Thomas Doty – Storyteller

Five Essays

Photo. Photo. Photo.

1. Writing on the Rocks

Someone wrote a story on this rock, perhaps a thousand years ago, perhaps more. Someone who walked the woods at night. He went inside the cave, made a fire, and sat for a long, long time. He listened to the tumbling of the creek, to the slow growing of trees, and the slower settling of the earth. Orange light from the fire danced across the rock.

He dipped his fingers in the paint he'd mixed. In strokes that matched the thickness of his fingers, he streaked symbols that told the story of this place ... the power of this cave.

Someone wrote a story on this rock, someone who had known the rock a long, long time.

Five years later, the man brought his son to the cave and taught him how to mix the paint. In the light of the fire, the man explained the ideas behind the symbols, and how they were arranged on the rock to tell a story. He explained that sometimes he carves the symbols into wood, sometimes into bone.

"When we've been out fishing all day," he told the boy, "we come home and play the hand game. But we've got to have a bone that looks different from the others. So we talk about the fishing, and as we're talking, I'm carving symbols into the bone. When we're done, we've got a record of what we did that day as well as a bone to play the game."

The boy asked him if he used the same system of symbols he used on the rocks.

"System?" the man replied. "No, not a system. Just the symbols we've always used."

The man and his son sat and listened to the creek and the trees and the earth. They watched the firelight bring the writings to life, with symbols that told the story of this place so well. Then the boy dipped his fingers in the paint, and with shy, tentative strokes, began to add his own perceptions to the story.

2. The Rock People of Coyote's Paw

Each time I visit this village, I honor the long time presence of the Rock People. They are everywhere. They gather over graves and make cairns, sit in circles around winter fires, circle-dance the dance ring. All through the village they grind nuts and seeds. They cook acorn soup. They make a path for the creek. They heat the sweat lodge. Rock People line the trail to the Vision Peak, lingering in the shade of their old friends, the Tree People. They share their wisdom in stories carved in stone. They are the first to greet me as I walk into the village and the last to say goodbye. The Rock People are the oldest elders. They are always here.

3. Rock Writings are Writing

The term rock art was popularized in the 1960s, and is the most common way to refer to rock writings. However, it is misleading. Though the images can be highly artistic, symbols are combined to create messages and stories, and that makes them communication or writing. Native languages have words for writing. The Hopi word tutuveni refers to rock carvings and paintings. The same word is also used for books, magazines, newspapers and other written materials. Our local Takelma word for writing is se'l and is synonymous with black paint.

Several parks around the country have been convinced by native tribes to stop using the term rock art. Instead they are using alternatives that emphasize the symbols as communication. Some parks are located on sacred sites that in native languages refer to the place as a place of rock writings. For instance, Pictograph Cave State Park in Montana is called Ammahpawaalaatuua by the Apsalooke (Crow) which means "where there is rock writings."

Many of the earliest European descriptions of the images referred them as picture writing. They saw early on the connection between rock writings and Indian sign language. Both are methods of communication and are closely related.

To further complicate the modern view as rock writings as art, many scientists have categorized the symbols from their own European world view rather than asking native elders what they mean or at least attempting to see them through native eyes. As a result, there are reams of documents separating the symbols into categories with names such as ladders, rakes, anthropomorphic figures, concentric circles, and so on. None of these have anything to do with what they mean. Really, the best example of rock art that I know of is Michelangelo's David!

When I teach my rock writing class to school children, there is a magical moment when I see the light bulbs in their brains flash on. That's when they start seeing the symbols as natives see them. And interpretation becomes a breeze. A completeness symbol is no longer a fish, it is a rope with the ends tied together. Two arrowheads with the points touching is no longer an hour glass, it is the symbol for conflict. Unfortunately, for many archaeologists who call themselves specialists in native cultures, the light bulb never flashes on. And they continue to publish their papers, ream after ream, and others believe them.

