Storytelling without words

From pets to the pandemic, from wildfires to vampires, a Sitka Center project spurs discussion among second-graders about the year's big events

You might think in a world turned upside down by COVID-19, kids asked to name a significant event in their lives would naturally turn to the virus. But with the exception of one second-grader who noted it occurred on a special day, it barely registered a blip this week in a virtual arts-literacy class.

The session was the first class held since the Sitka Center for Art and Ecology took over the Community Arts Project on the North Coast. Sitka’s general manager, Nicola Harrison, led the virtual project with two second-grade classes at Nestucca Valley Elementary School.


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The project focused on the Native American tradition of “winter counts,” the recording of significant events for the year, which began with the first snow of the season. Tribes and families in the northern Great Plains gathered to discuss the year’s events. A  “keeper” was charged with drawing the events on a buffalo hide and passing the tale onto the community and future generations. In this way, they recorded history both with art and in the oral tradition of storytelling.

Home school was the year's most memorable event for Kael S.
Home school was the year’s most memorable event for Kael S., a 7-year-old participating in a Sitka Center class covering pictographs, Native American winter counts, and storytelling through art.

Ten students in Nicole Royster’s class gathered on bedroom floors, at dining room tables, and on living room sofas for the Zoom session to discuss this thing called art. Amidst the usual calls for muting and unmuting, enabling audio, and general requests to sit still, the class looked at pictographs from Egypt, Australia, and by Native Americans, as well as stone carvings from Easter Island. They talked about the purpose of art, about symbols and about storytelling without words. Then they took up pencils and paper to sketch ideas about the year’s important events.  

Roy volunteered first to share his, a party hat, mask, and cake, “because coronavirus struck on my birthday.”

But the popular theme of the day tended toward animals. One girl sketched her family’s new baby chickens; another, the dog and kitten that did not initially get along, but eventually became friends. Still another talked of going with her mother to pick out a dog and with her father to pick out a cat. One girl reported, sadly, that she planned to sketch the picture of the old dog she gave away.

The big event for Lucian was losing a tooth. Brodie also went with the dental theme, noting he had four teeth filled.

Maci K. wanted to write about her family.

“What is unforgettable about them?” Harrison asked.

“Everything,” she replied.

Abigail counted off on her fingers: four sisters, two grandmothers, and her mom and dad.

After a presentation on commemorating the year's most important events, Evie S. settled on the election and the pandemic.
After a presentation on commemorating the year’s most important events, Evie S. settled on the election and the pandemic.

“Are your grandmothers good storytellers?” Harrison asked.

“Not really,” Abigail said, “Because they’re getting really old.”

Dana Hulburt’s virtual class also numbered 10 students, one of whom started the class by asking, “How long is this for?”

Asked the purpose of art, Valijon answered, “To let your mind go and draw something that calms your mind.” Evangeline added, “To just let your body flow…”

When Harrison asked what sort of feeling the color red might evoke, Valijon answered that he used it for flowers and eyes.

“Why would someone have red eyes?” Harrison asked.

“They were born that way,” Valijon answered, which sparked a flurry of comments regarding vampires.

But when shown a “winter count” depicting the pandemic of 1874 and asked if they’d experienced a pandemic, most shook their heads no, until one young man picked up on the word COVID and explained that was why they couldn’t go to class.

As has been repeatedly noted, kids say the darndest things, but quite often, the unexpectedly dark, too.  

The September storm and wildfire weighed on some. Christopher described orange skies, the miles of miles of smoke, and the idea that had people not been evacuated they probably would have died. “That was a really horrible time,” he said, noting that next we will be having a hurricane.

One boy shared that his grandma and grandpa died, and he planned to sketch his family looking at their “boxes” in the rain.  “We were very sad. I cried every time we talked about it.”

Then it was time for Hulburt’s class to pick up pencils and paper, but after nearly 30 minutes of instruction, a hand shot up. “Can you tell me how this is going to work?”

Maci M. drew worlds divided in two: half on fire and half what she calls the "regular world."
Maci M. drew worlds divided in two: half on fire and half what she calls the “actual world.”

Harrison detailed the instructions in four steps.

The boy offered a thumbs up.

And the sketching began.

Then, just as class ended, Maci M. held up her drawing.

“I made two worlds,” she said. “Half of the world is on fire; half is the same as the actual world.”

Darndest, indeed.

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This story is supported in part by a grant from the Oregon Cultural Trust, investing in Oregon’s arts, humanities and heritage, and the Lincoln County Cultural Coalition.

About the author

Lori Tobias is a journalist of many years, and was a staff writer for The Oregonian for more than a decade, and a columnist and features writer for the Rocky Mountain News. Her memoir “Storm Beat – A Journalist Reports from the Oregon Coast” was published in 2020 by Oregon State University press. She is also the author of the novel Wander, winner of the 2017 Nancy Pearl Book Award for literary fiction and a finalist for the 2017 International Book Awards for new fiction. She lives on the Oregon Coast with her husband Chan and rescue pups Luna and Monkey.

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