I was curious how Native American students would respond to a traditional elder story so I told them “The First Fire Story” and asked their thoughts. I prefaced the story with a description of my grandmother, an elder of the Cherokee tribe, who taught it to me.
My first memories of my grandmother are of her jet black hair, her huge smile, and her dark eyes. Her name was a- qua- tse Tsa- la- gi lie- lid- is. She was full of contradictions: She laughed a lot, worked hard, played hard, and had definite ideas of what a family should be. She had an opinion that was always right. She was protective of me, the first grandchild and first granddaughter, and started me down the road of the traditional learning and healing ways of the Cherokee people.
I remember the first time that my grandmother took me hunting for herbs and medicines in the woods. She was short (4’2”), but when asked, she would always say, “Four feet, two and a half inches – and 100 pounds of pure love.” She was Cherokee and a healer of our tribe. Everyone called her Maggie. I was a thin little girl of six following behind her – dragging a basket, spade, and woven bag.
As we walked in the woods she always told me stories while teaching me the healing ways. One day she would say, “We are from the Wolf Clan, a strong clan, one that is to be proud of—do not disrespect our family name.” Then she would say, “Dig here. That root is good for stopping bleeding in childbirth,” and I would start digging in the hard, red clay of Pawhuska, OK, for that root.
I learned much of our language from my grandmother and her mother; I am now relearning the language that I have forgotten since she died. I also learned how to mix herbs and barks and plants to bring down fevers (ka na sit a – dogwood); help upset stomachs (sa li, gu gu ga nu lv, da (ga) si a la s de na – peppermint, tickweed, terrapin’s foot); arthritis (u did le hv s gi I lv s gi – feverfew); liver ailments (go s du I (tlv) gv – ash tree); and a variety of other ailments.
Her kitchen was always littered with hanging plants and bags of various dried barks and plants. It smelled spicy, woodsy, and wonderful. Often, as she boiled a remedy, she would ask me to bring this plant or that plant to her, and she would indicate how the remedy should be applied and how it worked.
She also taught me many traditional stories of the Cherokee. I remember sitting at her feet raptly listening to her strong voice flow over me with the images of the characters of coyote, rabbit, turtle, and grandmother spider dancing in my head. The stories still stir in my mind as the words turn to real images, and I can feel again the soft summer’s wind in my hair and smell the barks and plants on her hands as she gestured.
The First Fire (as told by my grandmother)
There was no fire when the world was created. The animal people were cold and only Thunder, who lived in the sky, had fire. It came to pass that Thunder asked the lightning to put fire into the bottom of a hollow tree.
The animal people had to decide how to get fire by crossing the water to get on the island. Raven asked if he could go get the fire as he could fly. He was white and flew to the top of the tree, and his feathers got scorched and he turned black, which is why he is black today.
Screech Owl asked to go. He looked at the fire and burned his eyes – ever since his eyes are red. Hooting Owl and Horned Owl asked to go to get the fire, but the smoke made rings around their eyes, and they still have the rings around their eyes. Snake swam across the water and up the tree, but the heat scorched him and he turned black. He has been black ever since.
Water Spider said she would go, and she could walk on the water. The animal people asked how she would carry the fire, and she said she would weave a web and put a web bowl on her back. She walked across the water and put a small piece of fire in her bowl and came back.
This is how the animal people got fire, and the Water Spider still has the bowl on her back.
Some of the student comments on the story included:
“This reminds me of stories from my tribe; specifically the one where snake loses his arms and legs.” (Navajo student)
“It was through a story like this that I learned my first lesson about trust and team work – I was very young.” (Pawnee student)
“Traditional stories were always told during family gatherings – it helped keep our history alive.” (Apache student)
“I remember oral stories better than written ones.” (Choctaw student)
“I have never heard traditional stories – I feel like I have missed something.” (Cherokee student)
“There are animal stories in my tribe.” (Quapaw student)
“Your grandma sounds like she was a winner!” (Kickapoo student)
For me, it was encouraging to see that many students were familiar with oral tradition. They made me feel that the story-telling tradition will continue to evolve with younger generations.
Pamela Tambornino (Cherokee, Wolf Clan) teaches full time at Haskell Indian Nations University in Lawrence, KS. She received her Bachelor of Arts Degree in English, Magna Cum Laude at Washburn University; Master of Library Science Degree at Emporia State University in 1994; and her Master of Arts in English at Emporia State University in August, 2010. She won the Federal Librarian of the Year from the Library of Congress in 2001 while working at Haskell, and the Ted Fleming Teaching Award from Washburn University for teaching excellence.