and the SONG

by Patric Hedlund


Storytelling was the heart of education among traditional peoples. Their art and culture and education were all one, part of a flowing song ... that passed with the seasons from one generation to the next.




The U.S. Congress passed a law in 1864 making it illegal for Indian children to be taught in their native languages.

At four years of age, children were taken from their families and sent away to U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) boarding schools as part of the U.S. policy to extinguish native cultures. MORE





When Minerva Allen's grandmother and grandfather still walked the earth they told the stories around a campfire. Children gathered sticks and young men pulled logs to the clearing. They built a fire to lick the mountain chill out of the autumn night and Assiniboine elders began the stories as the people gathered round.

They told of Inktomi, the trickster, who helped the Creator make the earth, grow plants, and blow life into the people; they told of Coyote Man and Whispering Woman, stories of young warriors and vanishing braves. The children listened to the stories and watched the flames dance, and when the old storyteller leaned forward to stir the fire, sparks flew up into the sky, making a pathway across the night to the Seven Maidens and Big Brother, Coyote Children and Turtle Woman, toward all the star people burning bright stories through the darkness, into the children's minds.

Today Minerva Allen is a grandmother herself. The stories she tells to Assiniboine and Gros Ventre children of the Fort Belknap Reservation in Montana are part of the bicultural program she established there. She is part of the new wave of university- educated Native Americans taking over the roles of cultural teacher and educational administrator on reservations across North America.

Allen is also an artist. Her computers, scanners, laser printers and desktop publishing software pump out bilingual texts for the Lodge Pole Hayes school district. With modem and telecommunications tools her stories can flicker across telephone lines and satellite links to computer screens hundreds of miles apart.

Assiniboine children touch the glowing images with their fingertips. "Look, look! It's moving and its in our language!" they call, as pixels of light paint a land of lakes and forests, of people lowering the lodge poles, gathering the teepees, fleeing to the mountains before a big battle. Assiniboine, Crow and English words join the images. Myths and history march together, telling the story of the Vanish Braves who followed deer into the forest and are bewitched into the form of tall pine trees.

"Telling stories on the computer puts a mystic, magic type of thing into it for the children," Allen says of her work, "It makes it like its really happening, like its really unfolding. Its like cartoons, only more interesting, more exciting, because its their own language, and about them, our own heritage.

To the south, in the dry washes at the end of summer, when the desert stars shine bright and hard as small white stones, Navajo children watched their grandfather draw stories into the sand under the full moon. He carved worlds into their memories, telling them of bravery, trickery and wisdom he'd heard about from his grandfather. The stories lived in the stars and the sand, spoke through the wind in the trees, and when the children walked over the land they remembered who they were and where they came from.

Willis Tsosie's grandfather was a Navajo medicine man. Today Tsosie uses an IBM computer to create images from his grandfather's stories. He studies at Little Big Horn College on the Crow reservation in Montana.

Towering orange cliffs boom off the computer screen, blasting themselves into massive wipes of desert colors, a man faces outward in front of them, looking into the openness ahead, strong and confident....

"Some of the drawings are part of what grandfather told me," Tsosie says, "like he'd picture Monument Valley....He'd go as a medicine man, and when he came back he'd share stories about what helped these people. My grandfather said that spiritual beings brought different kinds of ceremonial designs to help people. Knowledge of those designs has been brought down through Navajo mythology in the tradition of the Lodges. They knew the designs that were powerful.... They would select the proper design for the specific problem, and the sand painting they made had to be perfect. I use the medicine man approach in my computer work. I concentrate on that which I know I can do, and then I put it on the computer..."

Henry Webster is a member of the Chippewa Cree Tribe in Montana. He is an Information Technician at the Stone Child Community College on the Rocky Boy Reservation.With a hardy laugh, he tells about receiving a check in the mail recently for art purchased from the Native American Share-Art Gallery, a permanent "on line" exhibition which is part of a computer bulletin board called Russell Country BBS.

On Russell Country BBS, Native American artists are experimenting with bold graphics in colorful dynamic sequences, then sending them over distances by ordinary telephone. The system is operated by a rural schoolteacher named Cynthia Denton. The area code is to Hobson, Montana, but the gallery exists in cyberspace, a collusion of quantum mechanics, human imagination and computerized telecommunications that is creating a new theater for this emerging body of Native American art.Today, this electronic artwork will paint itself across your computer screen anywhere in the world, with a simple call through a microcomputer, modem and a piece of special software called NAPLPS (nap-lips) . You can dial in and browse through the electronic gallery without charge. Those who wish to download a graphic or animated story to keep for themselves are asked to send $25 to the artist.

"I don't really know why that particular image came out," Webster recalls of the piece he recently received payment for.

"I went to some elders afterward and described my painting, trying to understand what it means. It was a Feather Shield. It shows the four corners of life, like a compass. I put a feather on the front with a teepee and mountains. The shield is a sign of protection. The feather in the shield is a sign of respect, and the four corners are the symbol o our whole life, from beginning to end."

"When our families had feasts we would listen to stories from the older folks. They would talk about the symbols and images and what they meant to our people. All this stuff is built into your mind, it comes out in your art."

Storytelling was the heart of education among traditional peoples. Their art and culture and education were all one, part of a flowing song of knowledge that passed with the seasons from one generation to the next..Today a cultural renaissance is underway, based again on ancient stories and an unlikely ally of oral culture--the microcomputer.


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