PUBLISHED: 1:22 PM on Wednesday, October 5, 2005
'Storyteller' based on author's Inupiat heritage

  "The Storyteller's Club"
by Loretta Outwater Cox

c.2005 Alaska Northwest Books
$18.95 • 224 pages

Where would humanity be without stories?

Cavemen didn't make a tri-colored map to show where the wooly mammoths were hiding. Ancient hunters couldn't Google instructions on the kind of snare to use to catch dinner. Early Romans didn't grab a cell phone to call ahead for pizza. Instead, they all relied on oral stories to pass on important information.

About a hundred years ago, a woman in an Alaskan village organized her friends for regular storytelling sessions, with the idea of writing their tales down. In "The Storyteller's Club" by Loretta Outwater Cox, the women's stories live long after they are gone.

When winter came to the small Inupiat Eskimo village that first year, Emma Sikkitkoq, known as Sikki, gathered her friends for what she called the Storyteller's Club. The club had started small, with side-by-side chats as the women set their nets to catch fish in the river near the village. Now, they held meetings at one another's houses, where they would tell stories and talk about their days. Sikki thought that the stories should be recorded, but since the women couldn't read or write, they decided to draw pictures to tell of their memories.

The pictures they drew were as richly detailed as the lives they led. Drawings tell of productive fishing days, when it took ten villagers to carry in the days' catch. Other drawings showed the way a village looked, or a seal poke and a recipe for a special meal. One woman proudly depicted her husband and children, and she included their new Christian names on her portrait.

The women always sat in the same places when they met, and they spoke in turn, always in the same order. But they didn't just focus on their picture-writing; they also shared their memories.

Sikki talked often of her children, who were grown and scattered. She was raising her grandson, Walter, which was common practice for the Inupiat, and sometimes, she almost forgot that he was her grandson and not her son. Sikki was careful to teach Walter as much as she could, because someday he would be a man, responsible for feeding a family and passing on the same information that she was giving him.

Sounds like a sweet little tale? It is. And it's true.

Walter grew up and married in 1938. His daughter, author Loretta Outwater Cox, wrote this book based on the oral stories she heard from her parents.

These are stories of lives led with respect for one another and for the gifts nature bestows, but also lives of hardship and loss.

"The Storyteller's Club" reads like a novel, but Cox includes authentic drawings to remind you that these things actually happened. I particularly liked Sikki, and I came to look forward to her remembrances in this wonderful little book.

If you love the history of stories or if you just want to read a book that will charm you, pick up "The Storyteller's Club". You'll want to tell your friends about it, too.