John Washakie, a father of three, grandfather to 16, and great-grandfather of nine children, is the author of two illustrated children’s books — Yuse & the Spirit, and Yuse, the Bully & the Bear, both adapted from traditional family tales. He is a cultural specialist at the Fort Washakie School library and a recorder, archivist, translation consultant and sharer of hundreds of stories. (WyoFile / Matthew Copeland)

First, you have to believe in the power of story.

In part, that’s an intellectual exercise; a recognition that for 99 percent of our species’ tenure on the planet, stories served as the sole mechanism of passing knowledge from one generation to the next. Where to find food, what to fear, what to value, how to organize society, how to treat one another — we have survived to 2017, and evolved into the creatures we are, because of the accumulated knowledge transported by stories.

For John Washakie, Eastern Shoshone tribal elder, former Shoshone Business Council chairman, and great grandson of the revered Chief Washakie, though, respect for the power of story isn’t only academic. It also comes from Grandma Josephine’s house.

“It was a different time,” Washakie said of the late 1940s. “We didn’t have a TV. The radio was for news so you saved the batteries. We spent our time all together, talking, telling stories, listening. Kids don’t … it’s not like that anymore.

“‘Come over here,’ an uncle would say, ‘let me give you a story’… every family had storytellers. Everyone knew who the best ones were. I’d go sit beside him, and he might share a story about a little boy, and I would think it was about me. I always thought they were my stories.”

Of course, deep down, we all think that. Maybe because, at heart, they always are.

So pay attention. Sift key points from color. Note tone, inflection and dialect — they sometimes convey more meaning than words. Collect the morals. Store them away. Hold on tight. You may need to carry them a long way.

Through Indian boarding school, for example, through the draft, airborne infantry training, 26 static-line jumps and a tour of duty in Vietnam. Keep them safe when you get back home, through cold nights on drill rigs, sweltering days on construction sites and years of studying history in Riverton and Laramie.

Tell them to your kids, nieces, nephews and all their friends, every chance you get. Car rides through Wyoming, long or short, make good opportunities. There’s always something in the landscape to prompt a tale, and you’ve got a captive audience.

Write them down as they bubble back out of your memory.

When your children have grown, find more. A school library suits nicely.

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They’ll need you there. Today’s fourth graders will soon be tomorrow’s leaders, tasked with tackling the direst existential threats we’ve yet faced. We’re leaving them a helluva job.

So don’t send them into the world equipped solely with Facebook, reality TV, 24-hour news and pocket robots that tell them when to buy things.

And don’t despair.

Instead, call a kid over. Give her a story.

Matthew Copeland

Matthew Copeland is the chief executive & editor of WyoFile. Contact him at matthew@wyofile.com or (307) 287-2839. Follow Matt on Twitter at @WyoCope

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  1. Yes, I like John’s story. I like his Shoshone stories, which we have in our Cody elementary school libraries and the Park County Library System. We are adding more “cultural teaching stories” to our collections. No matter what our age, the kid in each of us enjoys the pranks and doings of the animals, the birds, all of Nature, which stay with us through ongoing years. I agree with John that stories are especially good medicine for young ones, who will love and care for Mother Earth in the face of many challenges.