An evening of winter storytelling in the Valley

By Carmenlita Chief
Special to the Times

PHOENIX, Jan. 5, 2012

Text size: A A A

(Special to the Times - Carmenlita Chief)

TOP: Samantha Simonson, 9, freezes her string game to see what pattern her mother, Kelly, is going to attempt on her string. The mother and daughter duo were seated at the front of the room for a winter storytelling event in Phoenix on Dec. 14.

BOTTOM: Freddie Johnson, 41, raises his mobile phone in the air as he talks about the relationship he sees between the advancement of technology and its enabling of laziness. Johnson was the guest speaker at the winter storytelling event held at Kyrene del Milenio Elementary School on Dec. 14 in Phoenix.

Traditional teachings behind the string game and coyote stories were just a couple of the topics of discussion at a winter storytelling event that was held for Diné urban dwellers Dec. 14.

Held at Kyrene del Milenio Elementary School near the Ahwatukee Foothills, Freddie Johnson, a Diné cultural specialist at Phoenix Indian Center, asked his audience, "What is winter storytelling?"

He explained, "From the first frost in October, we can talk about certain stories...all the way until the first thunder in the spring time, which is usually in mid-February to mid-March. Winter ceremonies, games, and stories begin at the first frost of winter."

The commencement of haigo han’ (winter storytelling) also signals that the insects and reptiles, as well as some birds and animals, have hidden away beneath the earth for hibernation, he said.

Before continuing on with the rest of his presentation, Johnson called for the audience to come up to the front where he had a spool of string.

"Cut a string if you feel like it," he said. "I give you permission to play with string...unless you're pregnant. If you're pregnant, you cannot play with string. It's one of the major no-no's."

Johnson, 41, did not provide a reason for why pregnant women are discouraged from engaging in string games, nor did a hand rise throughout the room to ask the age-old question: "Why?"

However, he later said that playing with string during pregnancy may provoke the umbilical cord to wrap around the baby's neck or cause other complications during the birth for the expectant mother.

Stronger foundations

Johnson, a father of four who is also a certified Navajo court interpreter, teaches Navajo culture classes on behalf of the Phoenix Indian Center where he has worked for the past 10 years. He provides the same instruction for children at Mesa Public Schools in Mesa, Ariz.

He is Tó' aheedl’inii (Water Flows Together Clan), born for 'Ashiihí (Salt Clan). His maternal grandparents are Táchii'nii (Red Forehead Clan). His paternal grandparents are Bit'ahnii (Folded Arms Clan). Johnson is from Rock Point, Ariz.

The Native American Parent Advisory Committee at Kyrene Unified School District hosted the storytelling evening and specifically asked for Johnson to speak at the event.

"Every year, we try to invite Freddie out to tell winter stories to our students and their parents," said Lenore Haskie-Franklin, a member of the parent committee.

For the Diné students in particular, she believes listening to traditional storytelling will help them build a stronger cultural foundation and identity, especially when growing up in an urban setting where access to traditional instruction and cultural resources may be hard to come by.

"It's important for them to know where they come from. Freddie is very good about teaching them about why we have our clans, why we have our winter stories," said Haskie-Franklin, who has lived in Chandler, Ariz., for 22 years but is from Sanostee, N.M., and Tolani Lake, Ariz.

Kelly Simonson, 36, brought 9-year-old daughter Samantha with her to listen to the winter stories.

"I'm trying to introduce this to my daughter," Simonson said. "We don't have elderly influences or traditional influences, so I try to look for programs that I can try and take my children to.

"She loves being Navajo," Simonson added, a resident of Ahwatukee and with roots in Tuba City. "She's very proud of it. I just want her to have an understanding of what it means."

Cultural teachings

With only a two-hour time limit, Johnson shared what he could about the creation stories, stories involving the Hero Twins, Protection Way teachings, Blessing Way teachings, Keshjéé' (shoe game), and Tsidi’ (Stick Dice game).

As Johnson told of the emergence from the three underworlds and the destruction involved in each that led to the Diné's current inhabitation of the fourth world, children listened intently or peeked up between string games.

String games are a good way of building discipline and character, said Johnson. Protection Way teachings embedded in the string game teaches both a child and their parent to not be impatient.

Parents shouldn't express impatience with their children when teaching them about string games, he added.

In turn, the children were told, "Be a careful listener. In string games, you listen for instruction."

"Learn how to deal with problems, fix them. So when your string tangles, untangle it right away," he said, "that way in life, you untangle your problems."

Johnson also shared the teachings that come along with the telling of coyote stories. Each story teaches how to behave. They provide guidance on how to mold and correct social behaviors.

The story about how laziness was brought to the people by ma'ii was used as an example. Laziness was considered a monster that needed to be destroyed but ma'ii was able to convince the Holy People that without laziness people would overwork themselves. So it was spared.

The audience erupted in laughter when Johnson likened laziness to the physical attractiveness of George Strait, for the women, and Jennifer Lopez, for the men, and how easy it is to hit the snooze button in the morning sometimes.

"We want to embrace them, but we need to learn how to control them from overtaking us," he said.

Basic lessons

After the storytelling wrapped up, Nizhoni Franklin, 12, and her sister, Adindean, 7, demonstrated their favorite string-game patterns.

For Nizhoni it was the teepee and for Adindean it was the one of the "two coyotes running away from one another."

The storytelling left the girls with new knowledge and things to ponder.

"I learned that coyote, he was lazy and he begged and he lied a lot," Adindean said. "And so, don't do those things."

"And I learned that not everything that coyote did was bad," added Nizhoni.

Though she had been playing with her string throughout the storytelling, Nizhoni Franklin proved she was listening.

"I learned that you're not supposed to throw away the string for the string games," she said.

The Phoenix Indian Center will host a Keshjéé' on Jan. 6 at Sacred Hogan restaurant in Phoenix (842 E. Indian School Rd). The shoe game will start at 6:30 p.m. and is free to the public.

Information: Freddie Johnson, 602-264-6768, ext. 2403, or

Back to top ^