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Tribal Memories

Gloria Taylor-Brown

Did you ever wish you knew the stories of your great-grandmother? Do you want your great-grandchildren to know your stories?

Humans are tribal beings. Many of us have lost our tribes. Our memories and stories are our most important legacies. We are losing our memories, and we are losing our stories.

For generations, people lived in tribal units. They lived with their tribes from the time they were born until they died. They knew where they belonged. They knew the tribal stories. They felt safe and secure in the knowledge that the tribe would be there for them when needed.

This is no longer true for most people living in the U.S. today. We have lost contact with our tribal roots. With that loss, we have lost part of ourselves, for we no longer know where we come from, or where we fit in.

When I was a child, I was blessed by being born into a family where the prime entertainment was storytelling. The stories they told were the stories of my tribe. Stories told by my Cherokee grandfather of hunting snakes and alligators in the swamps of Florida. My Irish grandmother would tell of “whispering horses” in the old country, and why you should always leave a saucer of milk for the “little people.” Stories about my great-great grandfather, who fought in the Civil War. Many stories were humorous, some were sad, but all of the stories were told with great skill and the polish of many retellings. These stories formed my earliest memories. On a warm summer night with the sound of cicadas in the background, sitting beneath the kitchen table so I wouldn’t be sent to bed, I listened to the voices of my family telling the stories that defined my tribe. This is the way generations of children learned who they were and where they fit into the world.

Traditionally, the stories that were told taught, enlightened, warned, and created a sense of belonging. Today, most of the stories our children hear are taught by others. Songs on the radio, shows on TV and in the movies, books, magazines and newspapers tell the stories of other people, in other times, without regard to the personal. Some are good stories, some are bad, some are entertaining, but most of them are not our own stories.

What is wrong with that, you say? We lose the richness of the tapestry that is our own history for the homogenized Hollywood version that does not tell us who we are and where we belong. We lose the myths that formed the behavior of our family, our tribes, ourselves.

The position of the storyteller has been revered through history. Bards traveled throughout Europe, taking the news from one land to another in the form of songs and poems. The Native Americans had long histories of the storyteller, immortalized today in the storyteller dolls of the Southwest. Africans had rich and wondrous stories that were told generation unto generation. Every nation, tribe and clan celebrated its history in story, keeping the knowledge alive through the dark illiterate days through the memories of the storytellers.

I now call on you to become the one who remembers, the one who tells the stories, before it is too late and your tribe’s story is lost, as so many have been lost before. If for no other reason, health concerns make it imperative that we know the stories and the memories of our families.

Knowing who you are and where you came from creates a sense of confidence in individuals. They know they can survive the current trials and tribulations, because their ancestors have shown them how to survive. They know their strengths and weaknesses, and what they need to do in order to move forward.

This is not about holding on to the past, but a celebration of what has shaped your life. It allows you to look at what you have and what is already available to you. Choose those parts you want to support you and remove the patterns and traits that are keeping you from your greatest accomplishments. When we are operating on “auto-pilot” we do not see how destructive a particular family pattern can be. Once you see it clearly, it is much easier to change or remove that pattern from your life.

When anthropologists study our culture one thousand years from now they will be searching for these stories. The history of a people is made up by people just like you. You will be creating a legacy that will help future generations understand what they cannot know without your help. You will be honoring your ancestors, celebrating your own life, and creating a living legacy that will empower your descendants.

As we move toward a future that will be better than the past, let’s take time to remember who and where we came from so that we can know better who we are, and where we are going.

Capturing Memories

How do you start? Start by capturing the individual memories you have. Answer the questions: Who are you, what have you accomplished, who are your children? Who were your parents, your grandparents? As you answer these questions, look for pictures to illustrate your life. Record all of this in a book, keeping the information together as you gather it.

You may start with the story of your birth or earliest childhood. Draw up a family chart, showing your parents, brothers, sisters, and self.

Tell a story from your childhood that talks about your siblings, your pets, your friends. Record what you remember about being in school. You will want to include pictures of the house or houses you grew up in. If you don’t have a photo, draw a picture. It doesn’t have to be a great work of art.

Record any other stories, or information about your current time. Now add to that any photo, memorabilia, drawings, even maps, so that others can follow the story of your life.

When you have completed your personal story, move on to the story of your parents. Collect stories from surviving family members. Research the country they came from. Record any stories you can find about where the family lived.

The more complete your research is, the more you will understand who you are and where you came from. Knowing who your family is and where you fit in the universe will help you know your tribe. You will be better able to provide your children and the other generations to come after you with a more complete record of their tribe. This will become a legacy for generations to come. Encourage future generations to add their stories, their memories, and their voices to your Tribal Memories.

Chose any or all of the following and tell those stories of your lineage:

Blood Lineage: Family, country, race. Include myths that are the ones that shaped the national identity of your people.

Spiritual Lineage: You may have chosen a different spiritual lineage from your blood lineage. Tell those stories, and record why you chose this path and what it means to you. If the spiritual lineage is the one of your blood family, tell how that spiritual lineage shaped your family and interweave the stories.

Philosophical Lineage: Tell about your philosophy of life, and how you came to think this was true.

There are other lineages which you might chose to explore. Some of these are listed here.

Animal Lineage: Among many people, there is an affinity with a particular animal or other totemic being. Many Native Americans define their clan by the animal they believe to be their direct ancestor. For others, it may be that you have a particular love of one type of animal that pervades your life. Are there wolves everywhere in your house, or maybe whales? What is your relationship to these animal spirits?

Land Lineage: Some tribes believe that they do not own the land, but that the land owns them. What land is your true home?

Ancestor lineage: This is going beyond your immediate family lineage, to the lineage you feel most comfortable with or are most drawn to. You may find you have visited one country, over and over, that has no direct relation to you, however, you are always drawn back there. I have spent most of my life studying Ancient Egypt and Greece. I still get angry when I think about the Roman Empire invasions. I know in the depths of my Cherokee-Celtic heart that these the Ancient Egyptians and Greeks are my people, and their stories are my stories. You may have such an affinity that you want to explore.

Here are some notes on how to physically record your memories.

Choose acid free paper to record you memories. I like bound books, which you can buy at any art supply house. By choosing one with a blank cover, you can decorate the cover any way you chose, or leave it plain with just the title on it.

Finally, what do you do once you have gather all this information and compiled your book of memories? Learn the stories, polish them well by many retellings. The one sentence that will cause my grandchildren to sit still and listen attentively is, “I will tell you a story about……” Works like a charm, every time.

Do It Now!!

Recently we were witness to the untimely demise of many people in NYC. I guarantee everyone of those people wish they could have left this kind of legacy for their families to remember them by.

None of us knows when we may loose the chance to give this legacy to our descendants. Consider doing this now, before the children move away, and before the elders pass on. Most importantly, this will be a gift to yourself, one that will help you make sense of your life and define your path to the future.

Read more about Gloria Taylor-Brown