Native American storyteller passes on traditional tales to next generation
February 28, 2012
By Tom Corrigan
Roger Fernandes believes his visits to schools such as Grand Ridge Elementary School are essentially public relations appearances for Native Americans.
An artist and Native American storyteller, Fernandes put in an appearance at Grand Ridge on Feb. 16. He and students from the school put on a performance — songs, dances and native games — for parents and school staff members that evening.
“There is just a dearth of knowledge about Native Americans in general,” Fernandes, a member of the Lower Elwha S’Klallam peoples, said.
Speaking to the third-grade class of teacher Krista Guenser, one of Fernandes’ first stories concerned a rabbit disrupting a meeting of the other forest animals by drumming and singing.
One by one, in an attempt to get on with their meeting undisturbed, the other animals removed the rabbit’s arms, legs and even his head. But somehow, the singing and drumming didn’t stop. The animals then realized the drumming and singing came from the rabbit’s heart. The moral of the story?
“If something comes from someone’s heart, you shouldn’t stop it,” Fernandes said.
Fernandes said he is a strong believer that stories attract some form of innate response in all people, but especially in children. There are plenty of ways of telling stories, such as TV, movies and books. But Fernandes said there is something special about a story being told by mouth, by a live person right in front of you. As he travels from school to school, he never has a problem getting children’s attention.
“Something kicks in and they just start listening,” Fernandes said.
Another story he told revolved around why people eat animals and, generally speaking, not the other way around. After all, humans are slow, have no fur, no claws, no wings. All in all, humans are pretty pitiful compared to say, a bear. In the story, the animals became convinced humans were food and should be eaten.
For their part, humans argued they had bigger brains and therefore they should be the predator, not the prey. The argument couldn’t be decided. Both sides agreed they would consult an old wise woman living in the forest. Nobody even knew how old she was. She listened to the question and the arguments and told both sides to come back in four days.
Instead of settling the issue directly, the woman told the humans and animals to dig up the bones of some ancestors and play a game to see who would be eaten and who wouldn’t. After some wrangling over the game, the humans won. Native Americans play the bone game as a gambling game to this day, Fernandes said. He taught the game to Guenser’s students, who demonstrated it for their parents that evening.
Guenser said Fernandes’ visit was, as he indicated, a way to expose students to another culture. Grand Ridge teacher Renee DeTolla helped arrange the visit, paid for with a grade level grant from the school PTSA.
For their part, Guenser’s students seemed more than willing to sing and clap along with Fernandes’ performance. Guenser happily suggested students she thought could make their way through a gauntlet of cheering, clapping students without smiling, another Native American game. Guenser tried it as well and didn’t make it very far at all, saying she likes her students too much to be successful.
Besides schools around the area, Fernandes said he visits community centers, libraries and even colleges. He described himself as low tech, relying on word of mouth about his performances.
“Hopefully, those students will have a better context in which to place Native Americans,” he said.