Lava Beds National Monument in northeast California, home to thousands of symbols, has a poster on the bulletin board outside their visitor center that says, "What do they mean? This is a question that many who view Native American rock art most frequently ask. It is not a question that is easy to answer. The rock art within Lava Beds is plentiful, as well as the interpretations of their meaning. Rock art specialists have come to the conclusion that the symbols are not a form of written language, they are simply individual symbols. To decipher the exact meaning behind the symbols one would have to know the artist, to know the experiences of those who created the art, and to know the cultures of the indigenous peoples that were here. However it is still possible to appreciate the rock art without fully understanding their meaning."

Lava Beds doesn't mention who the specialists were that they talked with though I suspect they were archaeologists or scientists of some kind. They also refer to indigenous peoples in past tense. They should know better! There are still plenty of native people around who have knowledge of their native cultures. Ironically, I have taught native storytelling rock writing workshops to park rangers at the monument though I suspect that was too long ago for anyone there now to remember.

It has been my experience over the years that many who call themselves rock art specialists, some who have spent lifetimes documenting and categorizing the symbols, usually claim to know nothing of their meaning. And because they are specialists and don't know, they make the assumption that no one else knows anything either. After all, they have the knowledge and the academic credentials. And they won't listen to anyone who knows about the symbols, claiming their knowledge of native culture has no scientific foundation. Only scientists have the tools to get at the truth, right? Unfortunately, the poster at Lava Beds is read by thousands of people each year, and many believe what they read.

A number of years ago, Lava Beds National Monument commissioned a study on a rock writing site that documents the Supernova of 1054 that created the Crab Nebula. The scientists took a sample of the paint, carbon dated it, and concluded that it couldn't possibly be about the Supernova because the paint wasn't quite old enough. But here's the problem. They didn't know that it was a tradition in the culture to touch up the rock writings from time to time to keep them vibrant. That's why so many of the symbols remained vivid for thousands of years but have faded dramatically in the past century and a half. With the arrival of Europeans that led to a fracturing of cultural traditions, that touching up stopped. The scientists, trying to do the least amount of damage to get their paint sample, scraped from the top layer. What they dated was a touch up, not the original. As a result, it is the official stance of Lava Beds National Monument that the symbols have nothing to do with the Supernova even though they match several other sites found throughout California.

Understanding the rock writings requires a knowledge of native culture, including Old Time stories that have been passed down through the oral tradition. Yet because stories live outside the realm of their brand of science, most archaeologists dismiss them when it comes to drawing definitive conclusions about native cultures.

In the 1870s, the Ghost Dance was done at my ancestral village of Coyote's Paw along the Klamath River. The archaeology report on the village site stated that three of the Ghost Dance trees were still standing. Hmmm, I thought. That doesn't sound right. There should be five. That's our sacred number. So I went to have a look. The three trees the archaeologists had identified were all within the confines of the village, lined up east-west and parallel to the river. The Ghost Dance was all about bringing ancestors back from the Land of the Dead to raise an army large enough to drive away the Europeans. So I walked downriver along the old Indian trail, and outside the village, there were the other two trees, continuing the line of trees that pointed toward the western Land of the Dead. Simple, but you need to know the culture and the mythology!

In modern times, LaVan Martineau, using cryptology, was a pioneer in interpreting rock writings. His work, The Rocks Begin to Speak, is a handbook for those of us interested in the stories the rocks tell. Because he was not an accredited scientist, and even though he had a vast background in native cultures, archaeologists continue to poo-poo his work as unscientific. In my opinion, it's brilliant. Here's what he writes about rock art versus rock writings....

In most works concerned with these mysterious markings, the term rock writing is seldom applied to them, in spite of the fact that this is the very term the Indians themselves have always used, and would thus seem to be the most appropriate one. (Tum-pe-po-op, for instance, means rock writing in Paiute. Other tribes have equally specific words).

