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Guilderland Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, June 24, 2010

Old stories at Old Songs: Bruchac has tales for all seasons

By Saranac Hale Spencer

ALTAMONT — Sodden, dusty summer days are too soft to carry stories of creation.  Those stories rest on the heft of blankets and sharp, cold winter air.

If a man tells a story out of season, he could be stung on the lip by a bee, said Abenaki storyteller Joseph Bruchac.  He saw it happen once.

About 10 years ago, Bruchac was listening to a man tell a story not suited to the season at the National Storytelling Festival when he was promptly stung on the lip.  It was a moment of astounding coincidence.  The Abenaki Indians believed that the little people who looked after the crops and the earth would turn into bees to swell shut the mouth of a person telling a story in the wrong season, Bruchac said.

The root of seasonal storytelling is probably quite logical, he said, since winter can accommodate stories, with people bundled around a fire, better than the summer, when the fields must be tended.  “It does make the story more special,” he said, to have it fit a certain time and place.

Abenaki stories are told for two reasons — to entertain and to instruct, Bruchac said.  The setting largely dictates what tale is told.  The story of Azban the raccoon, who strayed from his chores to compete with the roar of a waterfall, might be told to a mischievous child, for example.  The word raccoon comes from the Abenaki word, arekun, Bruchac noted.

He doesn’t like to pick favorites, but Bruchac is partial to the trickster stories like Azban’s, in which animals make the same mistakes as humans, because “laughter is good medicine,” he said.  The humor in those stories doesn’t take aim at an individual.  “It’s a heeling sort of humor that you find in these stories,” he said.

People carry a lot of anger and confusion, he said, and “it’s amazing how laughter lifts your cares.”  Also, he added, “humor can wake you up to reality.”

Each story carries a message, he said, adding that every culture has a similar tradition.  Illustrating the point, he told a new story that he had recently heard: Arthur Parker had left his medicine bag to a museum and, several years after his death, a man got curious about whether the bag would contain a humming bird, which was Parker’s totem.

Strict tradition maintains that nobody can look in another person’s medicine bag.  But, the man thought it had been long enough and climbed the ladder to reach the bag. He untied the knot and unwound the leather string once, twice, three times, and, as he was unwrapping the fourth round, a humming bird came in through the window and flew around four times.  He rewrapped the string and returned the bag to its place.

The moral of the story, Bruchac said, is, “Let well enough alone… Pandora’s box.”

He and his son, Jesse Bruchac, tell the stories in both English and Abenaki, which is a language of distinct syllables that roll in unhurried waves.  Less than two dozen speakers of the language are left, most of whom are elderly, he said.

Bruchac “grew up in a time when people didn’t talk about being Indian,” he said.  Raised by his grandparents near their southern Adirondack general store, Bruchac didn’t grow up with Abenaki stories, but spent a great deal of time around the potbelly stove where people at the fire “would sit and trade yarns,” he said.

“Sometimes what your parents and grandparents don’t tell you is what you seek out when you get older,” he said of finding the Abenaki stories, which he has been doing for 45 years.

Many traditional stories have been forgotten, he said, but “I’m always hearing new stories.”  The hummingbird story, for example, follows a traditional pattern, with a beginning, middle, and end with “no sense of incompleteness,” he said, and it has the element of a lesson.

Original Abenaki stories followed the seasons, like the movement of their lives.  The tribes would move seasonally — to the rivers to fish, to the fields to plant, and the woods to hunt.

“There was a cycle people followed,” he said, “always coming back to the same areas.”


Joseph and Jesse Bruchac will perform at this year’s Old Songs Festival to be held at the Altamont Fair grounds June 25, 26, and 27.  Ticket prices range from $20 for a youth day ticket to $120 for the weekend including camping.  The festival features dozens of performers, classes, and dancing.

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