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Charlestown Events Celebrate Oral Storytelling

  • An Evening of Storytelling: Native Legends, the fifth annual event, takes place on Saturday at the Fort at No. 4 in Charlestown.

  • Roger Longtoe Sheehan, the chief of the Elnu Abenaki tribe, performs at the Evening of Storytelling at Fort No. 4 in Charlestown in 2015.



Valley News Staff Writer
Thursday, August 10, 2017

In the ancient days, so the legend goes, the wild animals were able to speak. On cold nights, they would gather around a fire and tell stories, just as humans have done for thousands of years.

But Coyote — mean, low-down creature that he was — didn’t care for Snake’s presence at these gatherings. And so Coyote started to bully poor Snake, who back then was toothless, by knotting and throwing him up in the air. When Snake crashed back down, he could only slither off into the dark, humiliated.

This happened three nights in a row. On the third night, the Creator heard Snake crying, and asked what was wrong. Upon hearing of Coyote’s behavior, the Creator agreed to give Snake a leg up, so to speak.

And so the Creator gave Snake a mighty set of fangs, which enabled Snake to strike at Coyote if provoked. But, to keep Snake from misusing his new power, the Creator also gave Snake a special device at the end of his tail, which he could shake by way of warning.

“Coyote learned his lesson after that,” said Bill McKane, who is of Mohawk ancestry and lives in Charlestown. “And that is how Rattlesnake got his rattle.”

Five years ago, McKane and other members of Native American tribes living in the Twin States started holding “An Evening of Storytelling: Native Legends.” The event has become an annual event at the Fort at No. 4 museum in Charlestown, a replica of what was once the northernmost village in the British colonies, built to serve as a trading post along the Connecticut River and to stave off attacks during the French and Indian War.

The Evening of Storytelling takes place on whichever Saturday night in August falls closest to the full moon, and begins with a ceremonial blessing. Members of various Native American tribes then gather around a campfire at the Fort and take part in the oral-storytelling tradition that has managed to survive centuries of violence and an ongoing legacy of oppression at the hands of European colonists.

This celebration of Native heritage will follow a daytime event at the Fort, “Abenaki at the Trading Post,” which will delve more deeply into the Abenaki culture and experiences during the 18th century. This event will also take place on Sunday.

The storytelling will begin Saturday at 6:30 p.m., with the order of speakers moving from oldest to youngest, in accordance with the tradition of elders passing stories down to future generations, said Wendy Baker, director of the Fort at No. 4, who is part Elnu Abenaki, a band based in southern Vermont. Though such storytelling events traditionally took place in winter, “we’re doing it out of season,” said McKane, since wintertime in New Hampshire is not an ideal time to hold an outdoor event.

In its way, the Evening of Storytelling revises a story perhaps more commonly told: that British colonists in Charlestown had “relatively good relations” with the local Abenaki tribe, with the operative word, of course, being “relatively,” said Arthur Bennett, a tour guide at the Fort. While trading between the groups took place during times of peace, the British still forced thousands of Abenakis from their ancestral homes, where archeological evidence suggests some branches of the tribe had lived for at least 10,000 years, said Roger Longtoe Sheehan, chief of the Elnu Abenaki tribe.

This displacement came after smallpox, introduced by Europeans, halved the roughly 10,000 western Abenaki living in what is now Vermont and New Hampshire.

“Yeah, the English tended not to treat us too well,” Sheehan said. “So, little by little, a lot of us went up toward where the French-Canadians were, who treated us far better. A lot of them intermarried with us, which is why so many of us today have that French-Canadian heritage.” Many living members of other Native tribes also come from mixed ancestry, and often pass as being of entirely European descent, Sheehan added.

But not all Abenakis went north, Sheehan said. “They sort of scattered in all directions.

“It was like there was a giant jigsaw puzzle that was put together at one time, then along came the European folks and overnight everything changed,” Sheehan said. “That puzzle flipped up in the air and all the pieces fell all over the place. Some of the pieces are still there, but there’s a ton we’ll never find again. They’ve been sucked up by the vacuum or eaten by the dog, and there’s no way to get them back.”

Despite this loss of culture, Native survivors managed to preserve many of the legends that had shaped their ancestors’ worldview. This was the case among many indigenous peoples, not just the Abenaki, which is why Saturday’s storytelling event is open to anyone with Native ancestry, Baker said.

Though these stories have ancient origins, the nature of oral tradition means the stories are constantly evolving, McKane said. As opposed to written stories, captured verbatim in ink and paper, the details of spoken legends almost inevitably change a bit with each retelling, reflecting the speaker’s individual style, or the context in which the story is told.

For McKane, this is part of the joy of the oral tradition. He recalled the first-ever Evening of Storytelling, when his granddaughter was 4, drinking up the stories with a child’s natural curiosity.

“The theory is, I’ll tell the story tonight, and then you (the child) come back and tell the story back to me tomorrow. Are they going to remember it word for word? Chances are, no,” he said. “But if you can start it right and end it right and get across the general gist of the story, everything in the middle can basically be ad-libbed.”

Now that his granddaughter is going on 10, she’s started telling her own versions of those legends to the youngest members of her family. The long story, then, continues.

In addition to reinforcing generational ties, listening to Native legends can help audiences understand and appreciate a worldview that may be very different from their own, Baker said. Traditionally, these stores tended to serve a deeper purpose than simply to provide entertainment: They answer unanswerable questions, make sense of life’s great mysteries and exemplify the moral framework in which a culture lives.

“They can be stories of creation, stories of how something got its name or its shape, why something is spectacular or not spectacular, stories of courage and facing danger, stories to keep kids from wandering out into the forest until they were old enough to know better,” she said. “The list goes on.”

Unfortunately, like so many jigsaw puzzle pieces, many of these stories faded into obscurity as Native Americans had to “submerge their cultures as a survival mechanism,” Baker said, adding that until recently, even the smallest amount of indigenous ancestry was considered shameful, taboo to even talk about.

“Now, it’s not only accepted — we celebrate it,” she said. “There’s a resurgence of pride in that heritage and in people ... trying to be more self-aware of that heritage, and storytelling helps engender that sense of connection to our own history.”

For Sheehan, taking part in the ancient oral tradition is also an assertion of the Abenakis’ continued existence, in the Twin States and elsewhere, despite the tribe being “deliberately written out of the history of this part of New England,” he said.

“Well, guess what? We’re still here. And we’re rewriting ourselves back into that history.”

Rewriting, in part, by retelling.

An Evening of Storytelling: Native Legends will start at 6:30 p.m. on Saturday, at the Fort at No. 4 in Charlestown. The event will be held outdoors, weather permitting, so organizers encourage guests to bring along camp chairs and flashlights. After all members of Native American tribes who wish to share legends have done so, non-Native audience members may tell stories of their own. Admission ($6 to $10, free for children 5 and under) benefits the museum.

The Fort will also hold an event during the day, Abenaki at the Trading Post, from 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., and on Sunday from 10 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Admission ($6 to $10, free for children 5 and under) includes an optional tour of the Fort. For more information about these events, contact the museum at 603-826-5700 or info@fortat4.com.

EmmaJean Holley can be reached at eholley@vnews.com or 603-727-3216.