Section 2.2: Traditional Stories & Poems

Outcomes

Students will

  • Comprehend and respond to grade-appropriate traditional stories and poetry from First Nations and other cultures, evaluating purpose, message, point of view, craft, and values.

  • Understand the importance of place in storytelling, and how stories hold social and moral lessons about respecting Mother Earth.

  • Compose and create a visual, oral, written, or multimedia text that describes or depicts a landscape scene containing trembling aspen.

Key Terms

Traditional Stories

See content or Module Glossary for definition

Indigenous Groups Mentioned in this Section

Niitsitapi (Blackfoot): Neet-sih-ta-pī - Parts of southern Alberta, Saskatchewan, and northern Montana.

Secwepemc (Shuswap): suh-wep-muh - South-central interior of what is now British Columbia.

"Same species, same earth, different stories. Like Creation stories everywhere, cosmologies are a source of identity and orientation to the world. They tell us who we are." - Robin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass

Trembling aspen are the most abundant tree population across North America, ranging from the tip of northern Canada through the United States and into Mexico. The scientific name for North America’s trembling aspen is Populus tremuloides (for more information, see Module 1). Interestingly, there is a closely related aspen species across the sea known as Populus tremula, whom European peoples have also referred to as quaking aspen because of the leaves tendency to quake or tremble. These species share a lot of similar characteristics and help create the identity of these trees.

Over time in North America and beyond, notable stories (both oral and written) and various forms of poetry have been inspired by the trembling aspen. In this section, we will look closely at Traditional Stories from various Indigenous Nations in what is now Canada and also at various poems from European perspectives dating as far back as 1622.

CLS Aspen-Related Student Works

If you would like to, you can submit your story, poem, or picture to the CLS to be part of a collection of aspen-related student works from across Canada!

You can send them to: education@lightsource.ca

Traditional Stories

The stories that follow are a collection of Traditional Indigenous Stories. Traditional stories are stories told from an Indigenous perspective, many of which are Sacred Stories. Some traditional stories have been told for generations and some stories being told and written today are considered with similar respect. Embedded in stories are natural laws as well as social, moral and environmental teachings and lessons that emphasize balance in the world and an ethical relationship with the land. There are discussion questions provided after each story and poem. These questions and suggested answers can be found at the end of this section.

Traditional Stories & Bringing Stories to Life Lessons

Comprehend and respond to the stories provide and create a reenactment of one. Lessons can be downloaded and adapted from here: https://bit.ly/3DdJggV

Why Aspens Tremble (Niitsitapi – Blackfoot)

To read the Niitsitapi story, "Why Aspens Tremble," please visit: https://galileo.org/kainai/quaking-aspen/. A summary is provided below.

The Niitsitapi or Blackfoot peoples are located in parts of what is now known as Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Montana (see Figure 8). In Niitsitapi culture, Napi is a trickster and a foolish being, but the one responsible for shaping the world the Niitsitapi peoples live in. Napi, sometimes referred to as "Old Man," often helps the people or teaches important knowledge through his experience.

In the story, Why Aspens Tremble, the aspen decide to not bow down in respect to Napi. As a result, Napi calls on the lightning to strike them down and in doing so, the aspens become so scared that their leaves trembled. Since that time, if the aspen hear of someone coming through a clearing, they shake in fear and their leaves tremble as they think it might be Napi returning with lightning strikes again.

Discussion Questions

  1. Where is traditional Blackfoot territory?

  2. Who is Napi?

  3. What did the aspen do to anger Napi? How did Napi respond?

  4. According to this Niitsapi story, why do the aspen tremble?

  5. Who is the trickster in your region?

Why the Aspen Leaves Tremble (Secwepemc – Shuswap)

This story was told to Dr. Nancy J. Turner by Elder Mary Thomas of the Neskonlith Nation of the Secwepemc (Shuswap) People. The Secwepemc People are located in the south-central part of what is now known British Columbia. This story was originally published in "Traditional Ecological Knowledge and Wisdom of Aboriginal Peoples in British Columbia" by the Ecological Society of America. Permission to republish this story was granted by Dr. Nancy J. Turner.

When all the trees were created, Trembling Aspen would not bow down and recognize Mother Nature, its Creator. As a punishment for this lack of respect, Aspen was made to tremble and shake its leaves continuously, as it does so to this day.

Discussion Questions

  1. Where is traditional Shuswap territory?

  2. From a Secwepemc perspective, who created the trembling aspen? How do the trees show respect for their creator?

  3. According to this story, why do the aspen leaves tremble?

  4. What is the moral of "Why the Aspen Leaves Tremble"?

Figure 8 shows the territory of the Blackfoot peoples extending between Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Montana. Image by Nikater.
Figure 8 shows the territory of the Blackfoot peoples extending between Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Montana. Image by Nikater.

Why the Aspen Leaves Tremble – (Unknown)

This story was can be found online as part of an open access eBook at https://www.gutenberg.org/files/22420/22420-h/22420-h.htm. You will also find a collection of other nature stories at the link.

"It is very strange," whispered one reed to another, "that the queen bee never guides her swarm to the aspen tree."

"Indeed, it is strange," said the other, "The oak and the willow often have swarms, but I've never seen one on the aspen. What can be the reason?"

"The queen bee cannot bear the aspen," said the first. "Very likely she has some good reason for despising it. I do not think that an insect as wise as she would despise a tree without any reason. Many wicked things happen that no one knows."

The reeds thought they were being quiet, but both the willow and the aspen heard every word. The aspen was so angry that it trembled from root to tip.