This omission is due largely to the fact that most scholars have never accepted the premise that these markings were indeed writing. The existence in the languages of many Indian tribes of a word for writing (in the sense of recording information for others to read) proves, at least that picture writing was long accepted as writing by the Indian. And who but the American Indian himself is more qualified to say whether it is or is not?

The existence of such a writing system among the Indians offers a solution to the mystery, so long ignored, of why tribes had their own words for reading and writing. Such words were not borrowed from English or Spanish, nor are they descriptive (as are many of their words denoting modern gadgets). They are retained from a recent time when the Indians practiced their own form of picture writing.

-- The Rocks Begin to Speak. Las Vegas: KC Publications, 1973.

To be fair, I have met a few archaeologists who have become interested in the rock writings as communication. They have read the writing on the wall, so to speak, and it has been a joy to work with them and compare notes. My rock writing partner Roy Phillips is on the verge of publishing a book that interprets a dozen sites in Oregon. Many of these sites we visited together, and continue to visit. Like a good story, rereading the rock writings often reveals additional truths in the stories the Rock People tell.

4. Teaching Rock Writings

My work with Roy Phillips in our Reading the Rocks project has taken us to hundreds of sites and inspired us to translate and interpret the stories dramatized in ancient rock carvings and paintings.

When I began teaching the meanings of the symbols, it was in the style of a lecture. But now I have found a better approach. I discovered that 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 noticed 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 now include rock writings in my workshops and master classes. We create a spontaneous story, and every gesture and movement we do is a rock writing symbol. We experience stories the Rock People tell kinesthetically -- it's inside us! We have made a direct connection to an ancient storytelling tradition. As the Old Ones tell us, the Rock People are the oldest people, the first storytellers, and their stories are the oldest stories.

5. Stories and Light

As a storyteller, I contemplate light, a lot. Whether I'm enjoying a summer day of abundant sunshine or a magical evening of stories around a campfire, or experiencing the shadowy shift of the seasons from autumn to winter, my world is filled with light that is constantly changing. Like a great story, light has textures, colors, moods, shadows and flares, softness and harshness, richness and depth....

In the world of theatre, a lighting designer creates moods through light, a technician executes that design, and each actor moves through the play from one preset scene to the next. "Find your light," the director says. In storytelling, the concept of light is different. As a teller I am not only the sole actor but also lighting designer, technician and director. I create the effect of light spontaneously as I share each scene of each story.

If my performance is indoors, I request an unevenly lit space ... shadows here, a splash of light there, patterns of colored light and shadows that imitate a dramatic sunset on the beach or the haunting textures of a full moon lighting a Northwest forest. As I journey through each story, I play with the light. I feel brightness and dimness on my face as I move, shifting to a new composition of light as the mood of the story shifts. I not only find my light, I find my shadows.

Once, in a high school gymnasium, I was fiddling with lighting possibilities just prior to a storytelling. I hadn't noticed that some of the lights were gas and needed 10 minutes or so to come back on after they were turned off. In my attempts to be creative I flicked the wrong switch. As students filled the bleachers, the gym was launched into semi-darkness. There was nothing to be done. The lights would come back in their own good time. Much like the world at the start of creation, I began the performance in dim light and let the words carry the drama. I chose a native myth I call, "Sun and Stories Come Into the World Together." In this myth, after a time of darkness, the light of the world (the sun) and the light of culture (the stories) arrive and share the world's stage equally. As the plot progressed toward the first rising of the sun, one by one the gym lights flickered back to full strength. The effect was dramatic and startling, and very satisfying.

When most folks imagine a storytelling, I suspect they are not picturing a performance under harsh fluorescent lights with the storytelling space outlined by the free-throw lines on a gym floor and a basketball hoop as a backdrop. Yet even in this setting, we see something different. We have memories and experiences that send our thoughts of storytelling to a scene that includes firelight ... folks gathered around a campfire in the forest or in the desert, or in the flickering light of a fireplace, the gentle glow of a candle or an oil lamp, or cozied-up around a crackling wood stove in the nurturing hearths of our homes. For centuries, this is where people have experienced the telling of stories, in twilight-to-nighttime settled moments at the end of the day, just before sleep and dreams where we enter yet another setting for stories. This fire-lit scene is soothing, memorable and has magic in it ... a universal and ancient place. In a native plank house lit by firelight, or a Nordic hall, or around the ceremonial fire at a gathering of tribes long before they were called powwows, folks are drawn to the fire for stories, warmth and companionship. It is in this setting that the storyteller's art finds its deepest and most ancient roots.

