The Gathering Song
with Jack Dalton
On today’s Turtle Island Storytellers, Yup’ik storyteller, Jack Dalton shares a traditional story from Alaska called The Gathering Song.
Very long ago, the human beings lived on the land as they had always done. Families had their own places to gather food and hunt. It was the tradition that the people who had more would share with those who had less. But some people were greedy and did not feel like waiting. They would gather food on another family’s land. Families got into fights over these gathering places. During one particularly harsh time, the fight became gruesome. People started killing each other. The situation became dire. Everyone was so busy trying to guard their gathering places, no one was actually going out to hunt, so no food was brought in. Without new food, it was possible the whole village would starve.
Living a little ways from the village was an old man. He was a mysterious man, a shaman. He did not speak often. Only when it was very, very important did the village see and hear this man. The old man appeared one day right in the middle of the village before anyone realized it.
“What are you doing?” The old man asked. “These are the hardest times we have seen in many generations. Only the strongest people will make it the rest of the winter, and only by working together like brothers and sisters, but you are acting like sworn enemies. Twenty of you are already dead yet none of you has actually starved. When was the last seal killed? The last caribou? You are almost out of arrows and harpoon tips, but you haven’t killed a single animal. You are only killing each other. What are you doing?”
Then the shaman went inside the guzgig, the big man’s house. After a short time, he ordered, “come!” And the quickly went inside. The old man was sitting and already had a great drum in his hands. It was so big it made him look very, very small by comparison. The people knew this drum and knew it was very powerful and made the greatest sound.
“The seal and the caribou are always listening,” he said. “They are always trying to figure out who is worthy of their life. But since you have been trying to kill each other instead, the animals have gotten bored and gone away. To bring them back, you have to work together like brother and sister. You must dance. The better hunter has the keenest senses, the most control. Hunting is like dancing. To be the best dancer, you must have the keenest sense and the most control. The animals know who the best dancer is. They know who the best hunter is. They can hear it.”
The drum made a low “kattoom” sound and the people readied themselves to dance. They put on their dancing gloves and held their dancing fans. The men kneeled on the ground and the woman stood behind them. “Kattoom. Kattoom,” the drum said, and all the people knew already which song was coming: the gathering song.
But no one had actually ever heard this song. Even the eldest people in the village. It was a very, very old song.
And it went like this:
“How cold is the wind? How deep is the snow that would drive you away from our home? We are deserving of your gift. We are the proudest of human beings. We will never forget your spirit. So in this time, please don’t forget ours. No matter how cold the wind, no matter how deep the snow, we will honor you with the hunt. We will honor you with our souls.”
No one is sure how long the village danced and sang. Maybe for days. But everybody knew this was the best anyone had ever danced.
The old man said, “This is the song of who we are. It has been a very long time since this song was song. Only during the times of greatest need do the people sing this song. In many ways, you should be ashamed of yourselves for letting it get this bad. And you must realize if singing and dancing this song doesn’t work, then we are all going to die.”
He looked out to see if the people recognized this simple truth: “To survive, we must gather. We gather the eggs, the greens, the roots, the berries. We gather the fish and we must gather the animals that we use. We also gather our strength. We gather our courage and our knowledge. We gather the spirits. We gather our families and our friends. We gather our people. We gather the wood for our fires and houses. We gather the herbs that keep us healthy. We gather the stories of the present and keep those with the stories of our past. This helps us gather the days of the future into the present. We are the gatherers. This is the way of the human beings. The song our hearts sing from our beginning to our end is the gathering song. But there are times when we forget the song of our hearts. This is when we begin to lose trust in those closest to us. We begin to hurt and kill each other. You must never fight each other again. You must dance instead. Let us hope we never have to dance the gathering song again. Let us hope we are never this bad again.”
The old man sets down the drum. “Now, if this song has worked, the hunters will go out tomorrow and bring home animals for us. If we sang and danced good enough, then we have called the animals back to us who feel we are worthy of our lives. These are the animals that will help us survive the rest of the winter. Now! Everyone prepare!
Everyone prepared for a great hunt. The men went out into a terrible storm and were gone for six days. But when they came back, they had five caribou. The song had worked.
No one saw the old man again. They believe that after making such great magic to save an entire village from starvation, he went up into the sky country to live. But every so often, the people believe they can hear him drumming softly in the sky, helping just a little bit so the gathering song will never be forgotten again.
This Yup’ik story by Jack Dalton was produced by Surreal Studios/Nightwork Records, Anchorage, Alaska.
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