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Talking animal tales teach lessons

LITTLE BOSTON — Did you know that the dogfish salmon got its hooked snout after one hung on a low lying branch by its mouth so it wouldn’t get swept away in a river?

Or that the Native American way of saying “thank you” (shaking both hands in the air) came from a crab that waved his little pinchers in the air to express gratitude to a fisherman for letting him go?

Or that the chipmunk got its two stripes on its back after an encounter with animal with very long fingernails?

That’s how Jamestown S’Klallam Elder Elaine Grinnell explained those phenomena Friday night at the Port Gamble S’Klallam Longhouse. Grinnell kicked off the Port Gamble S’Klallam Tribe’s 20th annual Stan Purser Memorial Pow Wow by engaging a group of both young and old tribal and non-tribal members with her legendary tales.

“Well, didn’t I just get here in the nick of time!” she said with a laugh after no one in the audience could explain how the salmon got its hooked nose.

Like a grandmother passing down stories of her tribe in a traditional Native American way, the audience gathered on the benches of the longhouse and did what generations have been doing for years before them — listened and learned.

Pow wow organizer Dawn Purser was impressed with how personable Grinnell was with the audience.

“Even when she said, ‘I can’t remember,’ that was so much like a grandma,” Purser said with a laugh.

“Indian humor” is what Grinnell called some of her stories, particularly about why dogs sniff each other when they get together. This habit started after several dogs lost their tails. Before entering a longhouse party one time, they had to hang up their soiled tails. But there was a fire in the middle of the party and the canines grabbed whichever tail they could. To this day, they don’t know if they ever picked up the right one. So dogs sniff each other to see if they have the right tails, Grinnell said with a chuckle.

Some of her stories had lessons behind them, such as “if you snooze, you lose,” referring to the story of a mink who didn’t share his fish with a wolf. When the mink decided to take a nap, the wolf came and ate it all.

Or that you should always listen to your mother. Grinnell told the story of the boy whose curiosity got the best of him after his mother told him not to visit a lake filled with evil spirits. He didn’t listen and turned into a black loon after swimming there.

While it could be disputed as to whether animals really talk, that wasn’t the point of the stories.

“If you’re worried about whether it’s true, you didn’t catch the lesson,” Purser said.

Grinnell not only told stories, but also taught words from the S’Klallam language, using both English and S’Klallam words in her storytelling. As she talked, she used props, including hand-carved masks, a whale rattle and talking sticks and a woven cedar clam basket made by Suquamish Elder Ed Carriere.

She used to have 54 stories she could easily relay, but she said she could only remember 26 now.

“My poor aging mind,” she said with a laugh.

But it doesn’t stop her from sharing them with the world. Grinnell has been telling these tales for as long as she can remember, from local reservations to as far as Japan. She is also recording her stories on video for future generations.

While the younger kids didn’t seem to be too interested in the tales, Purser said, the older teenagers and adults were quite attentive, which proved to her how the emphasis on the importance of culture is shifting on the reservation.

“I think that was really a clear picture of how things are changing,” she said. “(The kids) do watch too much TV. They do need to hear more personable human stories.”

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