As has been stated, [among the Skidi Pawnee of North America] these traditions, along with the rituals, are regarded as personal property. They have been paid for by the owner, and consequently, according to his belief, now form an intrinsic part of his life. As he tells them he gives out from himself a certain part of his life, levying a direct contribution upon its termination. Thus, as one middle-aged individual exclaimed, ‘I cannot tell you all that I know, for I am not yet ready to die;’ or, as an old priest expressed it, ‘I know that my days are short. My life is no longer of use. There is no reason why I should not tell you all that I know.’
George A. Dorsey, Traditions of the Skidi Pawnee, Boston and New York: Houghton, Mifflin & Co. for the American Folk-Lore Society, 1904, p. xxii
Illustration inspired by a rock art painting in the Northern Cape, South Africa
I think of that mountain called Tséé Ligai Dah Sidilé (White Rocks Lie Above In A Compact Cluster) as if it were my maternal grandmother. I recall stories of how it once was at that mountain. The stories told to me were like arrows. Elsewhere, hearing that mountain’s name, I see it. Its name is like a picture. Stories go to work on you like arrows. Stories make you live right. Stories make you replace yourself.
(Benson Lewis, age 64, 1979)
Wisdom Sits in Places: Landscape and Language Among the Western Apache, Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, p. 38
Drawing of Anansi, the spider from the Ashanti people
Wisdom sits in places. It’s like water that never dries up. You need to drink water to stay alive, don’t you? Well, you also need to drink from places. You must remember everything about them. You must learn their name. You must remember what happened in them long ago. You must think about it and keep on thinking about it. Then your mind will become smoother and smoother. Then you will se danger before it happens. You will walk a long way and live a long time. You will be wise. People will respect you.
Dudley Patterson, Cibecue Apache elder
Dudley Patterson, Cibecue Apache elder; Wisdom Sits in Places: Landscape and Language Among the Western Apache, Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, p. 127
Illustration inspired by a drawing of the Huichol people of Mexico
“Papago songs are handed down from singer to singer more carefully than were the epics of Homer. A man dreams his own songs, and he gives them to his son; but before he was born, there was already a body of magic by which the ancestors ruled their world. This collected mass of song and story I have sometimes called the ‘Papago bible.’ Like much of the unwritten literature of our Southwest [of the United States], it is half prose and half lyric […].
”In every Papago village there is and old man whose hereditary function is to recite this ‘bible.’ The accepted time for the recitation is those four nights in winter ‘when the sun stands still’ before turning back from that southern journey in which, it seemed, might take its light away forever.
”On those nights –four nights, for everything holy goes by fours– the Papago men gathered in the ceremonial house. […]
”The men sat cross-legged, their arms folded, their heads bowed. This was the position required by propriety, as sitting upright in a church pew was required by our Victorian ancestors. No one must interrupt the speaker by a question or even by a movement. No one must doze. If he did, some neighbor would poke the burning cigarette between his sandaled toes. If the speaker saw it, he stopped suddenly and there was no more storytelling that night.
”The storyteller had, perhaps, worked years to memorize the whole complicated mass of prose and verse. The prose he sometimes elaborated with illustrations and explanations of his own, but the verse was fixed. The words and tune of every song were ‘given’ by Elder Brother; also the exact point were it entered the story. An old man has refused to tell me a story because he had forgotten the tune of one song and so was unable to tell the story complete. Nevertheless, variations have crept in and the ‘bible’ according to one village is not quite that according to another.
”The ‘Papago bible’ would require a volume in itself […]”
Ruth Murray Underhill, Singing for Power: The Song Magic of the Papago Indians of Southern Arizona, Berkeley & Los Angeles: University of California Press 1968 , pp. 11-13
Illustration inspired by a Sumerian amulet of a frog 3500 BC
I have found the key to the system of marriage (in the old days) among distant relations, a matter which puzzled me last year. At marriage a certain portion of bride’s father’s ancestral story (smaiusta) is transmitted to the husband, e.g. the right to carve or paint a raven on a food box. Unless repurchased this remains in the husband’s family, but as the smaiusta is transmitted it is always remembered that a part of it is in another family and a son, grandson, or other descendant of the wife’s father will seek to regain it by marrying a woman of the other family. As the Bella Coolas express it a man always ‘hunts’ when marrying to get back pieces of his smaiustas.
From a letter of Canadian anthropologist T. F. McIlwraith, to Edward Sapir, 26 December 1923 in, At Home with the Bella Coola Indians: T. F. McIlwraith’s Field Letters, edited by John Barker and Douglas Cole, Vancouver: UBC Press, 2003 pp. 113-114
Illustration inspired by a Bushman rock painting in the Cederberg, South Africa
Never tell one story. Always add a second. That way, the first one won’t fall over.
Tom Lowenstein, Ancient Land: Sacred Whale: The Inuit Hunt and Its Rituals, London: The Harvill Press, p. xii
Illustration inspired on a South African contemporary textile.