“But how could you live and have no story to tell?
Fyodor Dostoevsky, “White Nights”
“It’s like everyone tells a story about themselves inside their own head. Always. All the time. That story makes you what you are. We build ourselves out of that story.”
Patrick Rothfuss, Author
“Before talking of holy things, we prepare ourselves by offerings…one will fill his pipe and hand it to the other who will light it and offer it to the sky and earth…they will smoke together….Then they will be ready to talk.”
Mato-Kuwapi, or Chased By Bears, a Santee-Yanktonai Sioux
The Pipestone National Monument located in SW Minnesota is sacred ground for Native Americans who use the hard red clay found there for making pipes. Stories of their pipe making are centuries old and passed down from generation to generation. One story explaining the origin of the unique clay is found in a Lakota Sioux legend:
In times long past there was a great flood. The people and buffalo climbed up a mountain to escape the flood. The water kept rising until there was no land and the people and buffalo perished. As the waters retreated the blood of the people and the buffalo gathered in one pool and solidified creating a quarry of hard deep red clay.
The pipe’s red clay bowl hewn from the quarry is the flesh and blood of ancestors and the smoke rising from the bowl is their living breath, their spirit. The chaunpa (pipe) comes alive when it is used in a ceremony and the power and presence of ancestors flowing from it are experienced by the participants. It was through the telling of stories such as this that the people came to know who they were, honor their foundational relationships, and face the future with hope.
As with the Sioux we all come to know ourselves best through stories. Stories define us and our relationships much more than any statistic or material possession.
We all have stories that influence our lives, affecting how we view ourselves and our relationship to others.
Here is one such personal story:
I had eczema, a serious skin rash, from birth through age 20. I had just turned 20 and was home from college for Christmas. I brought with me a painful rash on my neck that prevented me from turning my head from side to side. My mother sent me to a dermatologist. A nurse took me into the dermatologist’s office. Fifteen minutes later the dermatologist entered his office, did not say a word, touched my chin, looked at my neck, said “Huh,” scribbled something on a piece of paper, placed ii on his desk, got up and went to the office door, turned to me and said his first words, “Oh, that paper has a prescription that will help soften your neck, but you and I know that is not the solution. Get your shit together.” He left the office. Three months later the rash was gone and has never returned.
Within a few moments the doctor had opened my eyes to see what I knew was true: I had to begin living my own life and not just try to please others all the time.
This short event changed the story of my life and continues to influence me to this day.
Great storytelling challenges our biases. When we only look to support our bias we miss the power inherent in stories. Storytelling does not begin with a biased conclusion that tries to justify that bias. Bias stories may distinguish us from others, however, storytelling at its best begins with experience, information, and evidence before any conclusions are drawn. Self-serving storytelling that does not listen to other perspectives often leads to anger, self-righteousness, and ultimately separates us one from another.
Stories are about more than self-image. We have a shared heritage and stories through which we can develop relationships, rapport, and concern for other people. It is life-giving to work with those who think differently when the relationship is founded in mutual respect, personal integrity, and shared stories.
The story of the red clay peace pipe continues, or as the long-time radio newscaster Paul Harvey (1918-2009) used to say, “And now, the rest of the story….”
When warring tribes within the Sioux nation sought peace they came together, one tribe bringing the red clay bowl and the other the stem of the peace pipe. The stem represented earth and all living things and the bowl the avenue to the Great Spirit. They connected the bowl to the stem, removed “nawak’osis” (sacred tobacco) from their medicine bundles, blended the tribes’ tobaccos, and shared the sacred smoke containing the spirit of their ancestors.
Only after they recognized their common gifts from the animals and the earth, their shared history, ancestors, and participated in the centuries old sacred peace pipe ceremony, did they negotiate their differences. Through lifting up their shared story and watching the ancestral smoke from the pipe of peace, they soothed the anger and hatred that separated them. They could then work together without bias to reach peaceful conclusions.
Today we are a period of transition, a people of the parenthesis, searching for honest interpretation of our history and our stories. Mistrust and distortion of facts stand in our way. We are challenged to discover documentable truth in our communal and individual lives, share the peace pipe of our common history, and interpret anew the stories of our lives that make us one people. All sides must participate if we are to find direction and the “truth that sets us free.”
Within our stories resides our hearts. Sometimes wounded, sometimes healed. It is in sharing of our stories that we find our identity, come to know and care about each other, acknowledge pain and loss, feel the warmth of joy, and laugh together over remembered events.
In stories we live and move and have our being.
Postscript: This article was made ready for publication the morning of October 2, hours after the President and First Lady of the United States joined over 7,300,000 other Americans with COVID-19. As we wish the President and First Lady all the best, both our personal and shared stories as citizens will be affected. May we learn from the tragedy of the coronavirus, share a pipe of peace, and move forward with a common story that brings us together with hope and shared direction for the country we all love.
Written by: Hartzell Cobbs
Hartzell Cobbs is the retired CEO of Mountain States Group (now Jannus, Inc.), a diverse nonprofit human service organization. He is the author of the recent book, RavenWind, that is available through outlets such as Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and Archway Publishing. His first book, Thanatos and the Sage: A Spiritual Approach to Aging, is available through Amazon.
More about Dr. Cobbs’ latest book, Ravenwind…
From ancient lore, down millenniums, traveling through worldwide mythologies, legends, and folktales, the mythical raven is entwined in the history of mankind. Most researchers agree that about twenty thousand years ago the first Americans came from Siberia across the Bering Land Bridge to what is now North America. The Siberians and their shamans were accompanied by the mythical raven who mediated between the physical and spiritual worlds.
With the Siberian influence, Northwest Native American mythology speaks of the raven as creator, destroyer, and trickster. As in Siberia, raven soars on the wind between the great spirit/mystery and the physical world. Raven teaches respect for earth and the oneness of all that is.
In RavenWind, author Hartzell Cobbs offers at look at the raven’s role in world history and in Native American myths, legends, and folktales. He tells how the raven of folklore calls one to follow, to listen, and experience life with all its complexity, insight, ambiguity, contraction, and humor. With an emphasis on Native American tradition, Cobbs explores the presence of mythical raven in the mundane.