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Tribal storytelling: Animals play key roles in tales

In this George Catlin painting, tribal members gather around the fire inside a Mandan lodge. Such gatherings were frequent as elders passed on famous stories to younger generations. Special to the Forum

The stories once told around lodge fires sometimes were a tribe's counterpart to Aesop's fables, sometimes a history lesson passed along from the cellar of time.

Linguists have recorded and studied tribes' oral narratives for years, both for their intrinsic value and for the insights into language they provide.

Since American Indian languages weren't written, the oral tradition was a strong current running through the culture of every tribe. Customs often dictated how and when stories could be told, and sometimes even when they could be told.

Many traditional stories involve extraordinary feats by animals that would be regarded as mythical tales by European Americans. Traditional American Indians, however, regard them as true accounts of historical events.

The Hidatsa have an origin story involving Bird Woman, a relative of the Hidatsa, that non-Indians dismiss as a myth, said Calvin Grinnell, a historian who works to preserve the culture of the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara.



"We have these stories which, by dominant society's perceptions, are unbelievable," he said.
"And yet the dominant society wants us to believe that a man walked on water, a man returned from the dead. All these Christian beliefs --and not to put down the Christian beliefs -- but those certainly are as farfetched, certainly as unbelievable."

Certain threads are common to the stories of many North American tribes.

The coyote, for example, typically is a trickster figure, scheming to gain the advantage over his fellow creatures -- sometimes with unintended consequences, as in the Mandan tale of the coyote that turns into a buffalo.

The transmogrification stems from the hungry coyote's envy of the buffalo, which found ample food wherever there was grass, instead of having to hunt for a meal.

But the story also illustrates the close relationship between the Mandan and the buffalo, since the coyote was First Creator, a forebear of the tribe.

Some sacred stories involve tribal origins tracing back to some supernatural event or encounter. Often, a deity instructed a supplicant who prayed for a vision to put together a bundle of objects, some as memory aids for telling the sacred story, others to help perform rituals.

Another type of sacred story was what might be called myths, relating incidents that happened during a time when the earth hadn't fully assumed its current form -- a holy period when many mysteries occurred, linguist Douglas Parks wrote in his book, "Myths and Traditions of the Arikara Indians."


This is a George Catlin portrait of Mandan Chief Four Bears, who died in the 1837 smallpox epidemic that decimated the Mandan. Special to the Forum

Nonsacred stories are historical accounts, such as the story of how the Mandan and Hidatsa first encountered each other, when a group of Hidatsa migrated from near Devils Lake.

The Arikara have a group of stories of men who served as scouts for the U.S. Cavalry. One story holds that an Arikara scout was the first to discover gold on Gen. Armstrong Custer's 1874 expedition to the Black Hills.

That story conflicts, however, with accounts claiming the credit is due non-Indians on the expedition -- accounts written down, and therefore part of American history.

But that is another story.

A George Catlin rendition of a Mandan buffalo dance. Special to the Forum square


A George Catlin rendition of a Mandan buffalo dance. Special to the Forum square

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