Thomas Doty – Storyteller

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Stories Worth Telling

I recently received a response to my essay, A Reburial of Artifacts and Bones. It was from a woman in Oklahoma who is studying indigenous law. While she praised the writing as eloquent and my position as timely and right, she requested that I remove the accompanying photo of the 1920s archaeologist digging up an Indian grave. She said that photographing a burial and sharing that photo publicly was disrespectful of our native ancestors and our culture.

At first, I agreed with her and removed the photo. But then I started thinking more deeply about it. I talked with elders. I asked the advice of friends who know my work. I listened to my heart and paid attention to my gut. I carefully revisited my original intention of including the photo, and that brought the answer. Leaving the focus on the archaeologist at his task, I cropped the bones out of the photo.

And then I put it back.

This was not a photo I had taken or shared in a way as to glorify some kind of "white man gets the bones" attitude. It was a snapshot of that time, and portrayed one of many sad moments in native history. Is it disrespectful? In poor taste? Politically incorrect? Yes, to all three. And that's my point.

When I look at the enlightened expressions on the faces of Chuck Jackson and John Kelly in the other photos, and then the look of smug satisfaction on the face of the archaeologist, that contrast was one of the reasons I collected the photos together. I wanted to give visual strength to the words I had written, and dramatize the tone of the piece. I placed the photos at the end of the essay to provoke an emotional response.

But I also had another intention.

If we stop telling stories of the dark times in our native history ... tales of forced removal, Indian wars, mass executions, and genocide -- yes, the G word is appropriate here, even required -- we lose sight of who we are right now as native people, as well as any hopeful vision of the future. We get lost.

I have a performance I call Coyote, Columbus & Beeson. It is a dramatic journey into the time of early Indian-White contact. The program was originally developed for 8th grade Social Studies students as a no-holds-barred presentation of what actually happened during those years, and to offer stories that have been left out of their textbooks.

In the performance, there's a traditional myth that reminds us about the importance of stories and dreams. Then things shift. There's the story of Columbus' soldiers running out of food for their dogs and feeding them live, nursing Indian babies. There's the story of Hitler's men visiting the United States, getting tours of Indian reservations, and using what they saw as models for building death camps for the Jews.

What Hitler wanted to know was how the government had been so successful in controlling Indians. The answers were simple. You remove them from their homelands, often splitting up families. You force them onto reservations where they are punished if they speak their languages or tell their stories. You provide them with housing that is too cold in the winter. You give them just enough food to keep them hungry. You hold a lottery that assigns a different religion to each reservation. These religions often disagreed with each other's doctrines. As more and more Indians became Christians, reservations followed the pattern and developed their own share of disagreements. They bickered over bloodlines, treaty rights, who got to build a casino and where, and on and on. That kept them divided and even easier to control. Some of this remains to this day.

Coyote, Columbus & Beeson also explores the differences in world views between cultures. Circles and cycles, squares and straight lines, the aliveness of all things ... or not. About the time in my performance when it appears all hope is lost, I introduce John Beeson, a white man who had the courage to speak out against the atrocities being done to native people. Beeson offered solutions from 1857 that are still possible today. He said, "Love is the universal cure for the social wrongs that curse the world." And Beeson wasn't the only European who helped native people at the height of their distress. In any age, the deepest thinkers with the biggest hearts rise above a petty "Them or Us" view of the world.

Each performance of Coyote, Columbus & Beeson begins and ends with a poem called, My Circle. Every time I do this program, the audience response to the poem is different at the end than it was at the beginning. Dramatically different.

Stories worth telling are those told with integrity and truth. Some bring us joy, others remind us of hard realities that might be easier or more comfortable to forget. All of them change us. At the end of a storytelling, after a journey through light and dark and everything in-between, we arrive where there is hope, and there is love. Always.


Related Pages

  • My Circle – Doty's poem about being a native storyteller. Includes a drawing.