upon a time, Natives gathered around a campfire to share stories.
While these tales were used to educate, instill values, and preserve
culture and history, they also provided us with a means of creative
expression and intellectual dialogue, and they were entertaining
too. In its purest form, ancient Native storytellers were some of
mankinds earliest improv performers, and a little embellishment
was par for the course. We had a story for everything, from how
constellations and landmarks formed, to wanagi (spirit) tales.
Every Native has a ghost story to tell.
I use the term ghost loosely, as we are a spiritual people with
strong belief systems. Our ghost stories may involve spirits that
mainstream culture refers to as ghosts, but they may also include
personal accounts of encounters with bigfoot, deer woman, or spirit
beings like skinwalkers, little people, Iktomi (the Trickster),
or even something no one has ever heard of before.
Do these things exist? I have no proof
in the western scientific sense, although I do know quite a few
honest people whove had supernatural experiences they cannot
explain, or who believe theyve interacted with ancestral spirits
through prayer and ceremony. My dad always said that he thought
Indigenous peoples were more sensitive to supernatural phenomenon.
He said it was because we were closer to our origins, and thus closer
to the veil that divides our living physical world from
the spirit world, as well as other dimensions. The Native perspective
of spirituality does differ from that of the mainstream. Western
culture separates spirituality from other aspects of life, if they
believe the spirit exists at all. Traditionally, Natives believe
that the spirit realm exists, although we may have a limited understanding
of it as human beings. We dont cord off spirituality from
the rest of our life either. Indeed, walking the sacred red road
demands that one understands that all things are connected: mitakuye
Like most Natives, I grew up hearing ghost
stories. When I reflect on them, I realize that some of them serve
a purpose. When I was a teenager growing up on the reservation,
an old, abandoned house across the lake was pointed out to me. I
was told that a man once lived there who practiced love medicine.
He stole girls hair and used magic to make them fall in love
with him. Then he used them and cast them aside after he grew tired
of them. This story scared the daylights out of me- but at the same
time it also enforced Tribal cultural teachings about caring for
ones hair and told me a little something about the different
types of medicine people practiced. It also warned me of the danger
of getting involved with men who might seek to take advantage of
common rez legend (as opposed to urban legends) in the northern
plains is about sacred little people who terrorize anyone whos
getting drunk, especially out in nature. While the scenario and
characters often change, surely this story has discouraged a few
underage Natives from driving off into the country to party.
Scary stories are just plain fun too. We
enjoy passing them on. In 1999, I won an award for story of the month
from an Australian website called Castle
of Spirits. My
submission was a Native ghost story told to me by a relative.
Like the #IdleNoMore
Twitter phenomenon has shown us, Natives are becoming masters of
social media. This technological adaptation has merged with our
love of sharing and storytelling to create pages where Natives post
stories online and provide each other with feedback.
Facebook community page, Native Ghost Stories, is one such venue.
While the page was just created on January 9, 2013, its taken
off and currently boasts a following of over 21,000 people. The
page is posting ghost stories from Natives of every Tribe, from
all over North America. Once you begin reading the stories, you
may find it difficult to leave. Accounts of the spirits of long
dead Native children who play in abandoned boarding schools are
heart wrenching, while others describing encounters with inhuman
spirits are downright hair raising. By the way, the page has pictures
Whether you deem the material posted on
the page as legitimate is your choice, but its definitely
engaging and youll learn more about Native people and our
experiences while youre there. Whether they realize it or
not, those who participate in this Facebook page and others like
it are assisting in the advancement of a primary tool of cultural
preservation: storytelling. How exciting.
Yes, the modes of transmission and venues
may have changed, but the millennia-old tradition of storytelling
still runs strong among our people. Now pardon me while I take a
moment to burn some sage and smudge off.
Ruth Hopkins (Sisseton-Wahpeton and
Mdewakanton Dakota, Hunkpapa Lakota) is a writer, blogger, ethnoscientist,
Tribal Judge for the Sisseton Wahpeton Oyate, and the Tribal Colleges
Liaison Manager for the University of North Dakota (UND) and North
Dakota State University (NDSU) via North Dakota EPSCoR (Experimental
Program to Stimulate Competitive Research). Her first horror novella
will be released in 2013. Follow
her on Twitter.