While the winter solstice in the northern hemisphere doesn’t occur until December 21, in my ancestral homelands, waníyetu—snow time—has already arrived. Our first blizzard of the season paid us a visit this week.
I’ve lived in the northern plains all my life, so snowstorms and the bitter cold that follows are hardly a surprise—but I admit that I don’t look forward to icy roads, downed power lines, nor the cost associated with heating the family home.
Nonetheless, four seasons, including a healthy dose of winter, are an indispensable part of my heritage. For thousands of years, my Oceti Sakowin (Great Sioux Nation) ancestors utilized the spring and summer growing season as well as the fall harvest to prepare for survival in a deep freeze that could last five, or even six months.
That said, there were benefits to being stuck indoors with your food, clothing and shelter needs pretty much taken care of. Winter camp also meant a sense of stability for the season, and safe shelter in a valley where storms and cold were less severe. Like other Indigenous Nations, my people were specialists in regard to the ecosystems they dwelled within. They knew better than to put up permanent settlements in areas that were susceptible to extreme weather, so they wintered in places where conditions were optimal.
Winter was when storytelling flourished. Dusk came early, nights were long, and entire extended families gathered around a fire.
As a result of their diligence and preparation, the coldest season of the year became a time when creativity blossomed, and traditions and kinship bonds were further solidified. Winter counts were drawn on hides, documenting the events of the year. Women sewed, made beadwork and quillwork, and later, painted onto parfleche. Those who identified as men were free to work on their medicine and weaponry. Winter was a great time to procreate, too, for obvious reasons.
Winter was also when storytelling flourished. Dusk came early, nights were long, and entire extended families gathered around a fire. It was the perfect occasion for it. Over many millennia, the season became known for storytelling.
Stories took many shapes and forms. Of course, legends were commonly told, but the information relayed via storytelling varied widely. The Oceti Sakowin exercised oral tradition, meaning they used speech to pass down cultural knowledge, rather than written words. Because of this practice, stories became a vehicle for sharing spiritual beliefs, tribal values and customs, history, genealogy, dreams, flights of fancy, and even scientific findings. The Oceti Sakowin Dakota, Lakota and Nakota people studied the stars, which were especially vivid on cool, crisp winter nights over an everlasting bed of snow blanketing the prairie clear to the horizon. This provided them with the ideal opportunity to teach youth about astronomical events that had been witnessed in the past, discuss constellations, and remark on their movements with the passage of time.
Stories celebrated heroes, explained natural phenomena, issued warnings, recalled events from long ago, taught ceremonial protocols and procedures, and excited young minds with tales of magic, far away worlds, and the unseen. Stories were, in their own right, magical, and medicinal.
Stories celebrated heroes, issued warnings, taught ceremonial protocols, and excited young minds with tales of magic, far away worlds, and the unseen.
While anyone could share, there were individuals who were particularly gifted at spinning yarns. These storytellers were an important, recognized part of Oceti Sakowin society and were held in high esteem.
My grandfather Inyan Hoksina (Stone Boy) said a storyteller lived with his family when he was a child. He was an elder and distant relative who would sit in the corner and share his wisdom and collection of tales with anyone who would listen. Children were always gathered around him, especially in winter. This elder did little else but tell stories, and that was enough to secure his position in the household.
Curiously, one story he told was about a time when the Oceti Sakowin lived in a warm place where oranges grew on trees and there was no need to wear heavy buckskin to keep warm. On his deathbed, my grandfather said one of the few regrets he had in his life was that he wished he had listened to the storyteller more.
This is not to say that storytelling was exclusive to winter. Storytelling is a beloved activity across seasons today. A few days ago, I participated in inipi (sweat lodge). Non-natives would probably be surprised at the amount of storytelling that happens during ceremonies. Amongst the songs, prayers, offerings, medicine, and sacred rites, we talk a lot. We share our trials, hardships, and concerns, and discuss visions and messages from the spirit world, with all seriousness—but we laugh, too. We tell funny stories about one another, tease each other a little, and joke, all while partaking in ancient ceremonies carried on generation after generation, despite the persecution, oppression and genocide inflicted upon us, and that laughter is just as much a part of the ritual as every other component.
Stories are a gift, so it’s no wonder that Indigenous peoples birthed a robust tradition of storytelling.
Storytelling has its own unique energy, but for my people, it has evolved beyond speech. As we were forced to adapt to the Western world and were educated in the English language, we learned to write. Now, we share stories both verbally, and through the written word. Our elders tell us to embrace this new method of communication. Taku icagopi hena akikitunzapsni. Write what should not be forgotten.
While there are words within the Oceti Sakowin Dakota/Lakota/Nakota dialects that possess no clear English translation, we are still able to use the colonizer’s tongue to spread our truths, give voice to the silenced, and not only share our creative genius, but educate the public about Indigenous ways, and use the media to shine a light on injustices we’ve suffered as well as help protect the sacred, like our Mother, planet Earth.
Stories are a gift, so it’s no wonder that Indigenous peoples birthed a robust tradition of storytelling. Generosity is a strongly held value among the Oceti Sakowin, and many other Native nations. Even if one has no material possessions, we may gift each other with beautiful, moving stories, using our time and energy to bring them to life and pass them on, while also preserving precious ancestral knowledge in the process. Give thanks for receiving the gift of being a messenger. Words have immense power.