When Cliff SiJohn was a boy, he went on a field trip with his sixth-grade class. He was the only Indian boy, and one of the chaperones wrapped him in newspaper so he wouldn’t touch any part of her car.
SiJohn rode that way for six hours, wondering what he’d done to deserve the treatment. But he drew strength by singing, over and over in his head, a song he’d learned from his elders, about a buck prancing through the forest.
SiJohn told the story Monday during the Coeur d’Alene Tribe’s first Winter Blessing, held at the recently completed Stensgar Pavilion, just south of the Coeur d’Alene Casino. The tribe is holding four of the ceremonies this week, welcoming the public to learn more about the significance of winter in tribal tradition.
SiJohn, the tribe’s cultural affairs director, said winter has traditionally been a time for singing, drumming and storytelling, a time when elders pass on morals and values to their children and grandchildren in stories that have been passed down through generations. Those values help children develop a sense of identity, something they can lean on when times are tough, tribal members said.
“It was like pages in my brain. It was like pictures flashing in my brain,” SiJohn said of the storytelling he remembers from his youth. “They would make things come alive – a song, a beat.”
A dozen children from the Healing Lodge of the Seven Nations, a Spokane drug and alcohol treatment program for tribal youth, were among the 40-plus audience members. One of their counselors, Kelly Shirley, said the children who run into trouble frequently are those who lack the oral history tradition, because it teaches them who they are as a people.
“I know they need to fill the spiritual part of their core,” said Shirley, a member of the Navajo/Dine tribe from the Four Corners region. “If they didn’t have a strong family background (in oral tradition), they seem lost” and frequently turn to drugs and alcohol to fill that void. “I totally believe that.”
On Monday, SiJohn sat in the front of the room with the sun streaming in and told “Coyote” stories for about an hour, preceded by traditional dance performances and songs by the Rose Creek singers, a group of young singers and drummers.
In one story, SiJohn told of Coyote trying to arrange a race among the fastest creatures of the forest. Hawk said he was the fastest and Coyote backed him. Then Turtle came up and said he’d race Hawk. Coyote laughed and called Turtle stupid and ugly.
Coyote said the race would be to a distant rock and back. But Turtle said no, he’d race Hawk back to earth from high in the sky. So Eagle flew Turtle far up into the sky, with Hawk flying alongside. Turtle pulled in his head, arms and legs and said to let him go, and he and Hawk plummeted toward earth. Turtle hit first and his impact blew a hole in the ground. When Hawk hit, he busted into pieces.
Turtle pulled his head, arms and legs out and told Coyote he’d hit ground first, winning the race. Hawk was brought back to life but had lost his beautiful golden neck feathers, left only with a black band around his neck.
The moral, said SiJohn: Don’t make fun of people. People come in different sizes and shapes, but you should treat everyone the same. They just might be smarter than you are.
Spokane tribal member Margo Hill, now a judge in tribal court, brought her three children to hear the stories and the music partly because she remembered SiJohn, then executive director of the Spokane Tribe, visiting her classroom at the Wellpinit School when she was a child.
“He always took the time to pass on the history and our stories,” she said. “To me the stories are so important because it passes on the morality.”