Thomas Doty – Storyteller


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Remembering to Wake Up!

On this day of the full moon, I'm sauntering into the woods. This evening I'm sharing native stories around a fire on the fringe of the Kalmiopsis Wilderness with field study students of the Hawthorn Institute.

Today is the anniversary of the latest eruption of Mount St. Helens in 1980. I wasn't far away when she blew! One of the stories I'll share tonight is a memory of living in that world of swirling ash ... wearing face masks round the clock, shoveling ash off our road and dumping 54 wheelbarrow loads of it onto the garden, other-worldly-looking air filters attached to emergency vehicles that kept volcanic glass particles from choking engines, and most of all, the sad hearts and somber expressions of folks as they tried their best to live their day to day lives.

Months later, on the morning the ash cleared, I was on Sauvie Island in the Columbia River. When the sun broke through it felt like this gray world was being given a second chance, that in the beauty of sun and water, lush forests and wildflowers, creation was happening all over again. A few days later, I drove up to St. Helens with my family. We gazed long at the miles and miles of forests flattened by the blast. My young daughter whispered, "Look at all the trees. It's so sad."

That fall I moved back home to southern Oregon, and the following May I decided to become a storyteller. My research led me to a native prophecy about the coming of the white people that was set during an 1840s eruption of St. Helens. That didn't make sense to me. Why would native people predict the arrival of Europeans after they had made contact years earlier? What kind of a prophecy was that?

One of my teachers during that time was Wallace Black Elk, a Lakota medicine man and descendant of Black Elk of the famous book, Black Elk Speaks. Each summer, Wallace spent a few weeks in southern Oregon's Siskiyou Mountains where he set up his tipi and conducted ceremonies.

One day I went to visit Wallace. We were the only ones there, and after hours of talking, I got around to asking my question. "What's with this prophecy? Why would Indians predict the coming of white people after they had already met them?"

Wallace laughed and said, "Doty, you're still thinking like a white guy! A prophecy is not a prediction. It's a warning, like a sign in the road that says curve ahead. When the world seems out of balance, we come up with stories that wake us up, stories that tell us things aren't right. And the stories remind us that we have the power to do something about it."

As I was leaving, Wallace's wife drove up in their old station wagon. She rolled down the window and motioned me over.

"Do you like Wallace?" she asked.

"Yes," I said.

"Did you learn anything?"

"I did."

She smiled. "Did you get an answer to your question?"

I nodded.

She gestured for me to move closer.

"When you feel you have learned everything you can from Wallace, come see me."

Here's the prophecy, told first person by an old man, remembering an event from his childhood.

* * * * *

The World is Falling to Pieces!

This happened many years ago when I was just a little boy, when the mountain Loo-wit, the one you call St. Helens, was blowing out ash and smoke and steam. There weren't any white men around here then to make me wonder who I am. I was just a little boy. I didn't even have a name yet. I was sleeping beside my mother in the lodge. One night, late, late at night, my mother started screaming, "Wake up! The world is falling to pieces!"

Yes, terrible thunder, and the people crying out in the darkness. And something darker drifting down through the pine boughs, finer than snow, a sort of black ash. It was ankle-deep already. Soot was covering our robes. I remember thinking that when the Chinook wind comes it will never blow away this storm that makes us choke, this storm that stings our eyes.

My grandfather, the one we call the medicine man, he took some of that black ash and tossed it into the fire. "This is nothing," he said. "Nothing at all. We'll survive this all right. It's part of our world. But someday soon, from the rising sun, a different sort of man will come. He'll bring with him a book. He'll try to teach us everything. He'll cut down all the grandfather trees. He'll make weapons that can kill -- too quick! And then my child, if we are all not very, very careful, then the world will fall to pieces ... to pieces ... to pieces....

* * * * *

So that's my story, and I'll share it tonight in the woods ... under a full moon, around a fire, possibly in a drizzle. Maybe I'll make a connection of my Mount St. Helens experience with the wildfires last summer here in my homeland. Through the telling, I'll encourage the story to weave its messages of warning and healing, tragedy and hope. On this May 18, when my memories of choking in a gray world of smoke and ash rise to the surface, I'll remind myself to "Wake Up!"

– May 18, 2019

* * * * *

The painting is by Paul Kane and depicts Mount St. Helens erupting at night after Kane's 1847 visit to the area. Regarding authenticity and native stereotypes, Kane's work often sparks hot debates in Indian Country. I include this painting here because it is of the eruption also portrayed in the prophecy. During this dark time in our history, a dramatic change in an ancient landscape was frequently interpreted as a metaphor for the devastation of Old Time native culture. This happened not only through genocide but was supported by stereotypical portrayals of native people. The controversy over Kane's work adds a layer to the story. If nothing else, this painting is dramatic. More than once, Mount St. Helens has dropped our jaws!