Turkey and the Big Reed: A Navajo story for November

I love to focus on Native Americans during November.  This is because Thanksgiving is such a beautiful, truly American holiday that generally gets sort of overshadowed by Christmas, or, on the Waldorf circuit, the very beautiful but very European Saint Martin’s Day.  Thanksgiving was a Native American harvest celebration long before the pilgrims ever arrived and got invited, so that’s why I think it’s a beautiful month to sing songs and tell stories about this highly spiritual, sustainable and responsible culture.  I don’t mention the pilgrims… I don’t have anything against them but I know kids will definitely be learning about the Mayflower and all that in school, all of their lives…and unfortunately probably not about the Native Americans.  And, like the pilgrims, we need their culture and wisdom so much.

from "Navaho Folk Tales" by Franc Johnson Newcomb.  Illustrator unknown.

from “Navaho Folk Tales” by Franc Johnson Newcomb. Illustrator unknown.

So here I will share a Navajo story about Hosteen Turkey and how he saved the seeds- and thus, the food- for the people during the flood.  Following that is a lovely song for this time of year.

Story: Turkey and the Big Reed (adapted by Brooke Bailey from Navaho Folk Tales by Franc Johnson newcomb, University of New Mexico Press, 1967.)  Because this tale is pretty long, I have made a pdf so that it’s easier to print out: Turkey and the Big Reed

Spoiler alert:  In my experience telling this story to five and six year olds, children really identify with Turkey when First Woman chews him out for trying to be helpful.  What kid hasn’t gone through that?  When First Woman realizes she made a mistake, she apologizes.  As an adult, I love that.  As a teacher I often made the mistake of hastily reprimanding a kid who meant no harm… (“I’m not splashing water out of the pool for no reason!  I’m trying to protect us from the ants crawling around here on the pavement!”)  And I’ve had to laugh at myself and apologize.  What teacher or parent hasn’t gone through that?  What a great story.

Song: Land of the Silver Birch

100_3000

Okay, so it’s not a silver birch, it’s a redbud tree. We are some ways from Canada down here and it’s the best I could do!

It’s interesting to note that my favorite song to sing at Thanksgiving is actually a Canadian folk song!  I love to sing this canoeing song with the children and make-believe we are paddling our own canoe, off to have adventures in the great North American wilderness. They really get into it, drumming their knees like drums in the boom-diddy refrain.  Words are based on a poem by First Nation poet Pauline Johnson.

My paddle’s keen and bright
Flashing with silver
Follow the wild goose flight
Dip, dip and swing
Dip, dip and swing her back
Flashing with silver
Swift as the wild goose flies
Dip, dip and swing
Land of the silver birch
Home of the beaver
Where still the mighty moose
Wanders at will
Refrain:
Blue lake and rocky shore
I will return once more
Boom diddy-ahda
Boom diddy-ahda
Boom diddy-ahda 
Boom diddy-ahda boom.
High on a rocky edge
I’ll build my wigwam
Close to the water’s edge
Silent and still
Refrain
My heart grows sick for thee
Here in the low lands
I will return to thee
Hills of the north
Refrain

 

 

the story bag: how to remember an oral story

When I first started telling stories to children (as opposed to reading them from a story book) I worked way too hard.  I would try to memorize the story with the effort of a Shakespearean actor learning lines for Hamlet.  But storytelling isn’t the same as learning a script.  It’s looser, it changes, improvisations and deviations are okay.

Pre-literary people had a lot of little tricks to cheat and help them remember the story.  For instance, all those repititions of “rosy-fingered dawn” in the Odyssey?  They were actually pauses to help the storyteller get his bearings to remember what was coming next.  While the audience enjoyed a few lines of lovely singing, the storyteller was taking a mental coffee break.

I have a mystery in my hand...

I have a mystery in my hand…

Fairy tales also use repitition, and it’s not just because children love it.  In the fairytale Donkey Skin, the princess buys time to wriggle out of a marriage with her incestuous father by asking first for a dress the color of weather, then a dress the color of the moon, then a dress the color of the sun.  The repitions give structure to the storyteller and help her remember what is coming next.

My own trick that I like the best is not only repitition, but something tangible- using a Native American story bag.

“The Iroquis storyteller or Hage’ota carried a bag full of items that acted as mnemoic devices- each item represented a story.  The Hage’ota, or perhaps a chid in the audience, would pull an item out the bag, the item would be shown to the people and the story would begin. ” -Michael Caduto and Joseph Bruchac, Keepers of the Animals.

Three Characters

Three Characters

I adapted this idea a little because I need more help remembering!  Sometimes I will fill a little bag with something simple, like three little objects.  If I were telling “Frog Creates Rain” I might put in my bag:

A pebble, for First Woman

A bit of sponge, for Frog

A feather, for Crane

Holding these objects as I tell the story helps me remember.  When I hold the pebble, I remember First Woman, and so on.  When I know the story very well, I can involve the children by letting them choose and hold objects from the story bag.

