Published on January 29, 2013 by Casey
This article has been archived from the now-defunct Chapleau Cree Legends site (http://www.geocities.com/ chapleaucree/21mig02/CCFN_Migration_Vol2-04.html) for educational purposes
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She started her story like this; “Long ago, the animals were more like people than they are today. They could talk with us and we could talk with them” And with that type of an introduction, she told me her little story.
Some people, long ago came to live near the water. A large family of white seagulls lived on an island of rock in a bay far from the camp. They were pretty birds and could fly a long time without moving their wings. The people first thought that they were very beautiful. But if people went near the rock island, the Seagulls would scream and insult them, and fly at them to scare then off.
Closer to the camp was a family of Whisky Jacks who lived in the Spruces. They were never noisy, and when the people walked near their home, the Whiskey Jacks would just say hello.
When the people set nets and cleaned the fish they caught, these two bird families would hear the people working hard with their fish. The Whiskey Jacks would come to visit and whistle softly and praise the people for their good fishing and tell the people how lucky they were to catch so many fish. They jumped from tree to tree talked quietly, and provided good company for the people, and the people would look up from their work and smile, and throw the birds a piece of liver or some fish eggs. The Whisky Jacks, would fly down, politely pick up a piece and fly away quietly.
The Seagulls were quite different. When they saw the people cleaning fish, they would fly close, screaming and screaming and yelling that the fish were not for the people, but were theirs and theirs alone. The people would try to be pleasant, and sometimes would give a piece of liver to the seagulls as they worked. But each time that they did, the whole bunch of Seagulls would run in, and fight each other for the food. Many times those that fought lost the food to another while they were fighting. After many times like this, the people stopped giving the Seagulls food because it made the people feel uncomfortable. They never ever stopped giving the Whiskey Jacks fresh food and they never ever stopped them from visiting the camp. In the end, the seagulls only got to eat the scraps that floated on the water. They were pretty birds, but people knew what they were like.
Storytelling is an oral tradition passed on from one generation to another. The stories are memorized and repeated, sometimes changing each time they are told. The special stories about the origins of sacred ceremonies, and especially the Creation legend, are told with great precision. The stories of the Cree incorporate all that life incorporates, accepting good and evil, cruelty and beauty, crudeness and fancy equally, as part of the world.
Storytellers are judged according to their eloquence, and their ability to improvise and improve stories for entertainment. They are welcomed wherever they go. Some people who are not storytellers by trade also have the ability to memorize and invent stories.
The Cree tell long stories about personal hunting adventures. The narrator uses gestures and movements to illustrate the story. The movements of the animals, the stealthy approach of the hunter, the aim, the shot, the cry of the animal or the pursuit are all acted out as the tale unfolds.
Stories are used to entertain all ages, to instruct the young, and to preserve history, rituals and beliefs. They are told during the long cold winter nights when everyone craved stimulation, wanting something to spark their imagination.
The Cree belief that stories based on fiction cannot be told during the summer is shared by many nations. Summer is the season when people are supposed to use their time as well as possible. People who narrate such stories in the summer risk having their lives destroyed by lizards, who would come to suck their blood. It was believed that toads or snakes would creep into the beds of people who wasted precious time telling stories before the first snow fell. This type of punishment is also reserved for narrators of the endless cycles about the superhuman chameleon-like joker Wisakecahk, a revered character in the Cree storytelling tradition. During the summer, spirits are about and may take revenge on people who tell stories that are damaging to them. Animals may also overhear and be offended by the stories when they are roaming in the summer.
Stories lose meaning when translated from their original language. Meaning is also lost to people of other cultures. There are images, suggestions and associations in these stories that mean nothing to the outsider but are apparent in the minds of the Cree. The connection to nature, to the Great Spirit and to other peoples is part of Cree culture and is reflected in the stories that are told to children from the time they are born.