Why We Are Sticking To Our Stories

Nov 15th, 2007 | By | Category: 19-2: Our Story, Our Way, Editor's Essay
By Tina Deschenie

American History (excerpt) by Michael Horse, courtesy of Kiva Fine Art Gallery.

On winter nights when we were snug in our beds in the darkness after the kerosene lamp was blown out, my father would start telling us stories about Má’ii, or Coyote, and his adventures. One of my favorites was about the time Coyote lost his eyes in a game he played with the birds. Although they warned him against it, he insisted they remove his eyes, which he promptly lost. Feeling sorry for him, the birds made eyes for him from yellow pine pitch. This is why coyotes even today have yellow eyes.

Truthfully, no written summary of this story can do it justice. My father could spin this story out for over an hour. His version was laden with detail that told you how high and warm the sun was, what the sky looked like, how the tree leaves whispered and what colors they were, how the birds appeared and the sounds they made, what smells were in the air, and how the land felt as Coyote walked upon it.

He told us what the birds were thinking when Coyote approached and what Coyote thought as he watched the birds play with his eyes. His richly evocative version of the story was meant to be heard.

His Coyote stories were told not in English but in Diné, one per night, strung out over many weeks and then retold in circular patterns throughout each winter. We kids never tired of hearing about Coyote and Skunk, or Cottontail, or Porcupine, or Doe, or Horned Toad – a whole series of animal adventures.

My father would animate the various voices so that we could identify who was speaking without having to be told. We went eagerly to bed, knowing our imaginations would be warmed by our father’s tales as we slipped into incredible dreams.

In the summers, my mother told her stories, some of which had more contemporary settings. She spun stories her parents had told her or about her own childhood adventures. She also told nursery stories like The Little Red Hen, The Gingerbread Boy, or The Three Bears.

Both my parents were fantastic storytellers. They could paralyze us kids with fear or double us over with giggly laughter. In those days, a good storyteller was our television, radio, and drive-in movie all rolled into one. We were very blessed – one parent told stories only in Diné while the other used English.

As I grew older, I was mesmerized by the traditional stories told in ceremonial songs about the sacred mountains of the Diné people. One wonderful song simply and powerfully telescopes a person in – first you see it from afar, next you approach and climb, and finally you crest each sacred mountain, one by one.

Other empowering songs outfit a person in a sacred way. When my daughters went through their womanhood ceremonies, I could barely withhold tears as I sang along with the songs about Changing Woman and Whiteshell Woman. Once certain songs start humming in you, they stay forever.

Coming from this rich upbringing in oral tradition, I am thankful to those who responded to this issue’s theme. I was touched by the instructors and individuals who shared with Michael Thompson their efforts to bring into college classrooms Native storytellers and writers in order to ensure that students learn their people’s stories.

Matt Herman, formerly at Stone Child College, writes about the Rocky Boy History Project’s outreach to elders and community members in order to record their stories both electronically and in print. The stories have also been developed into K-12 public school curriculum for use in Montana.

Fort Belknap College Native American Studies Director Sean Chandler sent us photos of elders he has worked with and recorded – some of the last remaining Gros Ventre speakers in his community.

Theresa Walker-Lame Bull, one of those revered elders, passed on in August 2007 as we were working on this issue. She had worked for years assisting the tribal college with developing language materials.

Her passing, like that of many others who hold irreplaceable treasures of our Native tongues, reminds us there is no time to lose. Our fluent traditional elders carry our beautiful languages and ways, and if we don’t step up our efforts to preserve what we can, our children and our grandchildren will surely suffer the loss.

Tony Wise, a non-Native, recorded activities of the Lac Courte Oreilles Ojibwe people; after his death, his heirs donated his collection of film and audio recordings to the tribe. Thelma Nayquonabe shares the story of this priceless gift. If more people who hold similar records of various tribal people would do the same, future generations would be equally enriched.

Natasha Johnson’s article on Andrethia Bia, who enrolled at Diné College to learn weaving as well as the relevant stories and songs, inspired me and reminded me of a large rug auction held recently back home.

The buyers turned out in large numbers, as did the weavers and their families, who anxiously watched the bidding process. Observing the beautiful weavings displayed one at a time, I thought of all the hours of work and the songs and stories that each rug represented. I wondered whether any of the buyers could fully appreciate that.

I’m glad I heard my people’s stories as a child, because in boarding school and public school, I heard no Coyote stories or Diné stories of any kind. It wasn’t until 12th grade, when I was assigned Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee by Dee Brown, that awareness of my Nativeness was jolted into red-alert. (The 2007 Hollywood movie by the same title is unlike the book.)

Although I knew about the Long Walk of the Diné people from stories told within my family, I had never before heard anything about it in academic classes. Once Dee Brown seared our tragic histories into my awareness, my perspective on almost everything changed drastically.

The stories that I had learned in my earlier schooling came from books like the Little House on the Prairie series, Pippi Longstocking, Heidi, Tom Sawyer, To Kill a Mockingbird, and similar adolescent literature or American “classics.” Although many of these books have worth and literary merit, I would certainly consider myself better educated if the schools I attended had shared the stories of my own people as well.

In college, attending classes taught by Luci Tapahonso (Diné) and N. Scott Momaday (Kiowa) kindled my interest in listening to and reading more Native traditional stories as well as stories by contemporary Native writers.

We owe a heartfelt thank-you to all those teachers who are active in bringing Native stories to their students in the classroom – whether from an oral, print, electronic, or digital source. By perpetuating our stories, they help to keep our ways alive. A rich oral history fuels imagination, contemplation, and speculation, as can be clearly seen in the creative writing of tribal college students and in Native-authored writings everywhere. We must actively integrate oral-based traditions into today’s classrooms.

The Indigenous animation program at the Institute of American Indian Arts is also generating excitement, in part due to digital animation being used by Native people across the country to tell both contemporary and traditional stories. An article in Native Peoples, Vol. XX, No. 5 profiled several artists who have created films that tell traditional stories, sometimes using their tribal languages. Many of their films have shown to packed audiences in various tribal communities. If the Indigenous animation movement helps to bring back our traditional stories, I’m all for it.

As No Child Left Behind seeks to shape a more literate society, we must remember that we come from cultures rooted in the power and beauty of oral tradition and face-to-face storytelling.

We must tell our story our way.

Tina Deschenie (Diné/Hopi) has been editor of the Tribal College Journal since 2006. She has over 20 years of experience in American Indian education.

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