"I'll soon see why that proud queen bee despises me," it said. "She shall guide a swarm to my branches or --"

"Oh, I would not care for what those reeds say," the willow broke in. "They are the greatest chatterers in the world. They are always whispering together, and they always have something unkind to say."

The aspen was too angry to be still, and it called out to the reeds, "You are only lazy whisperers. I do not care what you say. I despise both you and your queen bee. The honey that those bees make is not good to eat. I would not have it anywhere near me."

"Hush, hush," whispered the willow timidly. "The reeds will repeat every word that you say."

"I do not care if they do," said the aspen. "I despise both them and the bees."

The reeds did whisper the angry words of the aspen to the queen bee, and she said, "I was going to guide my swarm to the aspen, but now I will drive the tree out of the forest. Come, my bees, come…"

And so hundreds of bees flew upon the aspen. They stung every leaf and every twig through and through. The tree was driven from the forest, over the prairie, over the river, over the fields; and still the angry bees flew after it and stung it again and again. When they had come to the rocky places, they left it and flew back to the land of flowers. The aspen never came back. Its bright green leaves had grown white through fear, and from that day to this they have trembled as they did when the bees were stinging them and driving the tree from the forest.

Discussion Questions

  1. What were the reeds talking about?

  2. Did the aspen tree hear this conversation? How did they react?

  3. How did the reeds and the queen bee respond to the aspen's anger?

  4. According to this story, why do the aspen tremble?

A Poet and I Know It Lesson

Comprehend and respond to trembling aspen poetry and create your own poem. Lessons can be downloaded and adapted from here: https://bit.ly/3DdJggV

Poetry

The quaking aspen, light and thin,

To the air quick passage gives;

Resembling still

The trembling ill

Of tongues of womankind;

Which never rest,

But still are prest

To wave with every wind.

– P. Hannay (1622)

An asp, who thought him stout, could not dissemble,

But showed his fear, and yet is seen to tremble.

– William Browne

The Legend of the Aspen

On the morrow she stood trembling,

At the awful weight she bore,

When the sun in midnight blackness

Darkened on Judas' shore.

-Anonymous

Excerpt from "The Aspen"

By Kedron I stood, and the bright beaming eye

I viewed of the pitying Power;

Each tree bowed its head, as the Saviour passed by,

But I deigned not my proud head to lower.

Then sounded a sigh from the Saviour's breast,

And I quaked, for that sigh through my darted:

"Quake so till I come!" said the voice of the Blest;

My repose then forever departed.

– Bernhard Severin Inglemann

Poetry Discussion Questions

1. What images do you notice? Sights, sounds, tastes, smells?

2. What emotions do each poem bring about?

3. Are there any connections between the poems? Connections between poems and stories? What are they?

Poetry References

P. Hannay (1622) Poem: This poem was can be found online as part of an open access eBook at https://www.gutenberg.org/files/44638/44638-h/44638-h.htm#part-2. You will also find a collection of other plant poetry at the link.

William Browne Poem: This poem is found in the book, The Poems of William Browne of Tavistock which was originally published in 1894 by Lawrence & Bullen in London, England. There is an online copy of this book here: https://books.google.ca/books?id=rH0EAQAAIAAJ&printsec=frontcover#v=onepage&q&f=false.

Anonymous Poem: This poem is found in the book, Notes on the Folk-lore of the Northern Counties of England and the Borders which was originally published in 1879 by W. Satchell, Peyton and Co., Covent Garden, W.C. There is an online copy of this book here: https://archive.org/details/cu31924006726552/page/n7.

Excerpt from "The Aspen": This poem is found in the book, The Poets and Poetry of Europe which was originally published in 1887 by Houghton, Mifflin and Company. There is an online copy of this book here: https://books.google.ca/books/about/The_poets_and_poetry_of_Europe.html?id=FcINAQAAMAAJ&redir_esc=y.

TREE Student Field Book

If students are interested, they can use pages from their Student Field Book when creating their story and/or poem.

Additional Resources & References for Section 2.2

Resources

  • Best Quaking Aspen Poems: https://www.poetrysoup.com/poems/best/quaking_aspen
    Webpage by Poetry Soup that showcases various poems on quaking or trembling aspen. This is a good resource for students to see examples of poetry and how the characteristics of trembling aspen can be incorporated.

References

Galilelo Educational Network. (2016). Quaking aspen: A'kiitoyi - Populus tremuloides (Trembling aspen). Retrieved from https://galileo.org/kainai/quaking-aspen/

Kimmerer, R. (2013). Braiding sweetgrass: Indigenous wisdom, scientific knowledge, and the teachings of plants. Canada. Milkweed Editions.

Native Languages of the Americas. (2015.) Legendary native American figures: Napi (Old Man). Retrieved from http://www.native-languages.org/napi.htm

Sacred Texts. (n.d.). Why the aspen leaves tremble. Retrieved from http://www.sacred-texts.com/etc/bnm/bnm36.htm

Sprtova, L. (n.d.). Why are leaves of quaking aspen (Populus tremuloids) always trembling? Retrieved from http://img.signaly.cz/upload/1/0/9a462eb6be1ed7828f57a184cde3c0/aspen.pdf

Turner, N., Ignace, B., Ignace, R. (2000). Traditional ecological knowledge and wisdom of Aboriginal peoples in British Columbia. Ecological Applications, 10 (5), 1275-1287. Retrieved from http://biophilosophy.ca/Teaching/4160materials/Turner.pdf

Wonders, K. (2008). Sewepemc. Retrieved from http://www.firstnations.de/development/secwepemc.htm