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Canku Ota

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(Many Paths)

An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America


September 22, 2001 - Issue 45


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Oral Tradition Making a Strong Comeback


 by Scott Richardson of the Pantagraph Staff-September 16, 2001


art "The Storyteller" by Leland Bell

BLOOMINGTON -- Once upon a time, storytellers lived in every family, every tribe and every village.

When they spoke 'round the campfire or kitchen table, young and old alike came close to listen to the myths, the fables and heroic tales.

Sometimes, it was an old man, feet propped to warm at a potbellied stove at the general store. Sometimes, it was Aunt Sadie or Uncle Ralph or Grandpa Jones on the porch after Sunday dinner.

Their voices carried the oral history that defined their cultures. They often were self-appointed genealogists who traced their family roots.

"We are the stories we tell," said Brian "Fox" Ellis, 39, of Peoria.

Part Cherokee, Ellis earns his living telling stories on riverboats and in schools and by writing books that tell stories or explain how to tell stories better. He has toured Europe 10 times to tell stories about American Indians and to use storytelling to teach non-violence to the sons and daughters of U.S. servicemen and -women.

Storytelling decline
The voices of the storytellers quieted somewhat with the arrival of television. But storytelling remained strong in the backwoods of America, where TV reception was poor.

In communities made up of American Indians, black Americans and other groups, storytelling preserved cultural histories largely unwritten, ignored or distorted by the mainstream. Storytellers kept their people's way of life alive.

"Storytelling dozed off, but it never really died," Ellis said.

Storytelling appears to be reawakening. Every October since 1973, people have been gathering in Jonesborough, Tenn., for the National Storytelling Festival. In 1973, only a few dozen attended. By 2000, the crowds swelled to 10,000. In Illinois, a storytelling festival in McHenry attracts more than 4,000 each July.

Ellis formed the Peoria Prairie Tellers eight years ago. More recently, Bloomington-Normal became home to the Twin City Tale Spinners. Members will tell stories as part of the Harvest Bloom celebration in downtown Bloomington on Saturday with shows at 11 a.m. and 1, 3 and 5 p.m. in the alley that runs east and west between Center and Madison streets.

Renewed interest in storytelling isn't merely due to its entertainment value or from appreciation of it as a folk art. A certified teacher, Ellis lectures professionals from education to business to the clergy on the art of using stories to illustrate their points.

"There is a huge tidal wave (of interest in storytelling)," Ellis said. "Storytellers are popping up all over."

"People are once again getting together to tell stories," agreed John Walsh, who organized the Twin City Tale Spinners with the help of a dozen or so members of the board of directors.

Storytelling in Twin Cities
Walsh hopes Bloomington-Normal's central location will help the city become a center of storytelling in the region.

"With TV, you can be removed from it. But with storytelling, there is a certain community. With storytelling, you can touch someone more emotionally," Walsh said.

"We turn people away," said longtime storyteller Vivian Carter, describing the immense popularity of story hours at Normal Public Library, where she is director of children's services.

Carter was hooked on storytelling as a little girl on the lap of her grandmother, who told tales about life in her native Sweden.

During a recent performance, Walsh told a rendition of the Biblical story of the prodigal son. But he did it using alliteration, one storytelling technique. Nearly every word began with the letter "F."

"The fugitive is found," gushed Freddie's father. "Let the fun and frolic freely flow!"

Carter told a touching tale about a moment of fun shared by a great-grandmother and her great-grandson during a game of hide and seek on the woman's 101st birthday. That time together proved to be their last.

Ellis conjured images of "The Wizard of Oz," as he told of a day he rode his bike along the path a tornado traveled just minutes before.

A favorite storytelling topic will be front stage when the Twin City Tale Spinners host an evening of ghost stories at the Bloomington Public Library from 6 to 8 p.m. Oct. 25.

On the weekend before Thanksgiving, a traditional time for storytellers to gather, Twin City Tale Spinners will host Tellabration, at a location to be announced.

"If anyone comes to these events, they are hooked," Walsh said. "Dads and moms begin telling stories. They transfer their values, but not just their values. People are passing on their roots."

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  Canku Ota is a free Newsletter celebrating Native America, its traditions and accomplishments . We do not provide subscriber or visitor names to anyone. Some articles presented in Canku Ota may contain copyright material. We have received appropriate permissions for republishing any articles. Material appearing here is distributed without profit or monetary gain to those who have expressed an interest. This is in accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. section 107.  

Canku Ota is a copyright © 2000, 2001 of Vicki Lockard and Paul Barry.


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