Telling the Story Indian Style

Esther Stutzman

Last week I heard Indian storytellers unfurl their tales when the Northwest Indian Storytellers Association gathered in Portland.

I was enlightened and humbled to listen to Native storytellers weave their magic. We heard tales of coyote and raven, Lakota and Haida. Some just for children. Some more ribald for adults.

One evening my honey and I were honored to sit at dinner with elder Esther Stutzman, who talked about how she learned stories from her grandmother.

Stutzman, a raconteuse whose splendid narration is eclipsed only by her grace and beauty, said some of the stories cannot be told in public settings.

In other words, there are stories for everyday consumption and there are stories reserved for special times and particular audiences.

We segued into a discussion about ownership.

In the old days, folks knew which stories could be repeated. Some stories stayed within families. One family would never repeat a tale from another family.

But the concept of ownership was never operationalized: it’s not like you could go to the store and plunk down 50 cents and buy the story. You might hear it, but you couldn’t re-tell it.

Using our modern lens as a viewfinder, it’s tough to imagine information that’s somehow sacred or sanctioned.

The contemporary mash-up of information—when we can buy anything and everything we need at the flip of keystroke—forces us to reconsider what kinds of information should be private. Unspoken. Husbanded.

My mother, who learned finger-weaving from a tribal elder in Oklahoma, reminds me of Indian secrets.

You couldn’t learn finger-weaving by taking a workshop and paying a fee: you could only learn the art from a practitioner.

You learned it the old-fashioned way, from an elder who thought you were worthy of her (or his) time and expertise.

My mother learned finger-weaving from Maudie Cheshewalla, whose kindness and generosity schooled several generations of Osage weavers.

Maudie expected nothing in return, except perhaps for her students to pass along to their children an important tradition.

Fortunately, my mother was one of her hundreds of students, and she became a master weaver. Not of tales, but of textile.

[Day four of Native American Heritage Month. I pledge one blog per day]

Photo of Esther Stutzman from Wisdom of the Elders


About Cynthia Coleman Emery

Professor and researcher at Portland State University who studies science communication, particularly issues that impact American Indians. Dr. Coleman is an enrolled citizen of the Osage Nation.
This entry was posted in authenticity, censorship, ethics, journalism, Lakota, Native Science, Osage, salmon, science, science communication and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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