When stories are lost, culture is lost. That’s why storytelling is important, says Angel Sobotta. Sobotta will tell personal and traditional Nez Perce stories tonight at the Lewis-Clark State College Center for Arts & History in downtown Lewiston.Stories have long been a part of Sobotta’s life. Her grandmother was a Nez Perce storyteller and her great-grandfather was a noted Nez Perce historian. Though she doesn’t call herself a storyteller, Sobotta remembers creating and acting out stories from an early age and now regularly tells stories in language teaching and other professional work.
“There’s a lot of storytelling in my bloodline, I felt like I inherited that naturally,” Sobotta said.
It’s more than her heritage, though, that compels her to pass on her stories and those of her ancestors.
“It’s important for our culture,” Sobotta said. “There’s so much indigenous knowledge in our stories.”
Some of the stories from the Nez Perce oral tradition, also called coyote stories, contain warning messages while others explain why things are the way they are. These stories are more than just entertainment or cultural artifacts, they can shape the culture. Sobotta explained how this might play out for those that deeply understand the message of the “Heart of the Monster” story, the Nez Perce creation story, told regularly to children.
“In our creation story, it says that we were created to be smart, brave, intelligent and nice people,” Sobotta said. “If you believe that’s who you are, it will affect how you live.”
It’s not just Nez Perce who benefit from hearing the coyote stories, Sobotta said. They’re important for other cultural groups because the stories can teach them why things are a certain way. It allows others to gain understanding and respect for the Nimiipuu.
Storytelling, which has traditionally been a part of Nez Perce culture, has changed drastically over the years, Sobotta said. Both the influence of missionaries and changes to the traditional way of life not only influenced some of the stories, but also their role in the culture. Some coyote stories have been lost, but beginning in the 1890s, many were documented by tribal members and scholars who had the foresight to see the value of retaining them.
“I’m thankful the elders back then were generous with the knowledge they had,” Sobotta said. “We’re so fortunate to have this previous scholarly work.”
Sobotta teaches Nez Perce language through the Nez Perce Tribe’s Nez Perce Language Program where Sobotta and her co-workers use storytelling to teach language. Her current doctoral studies at the University of Idaho are focused on the use of storytelling in language learning.
One of Sobotta’s personal stories regards a bag that is on display at the Nuuminix exhibit now at the Center for Arts & History.
“There’s a story behind the story of the bag. It just has all kinds of life lessons,” said Sobotta, who often brings the bag and tells its story when she is speaking.
She’ll also be telling some coyote stories that her grandmother told her, including a portion of the “Heart of the Monster” story and another about a skunk. In addition to Sobotta, Harold Crook, professor of Nez Perce language at Lewis-Clark State College, will be presenting at the event on the craft of storytelling.
IF YOU GO:
WHAT: “Storytelling – a Nez Perce Tradition,” with Angel Sobotta and Harold Crook
WHEN: 5:30 tonight; reception begins at 5 p.m.
WHERE: Center for Arts & History, 415 Main St., Lewiston