We Need ALL the Stories

Since the beginning, the peoples who have lived in and with Turtle Island (now called “North America”) have dwelt in Kinship with and listened to the Land and her many creatures. As they have listened, they have made meaning from what they have heard, and stories have been told to point to these essential truths. Of course, many different stories arose about how humans came to have Fire. And, as far as I know, the different groups of people never fought over whose Story was The Truth. [A situation very different from that in Europe, from which many of my ancestors fled as a result of persecution & “religious” wars for power, thus becoming colonizers of this already known and occupied place].

As you already know, I love the Story of how Raven — while trying to be selfish — brought Light to the world. There are also Stories about how Raven brought Fire. And I love the Stories of how Coyote acquired Fire through his tricks. But the Story of How Fire Came to the People that is perhaps most dear to my heart is the one told, in varying ways, by the Cherokee, Creek, Osage, and other Peoples in the south-eastern part of the North American continent, where I now live. This week I have been especially in need of this account of How Things Happened.

The following is, as always, merely my telling for this moment. I give gratitude to the Peoples who originally told the Story, to their descendants who still tell it today, and to the land and animals from whom the Story arose. I don’t know if my telling is exactly how it happened, but I know that it is True:

Long ago there was a time when the world was dark and cold. An icy wind blew and all the People suffered. And so it went, on & on. The People suffered from the cold, from the dark.

Finally, one day all the People — Skunk & Cricket, Bear & Frog, Eagle & Turtle, and all the others — gathered together in a great Council to decide what to do. Their bodies shivered & their teeth chattered. At last, Fox spoke up. “I have heard,” he said, “that far away there is a village of people who have something called Fire. It warms them & lights their nights. But I have heard,” he continued, “that they will not share this magic. They want to keep it all for themselves.”

The People grew angry and a great uproar arose. At last, someone shouted, “Who will go to fetch us some of this wonderful Fire?”

“I will!” “I will!” they all clamored at once. After a time, Possum’s voice was loudest. “I will go for us,” said Possum. “My beautiful tail is bushy, covered with thick fur. I will hide the fire in my tail and easily bring it back,” he bragged. It was agreed by all, and off Possum went. The People shivered as they waited.

After a time, Possum returned, sadly dragging his naked tail behind him. “That Fire is fierce,” he said. “My tail was soon covered in flames and the people saw me. I was barely able to get away.” And Possum sat down, ashamed, at the back of the crowd.

Again the voices rose, “Who will go to bring back the Fire?” And many People answered, “I will.”

“”Ha!” shouted proud Vulture, “the crown of feathers on my head is stronger than fur. And I can soar high, out of reach of those greedy people. I will bring the Fire!” It was agreed, and Vulture flew off quickly on his wide wings.

The People waited, and after a time they saw Vulture returning, high in the sky. But when Vulture landed, his head was scorched and all of his glorious feathery crown had been burnt away. Vulture hung his head and hunched his shoulders, and silently crept to the back of the crowd.

Again, the crowd cried out, “Who will go for us?”

This time, only silence.

Then, in the great silence, a tiny voice spoke up. “I will go,” said Grandmother Spider.

At once, the People began to shout: “But you are too little!” “But you are too old!” “But you are only a woman….”

Grandmother Spider ignored the shouts. She simply set to work spinning and weaving a little basket, patted some damp mud on it to help it stick to her back, and off she went. She left so quietly that no one noticed & the shouts of “You’re too old! You’re too weak!” went on for quite awhile longer.

Grandmother Spider spun out long lines of her silk and swung from one tree to the next until she came to the village of the greedy people. Grandmother Spider looked down from her tree and saw that those people were angry. Two outsiders had tried to steal their Fire! Those people posted guards with knives and bows & arrows all around their village and all around their splendid Fire.

Quietly, quietly, Grandmother Spider climbed down from that tree. Slowly, carefully, she walked between those fierce and angry guards. No one looked down to see her among the shadows. No one could hear the silent passage of her tiny feet. Grandmother Spider walked right up to the fire and carefully placed a tiny ember in the basket on her back.

And off she went towards her home village. The way was easy for her as she swung by her silk thread from tree to tree, and soon she was back in the great shivering throng of folk in her village. She went to the center and called out in her tiny but very clear voice, “Gather wood! Here is the Fire!”

Soon there was a huge heap of dried sticks & branches. Someone shook the ember out of her basket and soon there was a blazing fire. No one shivered anymore. Then “Look!” a voice cried out, “Look at Grandmother Spider’s basket!” And sure enough, the clay she had patted around the basket was dry and strong.

Indeed, old Grandmother Spider had brought the People two gifts: the Gift of Fire and the Gift of Pottery. And so it was.

I give gratitude to Grandmother Spider for her bravery & persistence & artistry in bringing gifts to the People. I had special need of her Story this past week after I read Heather Cox Richardson’s newsletter of October 16.

In this newsletter, Professor Richardson outlines the details of a new law passed in Texas to control what children may or may not learn about in school. The Texas House Bill 3979 is way beyond appalling! Among many other things, Dr. Richardson comments that

Topics explicitly eliminated from the teaching standard are also instructive. Those things cut from the standards include: ‘the history of Native Americans,’ and ‘[founding] mothers and other founding persons.‘ “

I was immediately taken back to my years teaching at an American school in Libya. I arrived in Libya about 2 weeks before the start of school. On the first day of school, I had my classroom all decorated & organized and I was looking forward to meeting my students. But, as I went out the door that morning, a neighbor called out, “No school today! There’s been a revolution!” At first I thought he was just teasing a new teacher….. but it was true. It was the coup that put Qaddafi in power as dictator in Libya. During my 5 years teaching there, I found that living through a revolution and continuing under a dictator offers many kinds of traumas. But what I was remembering when I read Heather Cox Richardson’s newsletter was the day when we teachers were forced to black out, in all our written materials including encyclopedias, any mention of Israel.

That is was a dictatorship looks like — the specific exclusion of things that those in power want no one to know.

I have 3 grandchildren currently enrolled in Texas public schools. I know that my love of weaving & working with fibers goes back to our 2nd grade study of the Navajo and their weaving practices and stories. It was in this class that I first wove on a simple frame loom. What ideas, encounters, and dreams might my grandchildren miss through the limited and closely prescribed “education” now required in Texas? How narrow will their worlds become?

Thoughts of Grandmother Spider have now calmed me down enough so that I can begin writing letters to the powers that be. My gratitude to Grandmother Spider for giving me courage to confront the threats. May I strive to emulate her persistence & craft.

"Then speak.
 Grow poetry in the debris left behind by rage.
 Plant so there is enough for everyone to eat.
 Make sure there is room for everyone at the table.
 Let all of us inhabit the story, in peace."

                  Joy Harjo, Warrior Poet: A Memoir
— photo by Marcel Kessler

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