Anything to help remember!

 

 

Frog Creates Rain: A Story for Spring

Once upon a time the land was very dry.  It was so dry that a fire started and nobody knew how to put the fire out.

First Woman was the mother of all the people and she felt very sad.  As the boss it was her responsibility to take care of everyone and protect them.  So she went around trying to find a way to put the fire out.  Nobody had any good ideas, and she was practically ready to cry when she came to a swamp where Frog lived.

first_woman

“Friend Frog!” she cried.  “We know you have enough water here in this deep swamp to cover the whole land!  Will you take some out of your swamp and use it to put out the fire that is burning everything up?”

Frog raised his head out the water and saw First Woman standing among the reeds waiting to talk to him, so he swam out and sat on a lily pad.  Once upon a time, Frog had been tall and strong, with a pleasant face and straight legs, but now his legs were crooked, his back was hmped, and his eyes bulged from his head.  But still he wore a beautiful coat made of green mosses, a vest of white lichen, and gloves of bright yellow, and he was considered something of a dandy.  In one way Frog was a most unusual person, for he wore two coats.  One was the usual coat of shiny skin common to all the Water People, but the outer coat was like a coat of green sponge.  It was porous, filled with lots of tiny holes.  It could sop up lots of water, just like a sponge.  Then when Frog didn’t want the water anymore, he would squeeze his coat and let go of all the water- just like when you squeeze a sponge.  Then he could hide in the water if he felt like it, and no one could find him.

First Woman knew all about that.  So she spoke to him very politely.  “We all know you are a magic person and have control of all marsh water.  If you will take some to the fire and put it out, we will be so grateful to you!”

“Hmm,” croaked Frog.  “I think I can, I think I can.”

He dived off the lily pad and swam deep, deep under the water.  He swam so deep that all the Bird People and Human People standing around started to wonder if he had changed his mind and would never come up again.  But really he was soaking up all the water at the bottom of the lake, like a sponge.  Everyone saw the lake getting smaller and smaller, drying up.  When Frog had all the water he could carry, he got out and stood on the shore.

“Now I have plenty of water to put out that fire,” he croaked.  “But someone will have to carry me to the fire.  I cannot fly, and if I walk, it will take too long.”

The Birds were worried.  “If we take him, our sharp talons will poke his coat and all the water will leak out,” they said.

First Woman had an idea.  She took some reeds and made a little swing for Frog. He could ride in it just fine.  But who would carry him?

White Crane said he would do it.  He clamped his talons tight on the Frog swing and spread out his great white wings, and took off.

Vintage illustration from the original source.

Vintage illustration from the original source.

It was hard! Frog was so full of water that he was very heavy!  Crane started out flying high, but soon began to sink lower and lower.  He just wasn’t strong enough.  He thought he could hold Frog no longer.

“Ohhh, Frog,” he groaned.  “I have to let you go!”

“No!” croaked Frog.  “”Don’t do that or we will never put out the fire!  I will squeeze out a little water so I won’t be so heavy!”

He squeezed some water out of his coat and it fell down hard on the fire below, a big torrent of rain, and it put out the flames.  But that was only a little part of the fire.  There was still a lot more.

Crane felt better, but soon began to get tired again. “Ohhh, Frog,” he groaned.  “I am so tired- I am going to drop you!”

“No, don’t do that!” xoraked Frog.  “I can make myself lighter!” And again, he squeezed, and more rain fell out of his coat.  He did it bit by bit, little by little, until all the fire was out out.

Now he was easy to carry, so Crane flew him home.

They landed in the marsh by First Woman.  “We did what you told us,” they said.  “The fire is out.  The problem is, our marsh used to be a lake but now it is only mud and puddles.  So please, in payment, promise not to take any more water from the marshes or we will run out.”

“We will never take water from a marsh,” agreed First Woman, “and what’s more, cranes and frogs will always live there together.”

Frog and Crane were made bosses of all the rain.  Crane could call white rain by waving his white feathers, and Frog could call blue rain by using his cheeping, croaking songs.

That is why, if you find a white feather or you hear a frog sing, it just might rain pretty soon.

 Snip, snap, snout

My tale is all told out.

*This story was adapted by me from a wonderful find from a used bookstore:  “Frog Creates Rain”, Navaho Folk Tales, Franc Johenson Newcomb. 1967, 1990, University of New Mexico Press. pp 151-161.

I simplified it a lot to make it suitable for young children.

Next week we will learn how to tell the story orally and remember everything, and how to act it out!  

Winter in the South

Sometimes it can be very hard to find stories for winter time… a southern winter time, that is.  Here in Houston it has been cold for us (read: ICE!) but there are no snowmen, no penguins, and no hibernating bears, and let’s face it, it’s really hard to find any charming winter songs without these things.

