A Learning Experience

Aug 15th, 2012 | By | Category: 24-1: Communicating Yesterday's Stories Today, Web Exclusive
By Patty Harmon

Storytelling can help adults understand the customs, history and heritage of Native Americans.  Up until the last few weeks that statement is one that I would have never given much thought to.  I now have a much greater appreciation for storytelling and have come to realize how important it can be. 

My Grandfather William was half Cherokee Indian.  His mother was a full-blooded Cherokee, his father a German.  How they came to marry, no one is quite sure.  No one remembers the exact date my grandfather was born, but it was sometime around 1900 in Ohio.  He never talked about his parents, so we do not know how many siblings, if any, he had.  So as you can tell from all this – he did not share much with anyone, including my grandmother. 

My grandparents lived in Kansas most of their adult lives, and that is where they raised their children. Unfortunately, I never knew my grandfather, as he passed away before I was born.  Over the years, I’ve only been told a few stories about him, most from my much older siblings and only a couple from my grandmother before she too passed.  Most of the stories were about how cross he always was.  We assumed that was a trait carried on from his father from the few things he did say about him. 

One of the stories I remember hearing most often from my grandmother and my older sisters was that when there would be a bad storm coming (and they come frequently in Kansas, especially in the summer), he would go out back to a tree, kneel on one knee next to it, and put a pinch of tobacco next to the trunk.  I have this vision of my sisters and grandmother with their faces pushed to the window watching him, my grandmother saying, “Crazy old man.”  Whenever they asked him why he did this, his reply would always be the same: “You wouldn’t understand.”

So it wasn’t until now—now that I attend Lac Courte Oreilles Community College and have been attending the storytelling workshops—that I finally understand why my grandfather did this. The tobacco was being offered to guardian spirits for protection, and it was placed next to the tree because that was a clean place, a place not usually stepped on by human beings. I was really excited to be able to call my oldest sister and tell her that I finally knew why grandpa had done this!  It never crossed our minds that what he was doing might have something to do with his Cherokee heritage. I guess we could have tried to look it up, but I’m not sure that without hearing it in person from elders that I would have completely understood.  We all knew it was obviously something important to him and wish he would have shared it with us. 

At least now I can share that story with my children and someday my grandchildren, and be able to tell them why he did that…I finally know the end of the story!

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