Imagine sitting by a roaring fire on a cold winter's night in the company of family and friends, listening to a well-told story. In the not-too-distant past, storytellers were the keepers of history, carrying the memories of how things used to be. None are more skilled in the ancient art than America's native Indian tribes.
In The World Before This One, author Rafe Martin draws on thousands of years of Seneca legend to re-create and weave traditional stories into a masterful blend of Native American folklore and fiction. An introduction by Seneca Elder Peter Jemison sets the stage, and Calvin Nicholls' awe-inspiring cut-paper sculptures breathe with a mystical life of their own. Rendered in a unique three-dimensional style, the sculptures convey the tactile and emotional aspects of the buffalo, bears, birds and fierce braves highlighted in the stories. Martin's central character is Crow, a young Seneca boy. He and his grandmother have been ostracized by their tribe and forced to live on the outskirts of the village. It is Crow's responsibility to hunt for food each day for the two of them. At first, he is a good provider. But one afternoon while out hunting, Crow is startled by a boulder that speaks. In exchange for gifts, the stone agrees to tell him stories of Long-time Ago. Crow offers his string of birds. Day after day, Crow listens to the great legends of the Seneca, learning about the creation of the world, and the wisdom and folly of the animals and the people. Meanwhile, Grandmother grows suspicious and asks for help from the men in the village. They follow Crow and hear the stone say, "I speak for the Earth Mother. She has had enough of your bickering, your wars and raids, of your taking of life without the giving of prayer. The time has come for you to wake up and live again in a sacred manner." The stone tells stories for three days; on the fourth day it says it will now rest and designates Crow a Ha-ge-o-tah, the teller of tales. His reputation redeemed, Crow returns to the tribe to become the world's first storyteller. As a child, writer Karen Trotter Elley got into big trouble for telling stories.