We have just celebrated the "top of the year". The month when we store and prepare our corn. We pick piñon, leaving those that received rain for the deer. If we have had the first frost we happily begin telling our winter stories. We gather medicine; it will be used to heal the family during the cold winter. We, the earth surface people, and the animals, each begin our preparations to move to our winter homes.
It begins here, our year, in October.
During the month of Slender Winds (Nílch'ih Ts'ósí) we continue our preparations: grinding corn, cooking and storing our harvest. We hunt. Meat is preserved. The winter story season is in motion, and our children sit inside it. At night adults play stick and moccasin games and children play with string. We attend ourselves and our winter homes, and the animals attend to theirs, many going into hibernation. We have a late sunrise and an early sunset. And as our language tells us, Nílch'ih Ts'ósí blows.
Anthropologists are keen on explanations, noting "the calendar of an agricultural people concerned with season, weather, and crops naturally varies from calendars determined by hunters and warriors." As do calendars determined by the market and apostolic conversions. Aside from the mistaken belief that agricultural people are a people without hunters and warriors, this accounting of where a people place their attention fails to acknowledge how a life rooted in the environment cuts through the false notion that agriculture, technology, hunting and gathering are unrelated and disparate ways of understanding and interacting with the world.
During these months of winter stories, children, parents, aunts, uncles, and grandchildren are called together, to play and listen. We are called together to give our attention over to skills and knowledge we've learned through a devotion to story and storytelling. These dark and rainy day moments ask us to attend to language. They require us to speak across the generations, back through the ages, following the migrations of our ancestors and those we joined, left and met along the way. They require from us, at every age, to communicate across experience: First Man and First Woman, Changing Woman, the Warrior Twins, old Coyote, Bat Woman, Butterfly and Reared Within the Mountains.
I was raised by my Grandmother. She was raised to believe the only good Indian was a Christian who spoke unaccented English. Last Thursday we saw the film, The Only Good Indian, at the Palace of Fine Arts, thanks to the 34th American Indian Film Festival. The Only Good Indian told the story of a young Kickapoo abducted on the Kansas plains and taken to boarding school. In one scene he is forced to eat soap, for his refusal to answer in English. When I was four I was forced to eat soap myself. Our familial obsession with cleanliness, not talking backwards and Catholicism carries over into everything I write and every word I speak (properly or not).
It begins here, with the willingness to face the pain and shame involved in relearning our languages, and the willingness to face the ridicule and social discomfort of devoting our time, resources and money to them, and to each other. I often joke and say we, the learners, are providing community service by giving people something to laugh about, as we talk like children. Children grow into the adults we help shape them into. Our gods knew this, and so they gave us words. They set us tasks. They told us to remember, to live, this way, now. Each morning we rise into the same now our ancestors rose to—the opportunity to live, good, in this way.
Many people believe the oral tradition is more fragile and less reliable than the written tradition. Many believe it is also less advanced.
Alfred Morsette, paatúh kananuuninó, Not Afraid of the Enemy (Sahnish)
Began recording with Douglas Parks, linguist, on July 1976 in Twin Buttes and completed his recordings in October 1979 in Bismark. They always met during winter (roughly October through March), following the "old custom" of telling stories only during that time. When they would meet Alfred would tell 2 to 5 stories. In the end he told 61. He'd tell stories for three hours, first in Sahnish, then he would tell the same story in English. He'd take a break at 10:30 for "a little lunch." And in the morning he would rise and sing Arikara songs till breakfast.
He had a phenomenal memory for songs. After he heard a song once he retained it. At the turn of the century the Pawnee brought 20 songs to the Arikara, he was the only one to still remember them. In one week he recorded the old grass dance songs (one set from Crow Ghost and a second set from Red Star). In the end he recorded over 200 songs and then "told the story behind each one."
In his introduction to Myths and Traditions of the Arikara Indians Parks describes working with Alfred: "I would turn on the tape recorder when he was ready, and then he would proceed to narrate, frequently closing his eyes and folding his arms as he recited from memory the details of the story, told, as he would say, exactly as he had heard it. Some stories he had been told only once or twice while a child or youth; others were accounts he had heard later in his life. He had repeated many of the stories to his own children when they were growing up, but many had not been related to anyone since he heard them originally, so the latter required thoughtful preparation before recording."
The Advocates for California Indigenous Language Survival recommend creating an immersion situation for yourself, one where the sounds that surround you can confirm your world. Language carries everything: prayers, recipes, k'é, skills and philosophy. Deb Murillo, at the Breath of Life workshop, spoke about devoting 3 hours a day to language. She is faced with the heartbreaking task of reviving a language where there are no living speakers. The Advocates live by the simple truth that it is never to late. Three hours listening and speaking words to yourself, to your family, to the ancestors; they are listening.
Portrait of Alfred Morsette, paatúh kananuuninó, Not Afraid of the Enemy by Niki Lee