water’s edge he saw an old woman digging clams.
“These must be her clams”, he said. “I am sure she won’t mind if I eat one of her clams.” So he took one clam and ate it.
“She probably wouldn’t mind if I ate a few more”, he said. And so he ate a few more.
“I’m sure she would want me to eat as many as I want. She looks like a generous old woman.” And so he ate all the clams on the cedar mat, leaving a pile of empty clamshells. He saw her walking up the beach towards her mat. “I had better go”, he said. “I’m sure she wouldn’t want me to thank her for being so generous.” And so he quickly ran into the forest.
The old woman returned to the mat and saw all her clams had been eaten! Only shells remained!
“Who did this?” she exclaimed. “Who ate all my clams without asking?”
She looked around and saw footprints in the sand. She recognized Raven’s footprints.“It was Raven!” I will get him for this!”………
For all of human history there has been storytelling. It is the most effective and powerful way we humans have of sharing, teaching, and communicating. All tribes, all cultures, and all people tell stories. The old people say there was a time when there were no humans, but before there were humans there was storytelling.
Stories share the events in people’s lives and their beliefs and values and their dreams. If we look at our lives we recognize our life is a story as well. Many wonder, “When I am gone, what stories will people tell about me?”
In our modern world storytelling has been diminished to a simple means of entertaining children with no relevance to adults. Books and television and the Internet have replaced storytelling. We believe they are the new and improved way of communicating and teaching. But the old people say that the new ways have no spirit. The true power of storytelling comes when the moisture of the teller’s breath gives life and power to the story.
We all learn from stories told to us. We see good behavior and the teachings of how we should live. We see bad behavior and the consequences of such actions. We see morals and values being demonstrated in the tales and we connect with these teachings as we would see them all around us in our families and communities. The stories gave us all these things and we learned them by hearing the story and reflecting on the teachings within it. We brought our own experiences and sensibilities to our interpretations of meanings.
In the story that opened this article, many things are happening. We know, because of our cultural teachings, that Raven is a trickster and does some good things and bad things we know we shouldn’t do. We know that the clams do not belong to him and were we in the same situation we would not take any of her clams because we know it would be stealing. But this is Raven and sometimes he does what he wants without thinking about others. We see he might be like us, only thinking he will just take a few clams, but is tempted and overcome by his greed. And he rationalizes like we sometimes do, to justify our behavior. These are some simple observations as to what the story might be teaching, but it is important to state that there are surely many other teachings that are deeper within the story. Each person who hears the story will make their own interpretations and find their own meanings. This is the power of storytelling.
At one time we all knew our stories. All S’Klallam people knew the same stories. All Lakota people knew the same stories. All Lummi people knew the same stories. All Choctaw people knew the same stories. And because we all knew our tribal stories, we all lived in the world and understood the world through those common stories. The stories taught and guided and healed us. And the stories are there still waiting to do their work for those who will listen, sent to us by our ancestors who knew we would need these stories so we could live in the world in a good way.
The story continues…..
So the old woman sent out a song. It was her power. She sang, “Water! Run away from Raven!”
Raven did not know this. He was walking in the forest. He was thirsty after eating all those clams. He came to a stream and bent down to take a drink. The water ran away from Raven.
“The water ran away from me! How could this happen?” he asked himself. He bent down and tried to take another drink and the water ran away again. “How could this be happening?” he wondered. He tried to sneak up on water, but it would always run away from him. He waited until dark, but it ran away. He went to a waterfall, but the water went away from him. He was frightened now.
“That old woman!” he said. “She must have a power to cause this. She wasn’t so generous after all!” He decided he needed to escape her power. He needed to fly far away from her curse.
So he flew to the north. He flew for many days. Every now and then he would land and try to drink water, but it would run away from him. Now his throat was dry and parched and his voice was scratchy. He would surely die of thirst!
He was finally far to the north and tried to take a drink. The water went into his mouth and did not run away! He knew he had gone far enough. He knew he could never return to where her power could get him.
This is why Raven lives far to the north of the Salish Sea and there are more crows in our region. It also tells us why Raven has a rough and squawking voice.
And that is all.
So in the old days the listener knew that they needed to examine the story and ponder its meanings. And in doing so their lives would become rich with meanings and teachings. What teachings do you find in this simple story? How might the things you discovered guide and help you?
Roger Fernandes (Lower Elwha Band of the Klallam Indians) is a renowned story teller and artist living in Seattle, WA.