Thomas Doty – Storyteller
When the Snow Drifts Out of the Clouds
When you mention storytelling to Bernice Mitchell, her voice slips into an ageless rhythm of leaves turning colors and falling. Her eyes shine like desert stars. Her words burst with the golden color of rabbit brush blossoms in October. They take on a cadence as old as the circling of the seasons, as old as the stories themselves. Not only is Bernice Mitchell an American Indian of Wasco and Northern Paiute descent, she is also a tribal council woman, Head Start teacher, Sahaptin language specialist, longhouse elder and has mothered eleven children. And she is living proof that storytelling is alive and well on the Warm Springs Indian Reservation in the Central Oregon high desert.
But ask her to tell a traditional myth out of season and like any storyteller worth her salted salmon, she'll tell you to come back when the snow drifts out of the clouds and covers paths that lead to food gathering places, to fishing places and to summer camps. "Come back then," she says, "and I'll tell you a myth from a time when people and animals were not so very different."
American Indian stories contain cultural wisdoms passed orally from generation to generation. Bernice Mitchell remembers growing up on the reservation and listening to her grandmother tell the old time myths. Currently, between one third and one half of the nearly 400 students at Warm Springs Elementary School live in extended family households with parents, grandparents, and sometimes, great grandparents. The kids listen to their elders tell the stories, and someday they'll pass those same stories along to their children. At Warm Springs, there is a living oral tradition.
Like any good storyteller, Bernice Mitchell is well aware of the impact of the stories she tells. She speaks of their educational, entertainment and cultural values, and their importance in healing. She tells stories to adults at the tribal jail to make them feel better about themselves and those around them. With three and four year old children at Head Start, she uses myths to teach the original language of her people: Sahaptin. Her language programs have sparked interest among Indian adults. "Their children come home from my classes," she says. "They speak Sahaptin to one another and their parents don't know what they're saying. So the parents come to me and ask me to teach them their language so they'll understand their kids."
Bernice Mitchell tells stories at tribal gatherings, and often she sings traditional songs that go with the stories. Her gestures, her rich facial expressions, her full laughter, are all tools of a trade she knows well. Yet there is something beyond the craft of storytelling which makes listening to her something very special, and that is knowing when to tell the right story, and to whom. "When I can get people to laugh while attending a funeral," she says. "I know the stories are working well."
Bernice Mitchell works hard to keep alive the old time tradition of storytelling. She tells myths that teach human values, a respect for others and a native sense of local place. The words of the stories echo the varied rhythms of the earth.
When fall rabbit brush blossoms fade and the first snow swirls across the plateaus and rimrocks of the Warm Springs Reservation, children and adults will be sitting close to Bernice Mitchell, wide-eyed and open-mouthed, as she tells another "myth from a time when people and animals were not so very different."