Thomas Doty – Storyteller


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Room Enough for Us All

Century after century, we search our history and discover our stories. They are almost geologic in the way they layer themselves in our memories. If we dig through the layers, we find common themes arising out of similar experiences.

Nearly 7000 years ago, in the Cascade Mountains of southern Oregon, there was an explosion like no one had heard before. The mountain we now call Mount Mazama, called Llao Yaina (Llao's Mountain) by the native people, erupted with a force more than 40 times greater than the eruption of Mount St. Helens in 1980. I was near St. Helens when she blew -- I have vivid memories of the immensity of that eruption -- and it's difficult for me to imagine an explosion greater than that one, let alone 40 times greater!

As Llao Yaina erupted, entire native villages were buried in ash. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people died. Ash and debris rained onto the landscape. There was little warning. There was nowhere to run to. As the mountain spewed its innards, it could no longer support its own weight, and it collapsed, forming the caldera that would eventually fill with water to form Crater Lake. Within a short time of the first eruption, the skyline of the Cascades was forever changed.

The native people were there. This had been their home for thousands of years. In shock and horror, they watched their sacred mountain collapse. It took years to grieve, years to mourn the dead. Friends and relations were gone in an instant, a large death toll among what was a relatively small population. No one escaped the terror. And the mountain they had lived next to for thousands of years, the mountain that had towered above their world and was such a familiar sight in their community, a mountain of mythic immensity, was suddenly gone. Where Llao Yaina had once stood, there was a huge hole in the landscape.

The people asked questions: "Where was the Creator on that day? How could Koomookumpts allow this to happen? What have we done to deserve this?"

On September 11, 2001. the twin towers of the World Trade Center collapsed following an explosion greater than most anyone had ever experienced. New Yorkers are perhaps in their hearts not so different than native Oregonians of 7000 years ago. Their sense of community and family, their pride in the fantastic landscape they call home, these connections to what essentially matter are human connections and transcend any measure of time. New Yorkers on that day were not so different than the native people of Oregon so long ago, and, I suspect, not so different than anyone the world over, then or now. As the wisest among us have said, "We are all related."

The people of New York watched in shock and horror as their world instantly changed forever. Thousands of people died, many buried in the debris, perhaps never to be found. There was no warning. For many, there was nowhere to run to. Their loss runs deeper than anyone can imagine, deep into the soul of friendship, family and humanity. It will take years to mourn the dead, longer to heal.

People ask questions: "Where was God on that day? How could He allow this to happen? What have we done to deserve this?"

On September 11, a few hours after the terror, I held auditions for my new play, Two sisters, Two Brothers, and a Journey, a play that dives into the depths of native mythology, dramatizing the passion the southern Oregon Takelmas have for their stories, their rich cultural traditions and for their homeland. One of the monologues the actors performed was a native prophecy about the coming of white folks, a story that centered around an 1840s eruption of Mount St. Helens. There are vivid descriptions of the initial explosion, followed by ash and debris falling out of the sky. The people ask: "How will we survive this?" and the prophecy ends with this line, "If we are all not very, very careful, then the world will fall to pieces."

The auditions were held at Phoenix High School, and the actors were teenagers, some brimming with questions, others filled with fear, some seething with anger. Listening to this prophecy, performed again and again, was unsettling and poignant. One of the actors asked why we are producing a play set a long time ago when so many terrible things are happening in the world right now. Why does history even matter at such a time?

I answered that we are doing this play because it gets to the core of terrible things that continue to happen. It has been shown through history, time after time after time, that when one culture unleashes violence upon another, the core of that act is a lack of empathy and understanding. It is one culture, one religion, one group of people refusing to understand the beliefs of those they have deemed different, and vice-versa. Statements are usually made that center upon one way of thinking: "This is what I believe. Because you believe differently, you are wrong, and because of this, and to prove that I am right, I am going to destroy you." The response is usually more violence -- a blood lust of vengeance is unleashed -- and the cycle continues. As a result, no understanding or tolerance is arrived at, and instead, for untold centuries, Gandhi's wise words ring true, again and again: "An eye for an eye makes the world blind."

In the 1850s in the Rogue Valley of southern Oregon, at the height of a violent war between whites and natives, a man not so unlike Gandhi offered a path out of the chaos, out of the cycle of violence and vengeance, out of the craziness that fed upon itself. He said and wrote many wise things, promoted cultural empathy and religious tolerance. It would be more than a century before these words would become commonplace in the language of peacemakers. The core of his message was different than what was fueling the violence: "This is what you believe, and this is what I believe. How we express our beliefs may be different, but perhaps in our souls we are more similar than different. Nobody is right. Nobody is wrong. And no matter how different we may appear to be, there's room enough for us all."

This was John Beeson, Oregon's first civil rights activist, and, as it is carved so aptly upon his gravestone, "a Pioneer and man of Peace."

A few days before the tragedies on September 11, I published my book, John Beeson's Ghost, a chronicle of my personal exploration to find the spirit of this man and how it lives today.

Why do a play set in the past? Why bother studying the words of Gandhi and Beeson? Why bother with history at all?

We do these things to discover the layers of stories that make us human, and as a result, if we listen and discover the core of each story, we gain cultural empathy, religious tolerance, and eventually, an understanding of ourselves and those around us. If we listen even more closely, we let go of violence and revenge, and we learn to say, "There's room enough for us all," and we mean it. Amen, brother Beeson, we are all related.