Thomas Doty – Storyteller
When asked what my story means, I twist my face into a Coyote smirk and say, "I can only explain my story with the words I have already used." This drives logical thinkers nuts!
* * * * *
In Jaime de Angulo's Indian Tales, Oriole Girl understands this. She mocks Fox Boy....
"You study too much; it will hurt your back. Why do you ask all those questions from the grown-ups? They don't know the answers. You only embarrass them."
"But I want to know the truth."
"Because I want to know the way it really happened."
"IT HAPPENED THE WAY they tell it!"
"But they tell it differently!"
"Then it is because it happened differently."
Fox looked at Oriole sideways.
* * * * *
On my first adventure with Coyote, standing on the summit of Mount McLoughlin, I received this curious observation from my trickster friend....
"So what's that bundle of notebooks you've got in your satchel? You never seem to be without them."
"These are my scribblings, my collected works, everything from scratches of ideas to poems and stories -- storyteller stuff...."
"It seems quite a lot of work to haul that stuff up here to the top of the world. Let me give you a piece of advice. We mythic creatures carry stories around in our heads. If you could learn to do that, you would find the burden weighs far less and you'll avoid back problems in your old age."
* * * * *
That nailed it. Here was something I was struggling with. The writer in me loved the page and I treasured my notebooks and the hand-picked books in my library. The storyteller in me disliked the permanence of ink on paper. For a while I compromised and scribbled stories only in pencil. That didn't help much.
Then I discovered the internet. Here was a way to "publish" my writing as if it were being told in that moment. Then next day I could upload a revised version that reflected that day's telling. And on and on in my personal semi-oral tradition. This self-created slice of reality has made me happy for quite a spell. It still does.
And each story's meaning? What it means to me is not what it means to you. And with each telling, especially as I grow older, the meaning changes. Every time! Oriole Girl was right. We grown-ups don't know the answers. And those of us who feel inspired to explain a well-told story should just keep quiet. Or better yet, make up a new story!
I still like my notebooks and books, and I like telling stories. When I stopped asking foolish questions and just flowed with the words, the struggle to find the meaning went away. The less I was in my head, the richer the story became. My experience with each story was profound.
Joseph Campbell once remarked that it wasn't the meaning of life that people were searching for, but rather an experience of being alive. And so the stories go on and on with words that love to rearrange themselves each time they get scribbled, each time they are spoken out loud. These days, when I walk out of my library and head into the hills, I leave my satchel at home.
Sometimes I get asked by children if I can talk Indian. "No," I say. "I know a few Takelma words and phrases I use when I tell stories, but I don't speak the language. However," I chuckle, "I can talk Coyote and Bear and Raven!" I usually go on to talk a bit about how hundreds of native languages died out, and how quickly they disappeared as homelands were taken and the people either killed or relocated. Grandma Aggie's great aunt Frances -- Gwisgwashan -- was most likely the last Takelma fluent in her native tongue. She died in 1934. She's often referred to as "the last speaker." But that's not right. How can someone be the last speaker of a language when there's no one left to talk with?
In June of 1982, uncertain of my art as a native storyteller, and overwhelmed by the depths of culture and landscape I had yet to explore, I sauntered into the wondrous rocks and ridges and canyons of Arches National Monument.
With a dogeared copy of Edward Abbey's Desert Solitaire in my satchel, I wandered for miles along the desert trails. I rested in patches of Juniper shade where I read a bit of Abbey and scribbled in my journal, read some more, scribbled some more, and then walked a whole lot more.
There was nothing else to do. Except this. Every so often I'd speak aloud a tidbit of a story among the Rock People where words seemed most at home. They circled around and came back to me in the language of the Old Ones. After the Rock People had their way with my words, they sounded different. They had evolved between speaking and hearing. Among the rocks, I realized I had little control over the stories. I was no longer a teller of tales. I was their servant. They had the final word. They still do.
Over the next few years I discovered that the Rock People not only told stories, they also wrote them. They're pretty good at this. As the first storytellers they've had eons to hone their skills. I spent hours staring at their carvings and paintings. When I finally figured out what they were saying, they never looked the same again.
