An evening with a Haida 3/16/12

If there is one thing that has been true for me nearly my entire life, it is this: I love to read. There may be specific genres I am not fond of (slasher, horror, gory, to name a few), but in general I enjoy reading a wide variety of the written word. I am more a fan of fiction than non-fiction, although the latter can be quite intriguing.

My collection at moment consists primarily of two categories. The first category is “textbooks.” I have collected a fair number over the years. These are not always what you usually think of as textbooks, but include some poetry, novels, and handouts used in classes. The second main grouping is science fiction/fantasy. I love how the authors push the limits of imagination and explore the realms of possibility. I do have a few authors that predominate my collection (Nix, Miller, Anthony, Atwater-Rhodes), with at least three novels apiece. I am always looking for more reading materials.

I am starting to add more and more to a third area, though I admit it is difficult. Not many people write these down, and even fewer without altering the stories. I am talking about the stories of the indigenous people of the Americas. So few First Nations/Native American/Indian people speak their language, which would give the story a unique and distinct meaning lost when it is translated to English. I wish I knew the old language.

My thesis blended my love for the old stories and my love of the Environmental Sciences. (I majored in the latter.) I took recordings of stories that tribal elders were willing to share and analyzed them. I worked off the hypothesis that the storytellers/ oral history keepers primarily focused on the local flora and fauna in their stories. If this were true, we would be able to more accurately create models of what the area used to look like “Pre-contact,” and perhaps try to bring the local ecology closer to what it used to be.

I interviewed about half a dozen elders and storytellers from different areas, and was delighted to notice some of the patterns I hoped existed. Members of tribes near the coast included sea life more than those in the interior. Large game, in general, was discussed more in the interior. Some animals already known to have large ranges starred in histories across the interviews.

I was lucky to have the chance to reconnect with one of these elders recently. He is Haida from the Alaskan area, and a gifted storyteller. He was brought in to speak at a local university, and Wisdom of the Elders sent out invitations to attend. I thoroughly enjoyed listening to him tell his personal history, the history of his people, and an array of great jokes. He imparted strong wisdom on how not to live your life, and how a different mode of thinking or way of knowing can make all the difference.

He made me wonder about my own life, family, and tribal history. How much has been lost to time. What is no longer being taught? No longer being remembered? How could we preserve it? I was sure that I couldn’t, with my poor memory. But, if we all think like that, who will?

Will you be a history keeper for your family? What stories do you know? Perhaps, you will be the next storyteller, the one to keep the history alive.


Postscript: Feel free to contact me further about my thesis, oral history, storytelling, etc. at


About N B

Artist, critic, friend, and rambly-ponderer.
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