Only one narrator ever attempted to explain to me why all the [Cree] stories begin: ‘Wisahkitchak was walking.’ This narrator explained that because they were growing up, he could tell his child audience the beginning of the story.
In the beginning, Wisahkitchak was sitting. Where he was sitting, there was nothing. There was only a piece of dirt. Wisahkitchak blew on it and it grew bigger. He wondered how big to make it. This piece of dirt was the world itself. Then Wisahkitchak made a coyote, Wisahkitchak told the coyote to run around the edge of the world and come back. He came back and told Wisahkitchak how big the world had become. This happened many times.
Wisahkitchak kept blowing. He didn’t have enough. While the coyote was gone, Wisahkitchak made more animals, mostly game animals and birds. Then he sent the coyote for what might be the last time. Wisahkitchak got tired of waiting for this little coyote. Then Wisahkitchak got up for the first time. He got up and went off walking to look for the coyote.
This is the beginning of the story and end. The rest of the stories about Wisahkitchak branch off on his travels; this story is the roots. Nobody has ever heard that Wisahkitchak stopped walking so he must still be looking for that coyote.
Plains Cree, Alberta (Canada). Regna Darnell, “Correlates of Cree narrative performance”, in R. Bauman and J. Sherzer (eds.), Explorations in the Ethnography of Speaking, second edition, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996 p. 465, note 7.
Illustration: blossoming plum branch
In the new book I have included some very old stories which I wrote from memory, the way I heard them a long time ago. Memory is tricky – memory for certain facts or details is probably more imaginative than anything, but the important thing is to keep the feeling the story has. I never forget that: the feeling one has of the story is what you must strive to bring forth faithfully.
Leslie Marmon Silko (from the Pueblo of Laguna, in Nuevo México) in a 1979 letter to the poet James Wright, in L. M. Silko and J. Wright, The Delicacy and Strength of Lace, edited by Anne Wright, Saint Paul, Minnesota: Graywolf Press, pp. 69-70
Illustration inspired by an Andean drawing
These are all the matters we need to know. It’s too easy to become sick, because there are always things happening to confuse our minds. We need to have ways of thinking, of keeping things stable, healthy, beautiful. We try for a long life, but lots of things can happen to us. So we keep our thinking in order by these [string] figures and we keep our lives in order with the stories. We have to relate our lives to the stars and the sun, the animals, and to all of nature or else we will go crazy, or get sick.
Words of a Navajo storyteller, recorded by Barre Toelken and included in his book The Dynamics of Folklore, Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1979, p. 96
Illustration inspired by the logo of the Kalevala Society
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