In my travels around the web, I noticed that today is something called International Town Criers Day. That caught my attention because I figured the noble profession of Town Crier is one that’s largely ceremonial these days (as opposed to the essential service they performed back in the days before moveable type, and when the common people were illiterate anyway). So I decided to do a little research. Since I’m a big fan of tradition, I happy to report that The City of London does still employ an official Town Crier to the Mayor. Over here in the modern New World, where you might think of a Town Crier as simply a player in an historical reenactment for tourists, or maybe a novelty at a new shopping mall opening, the tradition is much bigger than that. If you go to Philly, you might be lucky to catch the American Guild of Town Criers competition. The Ontario Guild of Town Criers also holds championships, and there’s North American and International Town Crier Championships, too. And that's not the end of it, but first I have to detour just a bit...
The use of the word ‘illiterate’ above bothers me. While it does mean ‘unable to read,’ in usage it’s also become synonymous with ‘uneducated’ and even ‘stupid.’ It’s a bias that colonizing European peoples have for centuries held against aboriginal cultures they encountered; cultures who had (and still have) rich viable oral traditions, and who were highly educated in the things they need to know. Seems the Europeans conveniently forgot or discounted the oral foundations of early tribal Europe.
When I lived out West, I had both good friends and family-members-by-adoption who are First Nations peoples, and I was fortunate enough to spend some time on the Pow Wow Trail, traveling and camping in many of the western provinces and states. A pow wow is a wonderful way to spend a weekend, whether it’s held in an inside arena, or, especially, outside in a dancing arbor, on the earth and under the sky. On one trip, I learned that pow wow gatherings have Town Criers, too. We were at Crow Fair, in Montana, a huge annual celebration that draws dancers and their families from all over Indian Country. We were lucky to get a tent spot in the shade. After hot day and a late night watching the competing dancers and getting out there to some Intertribals (where anyone can dance) myself, I was very glad to crawl into my sleeping bag, lumps and all. Then what seemed like only moments later, I heard a soft commotion somewhere far off; the crier had started. Part town crier and part alarm clock, he called out for the people to wake up, for the drum members to rise and start a song, talked about the coming day, calling for the entire camp to get up and get going. The voices moved around between the tents and tipis for a while, then surprisingly quickly the designated first drum group began to sing, and the sounds of morning activity grew – all this while the light in the tent was still a vague silvery blue, and even the sun slept!
Pow wow Camp Criers are a tradition that is probably older than European Town Criers. Every First Nation (Canada) or Native American (U.S.) culture must have them. My Plains Cree friend from Saskatchewan tells me they are known as (and I’ll spell this phonetically as best I can) the “kay-TAY-p’wait” which literally means “callers.” He remembers them telling people to “Wake up and shake the bugs off your blankets” (that would sure get me up!) and calling the women to get up and feed their children. And my friend in Montana told me about callers there as well. It's a memorable thing to experience. Life unfolds in such a nice easy rhythm over a pow wow weekend. You come away wishing life could always be like that, and start looking forward to the next camp.
Photo of Peter Moore, Town Crier to the Mayor of London from Wikimedia Commons
Photo of pow wow dancers (Pipestone, Manitoba) by D. Godin
Photo of Steven Small Salmon at Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump, Alberta by D. Godin
You can see both tents and tipits in the background. Steven is a respected Tradition Dancer (wearing his competition number) of the Pend-Oreille tribe. He lives in Ronan, MT with his wife, Juanita, who also took the banner photo for this blog.