Listening to silenced voices

On Feb. 21, individuals of different ethnic backgrounds, occupations and ages gathered at the Lane Community College Longhouse to recount and listen to Native American legends. The event was organized by Lane Community College’s Native American Student Association in honor of International Mother Language Day, a day that encourages the speaking of native languages and appreciation of multilingualism.

Attendees celebrated the history and values intertwined with stories that have been passed down for centuries. For some, the stories were ones they had grown up with. For others, it was a way to connect with their native roots. LCC writing and English instructor Drew Viles, a member of the Confederated Tribes of Siletz Indians, did not grow up hearing traditional legends. He learned ancestral stories that he now tells his granddaughter and performs at events like this one.

The first two traditional stories were performed by University of Oregon students, Native and non-Native, studying the language Ichishkiin. The students performed in a dialect of the language spoken within the Yakama Nation in Washington. With a handcrafted backdrop and stick puppets for characters, the first group of students presented an story about a race to a river between a rattlesnake and eel. The rattlesnake attempts to cheats, but the eel’s sense of smell leads him to the river. While the first group’s story discussed morals, the second-year students who followed told a story about the origin of the trumpet-shaped yellow bells flower. According to the story, the flower faces downward because of the Yellow Sister, who felt ashamed after not promptly getting ready with her two sisters.

Following enthusiastic applause for the students, Jimmy Snyder, a teacher and member of the Kickapoo Tribe in Kansas, told traditional stories he had grown up with.

With a voice that carried across the Longhouse, he told two stories about a character prominent in many Native American stories: Coyote. The first legend told of Coyote helping Squirrel bring her husband, stranded out in the river, back to land. Coyote laughs at Squirrel’s excitement and how she had been trying to save her husband by soaking her tail in the water and wringing it out to empty the river. Coyote puts paint on Squirrel’s back to mark its silliness.

“That’s how chipmunks came to be,” Snyder said abruptly, followed by friendly laughter from the audience.

In Snyder’s next story, the Creator shows fire to Coyote for the first time and tells him to teach the people to respect it. Headstrong Coyote keeps the fire to himself and refuses to share it until it grows large and sets his home ablaze.

“Whenever I notice that I’m being too stubborn,” Snyder commented, “I tell myself that I’ve got too much Coyote in my life.”

Many Native Americans found that this night underlined the necessity of storytelling. Native American Student Program Coordinator, Lori Tapahanso, of Navajo and Acoma Pueblo origins, said that children are born with everything they need in their lives, and they learn through stories. When they grow up, they can share those stories with their children.