Sunday, May 24, 2009


Stories in Cedar

Totem pole types include story-telling legend poles, wedding poles, history poles, poles that ridicule bad debtors and those that honor the dead.
Meanings are elusive, for the ravens, wolf crests and bear symbols now stand apart from the ceremonies that breathed life into the carvings.
Mortuary poles honor the dead. Often cremation ashes are kept in a receptacle in the back. The single figure at the top represents the commemorated person's clan. Crest poles, usually part of a house, portray the ancestry of a particular family.


oral tradition

Here is why traditional stories passed down through families can be so compelling.

What is involved includes discipline, insistence on accuracy and confinement of the storytelling within a family group.

The Tlingit native people have numerous clans; within each clan a storyteller is entrusted with the responsibility of ensuring his or her own people's history. This responsibility is neither given nor received lightly. A storyteller must tell only the stories of his own clan, never that of a neighboring people. A new storyteller may not publicly repeat the stories until she has proven to the elder who is teaching her that she can repeat it word for word, with no changes nor elaboration.

The storyteller, young or old, sits close to his audience, seeing them and observing their reaction as he speaks.

Recently, I was privileged to hear the story from a Huna Tlingit (Xunaa Ka`awu) young man about how what we call the Grand Pacific Glacier in Alaska's Glacier National Park rapidly took over his ancestors' lands centuries ago, displacing his people to a new settlement. He spoke to his audience with the storytelling mantle that had been bestowed on him (his grandmother made him repeat the story accurately five times before her permission was granted), and exactly in the manner of respect that was prescribed.

Within my own family storytelling, we have never considered the importance of these protocols, so we expect individual memories to change aspects of what is remembered. We rely on the written word, so place less importance on oral memory or repetition. We suspect that one person's remembrance must always be different from another's. So we enjoy our family traditions and we believe our family stories to be important to us as a small group of related people, but we don't quite trust that the information is truly accurate. We want to see a diary of the period, or an official document, or another form of written history. And yet, these, too, can be distorted, as we know well by the common occurrence of immigrant names being changed by officials who could not understand foreign pronunciation or when a foreign sound could not be rendered adequately into English. We know that typographical errors are made; before our eyes and ears we hear the former vice president of the United States rewriting with his version of history the events of less than a single decade.

With the trust that stories are communicated accurately from grandparent to grandchild, then a people, a family, can ensure that what is passed down from generation to generation, from century to century, remains true to the memory of the events.

photographs: woods





The best advice my older sister gave me as a young mother was:

the minute that you get used to your children doing something a certain way,
they will change

Remembering this held me in good stead as my two grew and changed and daily discovered new activities, new ways of thinking, new aspects to the world around them. I could never become complacent with who they were and what they could do. I was also taught by my children to adapt and to look for changes and to appreciate and embrace for myself what was new and what might be unfamiliar.

I was reminded of this the other day when my grandson, now 5 1/2 (and currently he always adds the additional 1/2 when asked his age) seemingly changed before my eyes. It had only been a week, possibly two, since I had seen him last and all of a sudden he had grown from a toddler to a little young man. His manner was different, he moved differently, he had more patience, he took care of his little sister differently, his concentration, which was always great, now seemed to become even more focused. I kept seeing in his face the changes that had taken place, seemingly so quickly, and which now anticipates the older young man who is yet to develop.

day of birth september 2003

photographs: water




© penny corbett may 2009