I love sharing stories around a fire. The interplay of light and shadows constantly changes, and each story-moment is a dramatic opportunity. And there is also the sound. The sputter and crackle of fire plays with the ebb and flow of words, and adds depth to the silences between those words. The sound of a fire can be a subtle soundtrack that soothes our hearts after a scary story or it can fill our ears with eerie pops and hisses that make our pulses throb. Firelight allows us to experience the stories in much the same ways our ancestors did. Like a story, it tugs us into the awareness that we are a community. In this setting, firelight strays beyond the boundaries of stage lights. Not only is the storyteller in the light but the audience is lit as well. This communal light encourages eye-contact between teller and listeners. When I perform indoors, my request for uneven lighting includes raising the house lights a bit to cast light on the audience. This emulates the common light of a primeval telling. It is an invitation to enter the world of stories, and sets the scene for a vibrant flow of emotions between storyteller and listeners. It brings back the intimacy of a traditional telling. Shared light encourages a sharing of stories.

I've also seen firelight bring rock writings to life. A few years ago, I was with my friend Roy Phillips exploring a series of pictographs in a cave in eastern Oregon. From the native point of view, the rock writings are the stories of the Rock People, a written form of native literature that is a companion to oral tradition. Roy had been trying to get a good photo of the images, but the cave was too dim to use natural light and a flash was too harsh. Finally, he fired up an old gas lantern that sent a golden glow dancing through the cave. The images jumped off the rock surface! Not only did the warm light make vivid the images we knew about, but we clearly saw images that were faint before, even approaching invisible. This made for the perfect photo! And then we noticed the fire-blackened wall at the back of the cave where native folks had lit small fires over a long period of time. They used firelight first to create the images, and then to read and reread the story, visit after visit, century after century. With his lantern, Roy had recreated the original light, and the cave took a breath and told her story. We sat and watched. Images changed as the light changed, shifting from one mood to another as time and light worked together to dramatize the story and move the narrative along.

Sometimes it is the transitional light of the sun that inspires the Rock People to tell their stories, and we Human People to share ours. And those stories are often told at the same time. I close my eyes and picture this scene....

Late in the day, as long shadows stretch across Tule Lake, the symbols carved into the base of the rock called Koomookumpts' Bed start to stir. The last light of the high desert day is fiery. The rock face glows red and orange. Faint images turn bold and more of their story is revealed. The rock holds the light during the silence that is twilight. I imagine the Old Ones as they return to the rock. A fire is lit as they gather close and start to share stories. The sun has left for the night, leaving behind bits of himself in the fire. Light and shadows search the symbols on the rock. More and more stories are told -- all night long -- until the fire burns to coals and sunrise starts to glow.

In many cultures, storytelling is a ritual. Pausing between stories to place a log on the fire not only perpetuates light and warmth, it is a gesture, an offering. It adds fuel to our cultural consciousness. It takes us time-traveling through centuries of narratives back to when the world was dark and cold, and someone did something in a story to bring us light. Every culture has myths of light coming into the world ... sunlight, moonlight, firelight.... They light our path. They keep us warm. They provide moments of insight, of inner light. We gaze into the coals at the end of a storytelling and each of us contemplates the meaning and purpose of our existence. We feel enlightened.

The memories of our beginnings are kept alive in stories. Each time these stories are told, our world is remade ... as the sun rises on the winter solstice and turns up the light ... as springtime reshapes winter into new light.... Creation begins with a shared word as the light begins to surround us.