Our minds have a great affinity for stories. For thousands of years, man demonstrated his storytelling prowess through cave paintings, through artifacts that demonstrated storytelling imagery, and even through burial ceremonies where tools, skulls of sacred animals and other things left behind helped to tell a story about themselves.
Spirit animals like sea turtles and bear skulls buried side-by-side with humans were demonstrative of the stories, myths and fables that early cultures valued covering the genesis of the world to where man’s spirit goes once he passes. These stories helped explain the changing of the seasons, the mysteries of creation and the secrets of the cosmos.
Why learn these old stories and understand who these first storytellers were? Modern research has shown that these stories still resonate with us today. Something inside of us pleads for explanations for things we can’t understand, universal questions like why are we here, who put us here, what is my purpose and what is the meaning of my life?
Many of these first stories were deeply immersed in a deep reverence for nature. Man is no more at the center of the natural world than Earth is at the center of the universe. Instead, each animal, tree, living creature has its own wisdom, intelligence and contributions. The lowly water beetle in Cherokee culture was the creator of the world, bringing mud up from the depths of the water to the surface. In many native tribes, the turtle played a similar role, carrying earth on its back after a great flood. The vulture in Cherokee culture takes the next steps, creating the mountains and the valleys by flapping its wings.
Creation stories of Adam and Eve are part of the Judeo-Christian belief system, but first peoples likewise had similar stories The Salinan Indians believed that the bald eagle molded the figure of man out of clay and flapped their wings to awaken him. In an Iroquois parable, Sky Woman came down to Earth and created the moon, sun and the stars and then gave birth to twins, Sapling and Flint that represented good and evil. The Hopi believed that the Ant People saved the world from destruction. In the Great Plains, many tribes believed that buffalo was a source of power, sometimes benign, sometimes malevolent. The coyote often plays the role as the trickster in Western tribal lore as does the fox in other tribal myths.
Although most indigenous people were hunters or fishers, there remained a sacred connection between hunter and game; an expression of gratitude and appreciation for the animals that gave their lives for the tribe’s continuance. Hunters would often fast and pray before the hunt, giving a special prayer of thanks to the animals spirit after it was killed. Dances were performed in honor of the animal world, replicating their movements and celebrating their lives. Through these stories, we discover that the vast swath of native peoples believed that the animal world were messengers from a Divine Power and needed to be respected. The renowned mythologist, Joseph Campbell called this depth of connection with nature “landscape of the soul.”
Storytellers do more than just repeat stories that were passed to them. They impart cultural values, binding the great chain of history to themselves and their community which connects their past, to the present and future. Stories from every culture offer us balance-- reminding us that we are part of this earth and part of nature and we are all connected. The Cherokee called it Duyukta, the “right way” or the “path of harmony.”
If we look closely at today’s world, storytelling is as much a part of our lives as it was for ancient cultures. We just express it differently. We are filled with wonder and delight by personal stories that we read in the newspaper or that touch us through social media. The commercials that sell the most products often tell a story describing how the product touched the lives of a family or a friend, even if all they’re selling is cheap plastic goods from China or yet another drug from Big Pharma.
For these reasons, the Center for Cultural Preservation is embarking on a new film project to chronicle the wonderful stories from the blended traditions that inhabit the Southern Appalachians. Whether those stories come from the Cherokee or originate in the “old country” of the British Isles, Eastern Europe, Africa, Mexico or beyond. Please consider supporting the Center’s work this holiday season by making a tax-deductible gift to help us carrying those stories forward to the next generations. You can donate online at SaveCulture.org Happy Thanksgiving. We are grateful for your support!
David Weintraub is a cultural preservationist, filmmaker and local environmental troublemaker who runs the Center for Cultural Preservation. Contact him at SaveCulture.org
This article originally appeared on Hendersonville Times-News: Opinion: The stories that still inspire us today