Thomas Doty – Storyteller

A Native View

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Teaching Rock Writings

For years I have been teaching workshops on rock writings (native pictographs and petroglyphs). My work with Roy Phillips in our Reading the Rocks project had taken us to hundreds of sites and inspired us to start translating and interpreting the stories the symbols told. The workshop I had been teaching was in two parts: the first taught the meanings of the symbols in a presentation style and the second guided participants as they created their own stories using traditional and original symbols.

So last fall it occurred to me that the rock writings are simply another form of native storytelling. It's all literature (traditional oral telling of stories, contemporary publishing of stories, ancient stories carved and painted on the rocks). I began to notice similarities between my performances of stories and how symbols told the stories in the rock writings. Many of the rock images are based on Indian sign language. And so it was no surprise to discover that many gestures and movements I had been using to tell a story (some spontaneous, some traditional) matched the symbols ... a counter-clockwise spiral to indicate upward movement, an arm extended from the eyes to show looking a long ways, that first step of a walking movement that shows the journey has begun, and on and on.

I began teaching that first workshop not in the sit-and-listen presentational style I had been using, but instead we got up, moved around, told stories. I create a spontaneous story, the workshop participants echo everything I do, and every gesture and movement they do is a rock writing symbol. Then we draw the story on a whiteboard, look closely at the symbols, explore variations, and wow, they've got it. They've learned it kinesthetically -- it's inside them.

We found a way to engage the stories the Rock People tell. As the Old Ones tell us, the Rock People are the oldest people, the first storytellers, and their stories are the oldest stories.

– 2012