PEN IN HAND Nuwä Storytelling: The season for tales has returned




Alberta Newspaper Group


It is winter in the Tehachapi Mountains. “Shi’id tomo kaapan kavo Tehichipava’an,” is a way to say that in the Nuwä (Kawaiisu or Southern Paiute) language of the people who have lived here for thousands of years. Winter was traditionally the time for telling stories, when Nuwä families would gather around a fire and elders would share the stories that they had been told. These were special times that would be long remembered. For cultures without written languages, these oral traditions were vital. It was the only way to pass down these stories through the years, the decades, the centuries... Time seemed to move slower in the past. The passage of time is marked by change, and cultural changes used to happen slowly. For Native Californians, before contact with Europeans, grandchildren could expect to live their lives in much the same way as their grandparents had lived theirs. Storytelling was an ancestral tradition, and it continued with each succeeding generation. The tales could be informative and have moral implications, but they were also entertaining, imaginative, thought-provoking, suspenseful, amusing, and sometimes scary. Fortunately, a number of these classic stories were collected from Nuwä elders and thus preserved by anthropologists Theodore McCown, Stephen Cappannari and Maurice Zigmond in the first half of the 20th century. At the start of the 21st century, we have been very fortunate to have the Girado siblings — Luther, Betty and Lucille — share some of these stories in the Nuwä language. The Girados’ first language was Nuwä, not English, and they maintained their Nuwä fluency throughout their lives. It has been a rare and special treat to hear these stories told in the original language by these gifted speakers. Betty and Luther have gone to meet their ancestors now, but Lucille Girado Hicks remains as sharp as ever. One of her favorite stories to tell has been one called “Sina’av and Sanapü” (Coyote and Pitch), about Coyote and his encounter with Pitch from a pine tree, and it is a delight to hear in Lucille’s beautiful sing-song voice. One important point to remember about Nuwä stories is that they mostly concern what has been termed “animal-people.” Although they have the attributes and abilities of the animals for which they are named, and in many cases eventually became, at the time that the stories describe, they were more like shape-shifting people. A modern analogy would be superheroes like Spiderman, Catwoman, Antman, etc. — beings that have animal-like qualities, but are also human. I like this one about “The Bear Feast in Walker Basin,” told by Emma Williams to Cappannari, with translation by Sadie Williams: The bears had a feast in Walker Basin. Oak Titmouse went to get firewood for them. She had a string tied around her head and she carried her knife there. While she was gathering wood, she lost her knife. She came back and said to the bears “puzine kut kut kut.” The bears couldn’t understand her. They asked Coyote what she said, but he couldn’t understand her either. They told the Coyote to go and get Rattlesnake, who understood the Oak Titmouse’s language. They talked together all the time. Coyote ran over to Rattlesnake’s house. Rattlesnake was sitting in a basket which she was making. Coyote told Rattlesnake that they needed her because no one could understand the Oak Titmouse’s language. Rattlesnake put away her basket. She said to Coyote “I can’t walk very fast.” Coyote said “I’ll carry you.” Rattlesnake’s head was over Coyote’s shoulder and her tongue was out. Coyote saw it and was frightened. He dropped her. Rattlesnake asked “Why did you drop me?” Coyote said he was afraid. He picked her up, and the same thing happened several times. Rattlesnake said “I won’t bite you. I just do that (hold out my tongue).” Finally they got there. Rattlesnake talked to the Oak Titmouse and then told the bears that she had lost her knife. “It’s going to snow if you don’t find her knife.” That bird was a rainmaker. The women took their winnowing baskets and looked for the knife. They sifted dirt through their baskets and found the knife. So it didn’t snow. Coyote took Rattlesnake back to her house. Storytelling was a cherished tradition among Native Californians, including the Nuwä of the Tehachapi Mountains and surrounding area. It was looked forward to eagerly by both young and old, somewhat akin to going to the movies today. Now that winter is here, I find my thoughts returning to those ancient tales and the people who told them. . . Have a good week. Jon Hammond has written for Tehachapi News for more than 40 years. Send email to