Winter Oral Tradition


buffalo in winter
Buffalo robes were used to insulate tipis.

Winter is a time for storytelling around the fire when it’s cold out. For many indigenous families across North America, winter was the season for teaching children their indigenous traditions and ceremonies through what is known as oral tradition, or storytelling. Many stories may have specific religious and ceremonial value to some tribes and aren’t told at any point during the other three seasons. Also, most tribes did not have written languages at the time of colonization, so memorization was key.

Warm weather is for “cutting fish” and gathering wild plants for some tribes in Alaska. Other tribes may hunt various animals during the winter, especially since these animals may yield materials such as hide, antlers, fur, and feathers that are used in ceremonies and regalia worn either at tribal ceremonies or at powwows.

Stories as a Teaching Tool

Some tribes, with well-documented examples from the Apache and Lakota people, are noted for teaching children about their adult roles later in life during the winter. Many tribes have told stories to children that are based in ancestral traditions and knowledge of survival. There are fables and ceremony-related stories that kids would listen to in order to learn common sense and decision-making for surviving their harsh environments.

Trickster stories, as they are called, were often a source life lessons in the past that continue to endure for many tribes to this day. Stories about tricksters like Coyote, Raven, and Iktomi are still told, often with illustrated books as a medium these days.

How Oral Tradition Endures

The key to supporting oral tradition is to repeat the story to someone from time to time until they memorize the story. They themselves should be encouraged to pass it on to others. Some tribes in Alaska have oral traditions that can be conveyed through dance as a medium, so there are different ways to reinforce storytelling. Online resources and social media have only served to support, reinforce, and build a better appreciation for these traditions.

Winter ceremonies and games abound in many Native communities. Navajo people perform the Enemy Way Ceremony only during the winter months and continue to do so now. The Shoe Game, a social game directly tied to traditional ceremonies and steeped in oral tradition, is played during the winter, when animals are in hibernation. A yucca ball is hidden in one of several moccasins filled with dirt. Players take turn guessing which moccasin the ball is hiding in. Children often join in guessing at which moccasin hides the ball, and everyone who knows the lyrics sings the songs of the game in unison as the game is played.

Resources

Lesson Plans

Storytelling: Oral Traditions – Students discuss about what makes a good story and examine and learn about the oral tradition of storytelling. This is a series of four lesson plans for Grades 4-6.

Videos

Dakota Sioux: Story of the Lost Wife

Dr. Erich Longie related this story about a woman who lived among a tribe of wolves, which is from Dakota Sioux oral tradition.

Dakota Sioux: Winter Time

Dakota Sioux people hunkered down in the winter and told stories to their kids.

Navajo Shoe Game

Presented by Wally Brown, Navajo historian, this is a good video resource for teachers who want to teach about Navajo culture.

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