Cree Storytelling

Storytelling is an oral tradition passed on from one generation to another. The stories are memorized and repeated, sometimes changing each time they are told. The special stories about the origins of sacred ceremonies, and especially the Creation legend, are told with great precision. The stories of the Cree incorporate all that life incorporates, accepting good and evil, cruelty and beauty, crudeness and fancy equally, as part of the world.

Storytellers are judged according to their eloquence, and their ability to improvise and improve stories for entertainment. They are welcomed wherever they go. Some people who are not storytellers by trade also have the ability to memorize and invent stories.

The Cree tell long stories about personal hunting adventures. The narrator uses gestures and movements to illustrate the story. The movements of the animals, the stealthy approach of the hunter, the aim, the shot, the cry of the animal or the pursuit are all acted out as the tale unfolds.

Stories are used to entertain listeners of all ages, to instruct the young, and to preserve history, rituals and beliefs. They are told during the long cold winter nights when everyone is craving stimulation, wanting something to spark their imagination.

The Cree belief that stories based on fiction cannot be told during the summer is shared by many nations. Summer is the season when people are supposed to use their time as well as possible. People who narrate such stories in the summer risk having their lives destroyed by lizards, who would come to suck their blood. It was believed that toads or snakes would creep into the beds of people who wasted precious time telling stories before the first snow fell. This type of punishment is also reserved for narrators of the endless cycles about the superhuman chameleon-like joker Wisakecahk, a revered character in the Cree storytelling tradition. During the summer, spirits are about and may take revenge on people who tell stories that are damaging to them. Animals may also overhear and be offended by the stories when they are roaming in the summer.

Stories lose meaning when translated from their original language. Meaning is also lost to people of other cultures. There are images, suggestions and associations in these stories that mean nothing to the outsider but are apparent in the minds of the Cree. The connection to nature, to the Great Spirit and to other peoples is part of Cree culture and is reflected in the stories that are told to children from the time they are born.