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Native American Storytellers
The stories we tell.
As the young girl marveled at the paintings on the mound at the Painted Rock monument in the Arizona desert, she wondered who had placed their hands, both big and small, colored in red ochre, upon the stones. Why did stick figures, holding bows and arrows, and animal effigies such as deer and elk, delicately painted in colors of red, blue, and black, seem to stroll across the rocks as if they were the hunter and the hunted? She knew someone was trying to tell a story, but who were these people, and what were they saying? Upon returning home, she decided to ask the only person she knew who could answer those questions satisfactorily, the town's storyteller.
The old man commenced telling the little girl that almost anyone can be a storyteller, as most of us think of storytelling as stories handed down from one generation to another, as his often were because his family had lived in the area since the arrival of the Spaniards. Therefore, “it is easy to envision sitting in front of a cozy campfire, or perhaps at the bedside, telling stories of great deeds accomplished by one’s ancestors or relating tales of misfortune and mayhem. However, the Native American culture takes this one step further.”
He continued by saying:
The place you visited today is sacred because it is where all the Native Americans in the area once gathered to tell their stories of the battles they had fought, animals they had hunted, and how they lived. It was sort of a neutral ground for many of the tribes in the area. The Native American used these stories, or petroglyphs, as a means of recording their heritage and as a way to teach lessons to future generations. Therefore, each symbol represents the extraordinarily magical imagery, symbolism, and characterization of the time in which they lived.
Also included in the Native American canon of storytelling are the poems they write, their essays and speeches, their fictions and nonfictions, and their dramas. As one Native American author, Linda Hogan (n.d., p. 262), so eloquently phrased the idea of storytelling in her auto biographical essay I Tell You Now:
I write partly to put this life in order, partly because I was too shy to speak. I was silent and the poems spoke first. I was ignorant and the poems educated me. When I realized that people were going to read the poems, I thought of the best ways to use words, how great was my responsibility to transmit words, ideas, and acts by which we could live with liberation, love, shelf-respect, good humor, and joy. In learning that, I also had to offer up our pain and grief and sorrow, because I know that denial and repression are the greatest hindrances to liberation and growth.
Her poem The New Apartment, Minneapolis also signifies the emotion of the sorrow she felt as she entered the old house and remembered the people who had lived there before. She remembered how the elder had been hung on a meat hook and beaten, and she remembered all the previous wars that her people have fought. To her, these images symbolize the moon, as a crescent being held against its will, with no food or water to nourish it into fullness.
Yet there is also a lesson to be learned in reading her poem. It is here that she unveiled the promise that the moon will shine once again, fuller and brighter than ever before. Therefore, for those of us who have forgotten the old ways there is hope that we can be reminded of them once again if we can step beyond the walls of the old, turn the key, and unlock the door to our universe and let our minds wander. For it is here that we will once again meet our loved ones, and they will give us “the will to go on” (Hogan, n.d., pp. 263-264).
The socio-political, historical, and cultural events that influenced Hogan’s work were her childhood home in Oklahoma and Colorado, her family’s military background, and her work as an environmentalist. These aspects are important to her work as an author because they helped her focus on the indigenous relationship with plants and animals and gave her a great deal of knowledge about the historical wrongs done to her people and the environment (McNally, 1999).
Another poignant story filled with emotion, imagery, symbolism, and characterization is Louis Owens’ Motion of Fire and Form (Owens, n.d., pp. 83-93). Here, from the very beginning, the reader is assaulted with the image of traveling down a muddy road in the backwoods of Mississippi. One can almost feel the air “frozen cold and thick as Karo Syrup” and the isolation of the car and its passengers as they smash through the ice-filled ruts, with “the black bones of trees” standing silent on each side of the road (Owens, n.d., pp.83-84). This is the biography of a man’s journey throughout the countryside and his life. However, it is also the biography of a proud man “the descendent of mixed blood sharecroppers and the dispossessed of two continents” who believes he is “rightful heir of Choctaw and Cherokee storytellers and of Shakespeare and Yeats and Cervantes.”
The car and the pig he describes so well throughout the narrative are symbols of his childhood memories, but the coyote is something else. It is the symbol of his being wild and free as “Together our tracks emerged onto the rock crest on the other side of the glacier, and as I stood there in a tearing wind and looked out at what seemed a thousand miles of Cascade peaks, I imagined coyote doing the same” (Owens, n.d., p. 92).
This coyote also symbolizes his descent from Choctaw, Cherokee, and Irish ancestors, and their struggle to be accepted by their own kind, the Native American culture, to his modern day achievements as a wilderness ranger, firefighter, and author (Owens, n.d., p. 83). Therefore, it is important that his story should be told for the sake of himself and his people and their oneness with nature. There is also a lesson to be learned here, and that is that we should never forget where we came from and who we are. If we do, we will lose, not only a part of ourselves, but our heritage as well.
Like Hogan, Owens, the syotyteller, and even the little girl, we all have stories to tell. Like theirs, ours are also inspired by what we accomplish and what we learn. Our stories are our journeys through life. Just as the story of the moon and the old house restores the faith of humanity and the coyote symbolizes freedom and the spiritualistic oneness with nature, the things we do symbolize our character, our faith, and our willingness to go on. Therefore, the telling of our stories will help our children remember us for what we have done and what we have sacrificed to do it. As this work has now come full circle, and the little girl has grown into a woman, she understands why the people left their mark on those rocks because she now has her own story to tell and will be remembered.
Hogan, L. (n.d.) . The new apartment, Minneapolis. In G. Vizenor (Ed.) , Native
American Literature: A Brief Introduction And Anthology (pp. 262-264) . Reading, NY: Addison-Wesley Publishing Inc.
McNally, A. L. (1999) . Linda Hogan: Voices from the gaps: University of Minnesota.
Retrieved from .http://voices.cla.umn.edu/artistpage/hoganLinda.php
Owens, L. (n.d.) . Motion of fire and form. In G. Vizenor (Ed.) , Native American
Literature: A Brief Introduction And Anthology (pp. 83-93) . Reading, NY: Addison-Wesley Publishing Inc.