Thomas Doty – Storyteller


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My Native Roots

My family history includes a lot of characters, from a Mayflower passenger to a knight beheaded by Sir Francis Drake, from a writing and drinking buddy of Mark Twain to a founder of the Oregon Provisional Government. Then there's the ancestor who suggested the plot of The Tempest to his friend William Shakespeare. These colorful stories of my Irish and English ancestors go on and on and are well documented. However, the native side of my family remains mysterious. Information is sketchy and not much has been recorded in my family archives.

I feel in my heart that I have Native American blood in my veins. This was hinted at as I grew up, and I have been told this by several native elders. Yet documentation has yet to surface that would contain enough evidence to allow me to enroll in a tribe. All of the clues come from memories and oral tradition. Good enough for me, but not good enough for tribal purposes, or for me to feel comfortable enough to claim publicly that I am Native American. For the sake of clarity, I refer to myself as a native storyteller, rather than a Native American storyteller. Yet each day I live my native life ... immersed in the history and mythology of my home, telling native stories, and spending time in the wonderful Old Time places the stories come from.

In A Native Way of Listening, I wrote: "For me, being native is not about how long my family has lived here. It's not about having a federal Indian card, and surely not about getting a share of casino profits. It's about celebrating a primal connection to place, people and stories."

In 2016, Blackstone Publishing released my book and audiobook, Doty Meets Coyote. This was the second in a series called, The Legacy of the First Nation – Voices of a Generation. When the question of my native background came up, Blackstone insisted that I refer to myself as Native American to give the series credibility. This made me uneasy, as I still hadn't been able to come up with definitive documentation that would support that. So I consulted with elders about what to do. I talked with longtime Indian friends Chuck Jackson, Agnes Baker-Pilgrim, and John M.H. Kelly. Their response was that it was fine to use the term Native American. Even if the paper proof wasn't there yet, they were convinced of my heritage. They could feel my native spirit in their bones. And Grandma Aggie added, "I have always considered you to be part of my family."

Piecing together the stories from native cultures that were fractured in the 1850s has been detective work. I find fragments and various versions in unpublished field notes, obscure ethnographies, linguistic studies, in almost-forgotten boxes of papers in attics and museums, in conversations.... The same has been true for me trying to piece together my family history. Detective work! And I have it easier than many. I inherited an extensive family archives, and I am far from done sifting through those boxes. Who knows what I'll find next. Meanwhile, here's what I know so far....

  • Childhood. My family spent a lot of time outdoors, camping, hiking, fishing. By the time I was 11, I had visited places I would eventually discover were Old Time native sites ... Ti'lomikh (home of the Sacred Salmon Ceremony), the Table Rocks (heart of the Takelma universe), Koomookumpts' Bed (home of the Modoc creator), and dozens more. Sometimes, as a child, I would hear snippets of conversations between adults that got me thinking years later that my parents and grandparents knew quite a lot of the history and lore of these places: "Over there by the falls is the ceremonial stone chair" and "these rock carvings tell a story of the people who lived here," and more. As a child I briefly met Sargent Sambo, Shasta elder and hereditary chief. He looked at me for a long time and said, "This one is interesting. He knows something."
  • Grandma Maude. Growing up I listened to stories told by Grandma Maude, our family storyteller. These stories were not from her own Native American background which was most likely rooted in Missouri, but stories she had heard in the 1920s and 1930s from local Native Americans who worked at Edgevale, the family farm at Independence near Phoenix, Oregon. They were the children of Takelmas and Shastas who stayed in the area after most of the local Indian population was force-marched north to reservations in 1856. Several artifacts that were passed down to me originally came from them.
  • Elders. After spending time with the Tlingits in southeast Alaska, attending ceremonies, dances, feasts, and storytellings, I came home to southern Oregon and discovered that no one was keeping alive our native stories. So I decided that would be me. I sought out the elders and spent time listening to Chuck Jackson (Cow Creek / Takelma), Edison Chiloquin (Klamath), Caraway George (Shasta), Jim Martin (Nez Perce), Silver Badger (Cherokee), Wallace Black Elk (Lakota), and others. I read the literature, visited sacred sites again and again, some from my childhood and others that were new to me. I filled notebook after notebook with what I learned. Every elder I studied with encouraged me to be a storyteller. "This is your path," they told me. Then in May of 1981, I started sharing the stories I had learned. Soon after, I met John M.H. Kelly (Haida) and Agnes Baker Pilgrim (Takelma). We became lifetime friends, and together we continued to explore the native culture of my homeland. All along the way I was encouraged by elders who knew their culture the best. Perhaps they also knew more about me and my native roots than I did. I still have much to discover and learn.
  • Coyote's Paw. In the mid 1980s, Shasta elder Caraway George took me to the village of Coyote's Paw along the Klamath River. We spent hours walking around the village, and he told me story after story of the place. I asked him why he thought it was important for me to know all of this, and he replied, "I'm bringing you home. We have a memory of your ancestors living here." That got me thinking, and I started asking questions. My father, the family genealogist, explained that there were holes in the family tree that no one wanted to talk about. When I asked him why, he explained that his parents and previous generations didn't want anyone to know that someone in the family went off to live with the Indians. He told me the story of Thomas Doty, unacknowledged son of Captain Ed Doty, who left the family in the mid 1800s, married an Indian woman, and lived with her in a traditional village along the Klamath River. Evidently, they had children, and I have always wondered if any of them went to work on my grandparents' farm and shared stories with Grandma Maude. While most of her stories were Rogue Valley stories, at least one of them was set along the Klamath River. A few years after that first visit with Caraway, I climbed the vision quest peak east of the village. For me, what I received there, confirmed my native connection to Coyote's Paw.

None of these memories, tales and experiences draw a definitive bloodline between me and Native Americans of long ago. They dance a circle dance instead. Sometimes the ancestor line gets blurred, and the narrator character I create as a storyteller speaks of "our Takelma stories" or "my cultural traditions" or "my ancestral village." This is the character speaking inside the story. Another blurring of the line happens when a sponsor promotes me as a Native American storyteller. That's their terminology, not mine. As my search continues, I suspect I will discover more about my mysterious native roots. Meanwhile, I will continue to publicly present myself as a native storyteller.

While it is my hope that this essay provides some clarity about my heritage, my quest to find my native roots is a personal quest. And while this is important to me, it is overshadowed by what matters more: the stories themselves. If you want to know me, experience my stories. Attend a performance, or read or listen to stories on my website. As a storyteller, it is my sacred responsibility to maintain the cultural integrity of the stories as I share them. The stories have the final word. Gweldi. Baybit leplap. That is all.

Afterword. Much of what is coming from scientific research these days suggests that there are no races, that everyone on the planet belongs to a single race. Mitakuye oyasin! Brothers Black Elk and Lame Deer were right: We are all related! The Tree People, the Salmon People, the Rock People, the Animal People, the Human People.... Here is yet another story that needs to be told.