February in Houston does have its own personality, though.  February is gray and icy cold fronts swooping down from the north, followed by the balmy days when you notice the white wing doves are back from Mexico and cooing outside of your window.  February is stepping out one morning in a T-shirt, only to run back home an hour later for your winter coat and hat because that front has moved in.  February is the time to grow paperwhites indoors, and prune the roses, and drive out to the prairie to see the last of the geese if you can.

We're back!

We’re back!

I’ve been looking for stories that celebrate this urban southern Houston winter.  I grew up with stories about snow and penguins in Houston, and while I have no problem with either, hearing only about this sort of classic storybook New England winter as a child made me rather dissatisfied with the balmy one I had.  I always felt that there was something wrong with my native climate; that it wasn’t normal, wasn’t behaving itself, was somehow defective and therefore not worth much; it didn’t really count.  I heard a lot about squirrels, but they were always the cute red kind found up north, not the big gray Texas kind as aggressive and capable of urban survival as the rat.  And I never heard about the doves.  My thinking is that never hearing stories about your own landscape leads to a kind of subconscious devaluing of it.  And Houston has pretty much the worst self-esteem of any city I’ve known.  “It’s ugly, it’s hot, it’s flat”- you hear it all the time.  The prairies are paved with suburbs and we are losing them; we grow up into adults who don’t think our landscape is worth saving.  It doesn’t “count.”

ice on green leaves

ice storm, late January

So I am offering a song about rain, and a Native American story about a freak ice storm coming down to a southern state from up north (sound familiar)?

If children value their own landscape, can this translate to more ecologically conscious adults?  I absolutely think so!

And maybe someday soon, I’ll have a poem about the doves.

Rain Song by Connie Manson

It’s raining, it’s raining, the roofs are getting wet.

The rain will make the flowers bloom,

the mud, we’ll sweep off with a broom,

it’s raining, it’s raining,

the roofs are getting wet.

Ice Man

This tale is a Cherokee legend.  I have adapted it for telling to children.  I originally found it here.  I like it for Houston children because, although we haven’t had snow this winter, we have definitely had a lot of sleet and ice!

Once upon a time, the people had make a fire in the forest, and by accident a big tree caught on fire.  The fire was so big, it even burned down, down, down, all the way into the roots of the tree, and made a big hole in the ground.  Even then the fire did not stop, but kept burning and burning, and the hole of fire got bigger and bigger and bigger.  The people tried to put it out, first by beating it with sacks and then with water, but nothing worked- the fire just got bigger.  The fiery hole grew so big they began to be afraid that it would swallow the whole world!

Finally somebody remembered there was a person who could help!  Far to the north, where it was very cold, there was a little house made of ice.  And in this house was a little man, and he had two long white braids that hung all the way to the ground.  He was the Ice Man.  So the people chose some messengers and they traveled for days and nights to find this man.

It took a long, long time, but finally they reached the little ice house.  The little Ice Man said, “Why yes, I can help you.”  Then he unbraided his long, white hair.  He took it all in his hand in a big bunch, and then THWACK!  He slapped it against his other hand.  “What is he doing?” the messengers asked each other.  But then, they felt a cool, soft wind blowing against their faces.

Once again the little Ice Man took a bunch of hair and slapped it against his other hand- THWACK!  This time the messengers felt a light rain falling.

THWACK!  Ice Man swung his hair a third time.  Sleet started falling down, pointy, wet, fast and cold.

THWACK!  Ice Man swung his hair a fourth time.  CLACK, CLACK, CLACk!  Giant hailstones the size of baseballs pounded down.  The messengers covered their heads with their hands.  Ice Man stopped, and laughed.  Then he sent them all back home.

Back at home, every thing was just the same- except that the giant burning hole in the forest was bigger, and the people were even more scared.  Everybody sat down to watch, and see what Ice Man would do, from his little ice house so far away.

Well, first a cool wind began to blow.  But it didn’t stop the fire- it only made it blaze up higher!

Then a light rain began to fall, but it only made that fire burn hotter.

Then, that rain turned to sleet, so pointy, fast and cold, falling like needles onto the fire, and then hailstones big as baseballs came pounding down- CLACK, CLACK!  HISS, HISSSS said the fire, as it began to steam, smoke and die.

By now the people were even more scared, but not from the fire- they were scared of Ice Man’s storm!  Everyone knows when it is sleeting and hailing it’s best to get inside.  So they ran into their houses and peeked out the windows.  That was a good thing, because now a whirlwind came, full of ice and sleet, throwing hailstones big as boulders down on that fire, into every nook and cranny, smashing every flame and spark, until there was nothing left of that fire, nothing at all, not even the steaming of wood.

Well, finally the whirlwind went away, I guess back up north to Ice Man.  And the people came outside, and do you know what they saw?  That big hole that had been full of fire, was now full of water- a lake!

The only funny thing was… if you went to that lake and listened closely, it almost seemed to be making a crackly sound, like fire.

Snip, snap, snout,

My tail is all told out.