I'm still walking and talking with the Rock People. With each stretch down a desert path I am reminded of Abbey's words. I speak them out loud, and each time they circle back, I hear something new: "May your trails be dim, lonesome, narrow, winding, rocky and mostly slightly uphill. May the wind bring rain for the slickrock potholes fourteen miles beyond. May God's dog serenade your campfire, may the rattlesnake and the scorpion amuse your reverie, may the Great Sun dazzle your eyes by day and the Great Bear watch over you by night."
Ayo, brother Ed. And so they do! Again and again.
It's been months since I've seen dippers along the creek. I used to see them every morning. But a while back, interpretive signs about these amazing birds were erected in the park. This put dippers in the spotlight and folks flocked to the creek to watch them dip and splash through the rapids, dip some more, and dive. Dippers propel themselves underwater with their wings, and when they surface, they sing and sing and sing. I suspect that too many people made them nervous and they dipped their way up the creek, out of the park and into the mountains. During this pandemic, there are fewer people in the park. At first light I see more deer, turkeys, jays, raccoons and bears than people. Even so, the dippers have stayed away. As I walk along the creek, other birds sing the morning awake.
As a storyteller, I look forward to the new moon. Her incandescence hides and reveals landscapes and dreamscapes. And when I look closely, I see storyscapes. In the homeland of the new moon, stories are deep-rooted and worn smooth with many tellings. When I stand among these stories, I feel my own roots. In the pale moonlight, I am also well-worn.
I enjoy the light-cycle from dusky new moon to the full moon with its step-into-the-spotlight brilliance, and then the slow-fade back into my new-moon world of stories. Here I walk in subtle light and shadows. Here is a fire that has burned for a spell and is now just right. There is enough flickering to find my way. Shifting shadows make my journey interesting.
I once scribbled a series of native detective stories. The self-styled heroic gumshoe was Sleuth Hound Coyote and I was his storytelling scribe. Though we solved whodunits for fun, our real passion was peeking through the veil of mystery for a glimpse of the Great Mystery. How we got there was through stories. When the fire burned low and words went quiet, we squinted in the dim light and saw something we hadn't seen before.
Tonight I'll dream new dreams of stories. In a few days, I'll welcome home the mysterious light of the new moon.
When I was young, during winter break each December, our Scout troop went snow camping on the north edge of Camp McLoughlin at Lake of the Woods. We built a neighborhood of igloos interconnected by snow tunnels. Between adventures on our snowshoes and skis -- climbing up and slipping down Brown Mountain or traipsing across the frozen lake -- we came home to our igloos, made warm and cozy by our cooking stoves. Back then we didn't have waterproof footwear, just our greased leather boots and plastic bags wrapped around our wool socks. Our coats and caps and mittens were also wool. After a couple of days of romping in the snow we were soaked through and through. When we couldn't stand it any more, we abandoned our igloos, grabbed our gear, and snowshoed and skied to the old boathouse in the camp. We built a fire in the stone fireplace, hung our clothes to dry and crawled into our sleeping bags, snuggling as close to the fire as we could get. As the boathouse warmed up, the woodrats who lived in the attic got lively, running and dancing and jumping. As I've grown older, this memory has rewritten itself into a comfortable story. I think of it often. Last night as I crawled into bed, I listened to my upstairs neighbors thumping around. I slipped into a dream about woodrats in the attic and slept as soundly as a child.
At first light, Heron Woman stalks the fish in the upper pond in Lithia Park. For decades, ducks crowded this pond anticipating handouts of stale bread and old popcorn. A few years ago, park visitors were banned from feeding ducks, so the Duck People have gone home. In forest ponds and smooth stretches of mountain creeks they happily dabble for their natural foods. Heron Woman has this pond to herself as she gracefully spears the first bite of her morning meal. At sunrise, between swallows, she stretches her wings and does a little dance.
Today is a good day to restart my journal, as springtime remakes the world, and as my yearly cycle as a native storyteller begins a new season. Thirty-nine years ago, as I performed my first native myth, a path offered itself to me and I started walking. Through the years, while I have been story-sauntering, story characters have also been out there. Between tales folks tell about them, Coyote and Bear and Raven, and all of their Mythtime buddies, live their wild lives wandering through Old Time landscapes. When our paths cross, we sit around a fire and share tidbits of our travels. When we pause and listen deeply, Mother Landscape whispers words from a language as old as the land, words that become familiar the longer we listen, words that inspire more stories ... season after season, year after year, century after century....