Karuk Storytellers Bypass Bookshelf
Retell Traditional Stories
By Malcolm Terence, Two Rivers Tribune Contributing Writer
Published in the Two Rivers Tribune March 14, 2017-Volume 23, Issue 10
For generations children were taken from Native families in the U.S. and sent to Indian boarding schools where they were instructed in the English language white culture at the expense of their own language and culture. The Karuk Tribe is using a handful of federal grants to move in the other direction with the present generation of young people.
The new program was put into action when a group of story tellers came to river schools. Besides the stories, the group shared xuun sára, acorn bread or crackers, and champínishich, yerba buena tea. Jesse Goodwin, one of the students, nodded appreciatively at the snacks and said he’d never had either before. His classmates agreed.
The audience for the first presentation was the students from Junction School in Somes Bar plus students from Forks Elementary up the Salmon River. Team members prefaced the storytelling with a discussion of how the oral tradition worked, and let the students begin drawing their own comic strips to tell a story.
Then Julian Lang took the stage. He explained that he grew up when there was a church at what is now the school site. He recalled that there was a rope swing that would carry a person out over the edge of the bluff and back. He was from the Conrad family on his grandmother’s side and Tripp family on his grandfather’s side.
Besides and artist and a scholar, he is also a student and teacher of the Karuk language. He would divert from his delivery to teach phrases to the students. When a coworker walked in late, he teased hôotah kúkuun, late again, and repeated the words a few times. Language is acquired through repetition.
He led the children in a repetitive tune in Karuk, amtáapitck kukuku, and told them to standup like a one-legged, one-eyed creature, the earthworm. As soon as the school kids were out of their seats, wobbling on one leg, he congratulated them, encouraged them to all applaud themselves, and then to shake hands with the person next to them.
Capturing a crowd of school kids, especially when they’re bouncing around on one leg, is no easy task, but Julian had already captured their imaginations.
He launched into story with a question. “It’s about a really handsome guy. Girls thought he was handsome. How many of you girls have seen a really handsome guy?”
There were many giggles and many hands raised as he launched the story about a group of girls long ago before White people came, who were digging the edible roots called tayiith, Indian potatoes, with sticks. As they found them, they placed them in a big pile, which they would later load, into their baskets.
He taught the children in the classroom a chant, ku áan áan áan áan. He had them repeat it a few times, before he continued the story, “Then a very handsome guy started down the hill,” and he fell into the crouch of a dancer jumping center at ceremony.
“He started talking to the giggling girls and told them, ‘You want me to sing?’ Then he lined the girls up into a line with the tallest in the center.” Julian made a circular step, something between casting a magic spell and farting, although he delicately avoided that word.
All the girls fell in a trance and when they woke, all but the smallest Indian potatoes were gone. They brought the news to the grandmother who started sharpening one of the sticks and handing it to the tallest girl.
“When he comes again, goose him with this stick when he gets ready to poison you,” she instructed.
Julian said that the handsome boy came again and the girls were again entranced, but the tallest girl remembered and stabbed the boy hard when he again pivoted to poison the girls.
The handsome boy became a skunk, Julian said, and to this day he walks around funny. Julian imitated the jerky movement of a skunk.
From there, he switched to stories of putwans, Indian devils, and of a boy who was kidnapped but eventually returned to his grandmother.
At the end of the stories, the class was asked, “What did you learn from the stories?” Several hands shot up and the first student answered, “Never fall for a cute boy.”
The visit to classrooms is part of a $1 million grant the Karuk Department of Natural Resources has gotten for its Pikyav Field Institute. Pikyav means “fix it” in Karuk. It refers to the Tribe’s traditional and continuing efforts to restore the earth and its creatures to harmonious balance.
After the presentation at Junction School in Somes Bar, the Karuk team went to schools in Orleans, Happy Camp and Yreka.
Over the past decade the Tribe has been working with academic institutions and researchers to integrate traditional ecological knowledge and western science into contemporary management practices.
Key projects were developed as part of a five-year USDA-funded Klamath Basin Food Security Grant, led by Dr. Jennifer Sowerwine from UC Berkeley, and they were used to leverage the new grant award.
Project objectives include curriculum and cultural sensitivity trainings, further development of culturally-relevant California Common Core Standards-based curriculum, support for students interested in pursuing careers in the environmental sciences, and continued implementation of experiential learning activities grounded in traditional ecological knowledge.
“The Indian Boarding School era was one of many factors leading to the inter-generational trauma native peoples experience today. By incorporating Native American traditional ecological knowledge into the lessons taught in local schools, we hope to mitigate some of the wrongs done to our people in the past,” said Leaf Hillman, Karuk Tribe’s Director of Natural Resources and Environmental Policy. “This effort represents a valuable contribution to tribal sovereignty.”
After the storytelling and the sampling of local tea and acorn crackers, the students were surveyed—show of hands fashion—about what they learned from the day.
Then Stormy Polmateer, part of the visiting team, asked how many girls would be interested in learning to make baskets. Many hands shot up. To be clear she added that basket making includes harvesting materials all year. “Who’s interested in gathering materials,” she asked. Short pause, and then, again, many hands shot up.