Canku Ota

(Many Paths)

An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America


april 7, 2001 - Issue 33



Indian Storytelling Isn't Just Entertainment


by Seth Zuckerman The Tidepool


 Lanny Pinola is Pomo/Coast Miwok storyteller. photo by Seth Zuckerman


Through Storytelling, We Anchor Ourselves In Our Identities

ARCATA, Calif. -- From Coyote to Thunderbird, the characters in Native American stories encapsulate the wisdom of the ages and convey it from one generation to the next. A newly established annual festival gives northwestern Californians a chance to share tales drawn from their indigenous traditions and weave them together with the stories of contemporary Indian life.

Organizers of the gathering, held here last weekend, emphasized that stories aren't presented merely as performance, but are essential to the transmission of traditions and ways of life. The festival was the work of the California Indian Storytelling Association, which also hosts annual festivals in southern California and the San Francisco Bay Area and aims to maintain and invigorate native Californian cultures.

"Indian storytelling isn't just entertainment," said Suzanne Guerra, one of the festival's organizers. "It embodies philosophy, medicine, relationship counseling. Stories teach you how to be a human being."

Lanny Pinola, co-chair of the association, remembers how his grandmother used stories for that purpose when he was growing up. "Grandma would say, 'Sit down,' and right away you knew you were in deep doo-doo," he recalled with a smile. "And then she would tell a story about Coyote, in the third person. It wasn't the pointing of the finger. At the end, she would ask, 'Do you want to look stupid in the community, like Coyote?' "

The association's revival of storytelling began in 1995, and has stimulated interest in the form by giving storytellers an outlet for their work, said Pinola. "Older people are remembering stories they heard from their grandparents. Younger people -- what we call 'emerging voices' -- are learning stories and telling about their growing up."

The association works with 40 or 50 storytellers from all over the state, a group that has grown by word of mouth from just a handful six years ago, according to executive director Lauren Teixeira.

"A lot of them don't consider themselves storytellers at first," she said. "But all of us have stories to tell. There's a sense [at these festivals] of telling stories across the kitchen table, of telling in the moment, instead of as a canned performance."

It is customary for native Californians to wait until middle age to become storytellers, apart from unusual exceptions who are called to the craft from an early age, said Guerra. Among the nine featured storytellers on the program, only one was under forty years old.

Storytellers drew on the contemporary Indian experience as well as the traditions they had learned from their elders. Tolowa tribal council member Loren Bommelyn told of the conflicts that have arisen in his tribe after their federal recognition was restored in the early 1980s after two decades of being "terminated." Controversy arose over the allocation of surplus food commodities, and intensified when the prospect of casino revenues surfaced.

"The greedy faces all come out," he said. "We lived through genocide, disease, reservations, and relocation -- and now we are going to start killing each other."

He decried the way some Tolowans draw distinctions between classes of tribal members, to justify granting greater benefits to certain families.

By way of allegory, Bommelyn told the story of a handsome man who spurned the attentions of the girls in his village. One day, walking on the beach, he saw the beautiful Abalone Woman, and invited her to ride on his back and return to his village with him. She climbed on. After a while, he tired and asked her to dismount and let him rest. She said nothing, and hung on. Even as he repeated his request, and then tried to knock her off his back, still she said nothing and clung to him.

"Be careful what you wish for," Bommelyn concluded, "you might be stuck with it."

Bommelyn's interweaving of traditional with modern stories is a way of making sense of current events and portraying them through the lens of tribal teachings.

It's a technique that was used as well by Chumash storyteller Georgiana Sanchez, who told the tale of a foundling cougar cub who was raised by a flock of sheep. He grew up eating grass and thinking he was nothing but an ugly sheep. It was only when a grown cougar spotted the young cougar grazing amid the woolly herd and crept around to investigate, that the cougar cub got an opportunity to see one of its kindred animals. The sheep fled, and the cub was left face to face with the adult cougar.

"Do you know who you are?" asks the grown animal. Even after peering at his reflection in a still pool at the river's edge, the young cat still thinks he's an ugly sheep -- and worse yet, thinks that the adult cougar is too. It is only when the older cat asks the cub to roar -- and gradually coaxes his feeble "baaa" into a deafening "ROWR" -- that the cub realizes his true identity.

The subtext was clear -- that by hearing the voices of our kind and speaking them in turn, we anchor ourselves in our identities. This is how culture is passed on from one generation to the next, and that is the process which the California Indian Storytellers Association is strengthening with each story-swapping festival.

California Indian Storytellers Association




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