by Carrie Kirk
There's nothing like a good story. As a girl, long before I was able to read, my mother would sit on the side of my bed, telling me a bedtime story in the dark. Her words would work their magic, relaxing me and sending me off into sleep. Now I get my dose of stories from reading books. I sit on my bed, back against the pillow, shoes off, legs outstretched, and ingest a tale. But it's not the same really. Not like having a voice tell you a story and share words of imagination, history or caution with really no effort required on your part. Your only job is to listen and observe the images the words conjure up.
In a way, my mother's gig as a storyteller was relatively easy. I was a captive audience - in the most comfortable of ways (night + bed + time alone with my beloved mom). There weren't any distractions between my ears and her words. But I have been a member in a number of storytellers' audiences, and they have their work cut out for them. Telling a story is one thing, but telling a story where listeners - strangers - remain engaged is another.
Over the weekend of June 22, my family ventured to the 21st Eiteljorg Museum's Indian Market and Festival at Military Park. Along with more than 150 artists displaying and selling their works, a large white tent housed some incredible performers. Pre-marriage, I had a roommate who was devoted to Native American culture, eventually moving to Colorado so she could be closer to the people she felt so akin to. She would share stories with me about Native American symbols and tribes and my eyes would just glaze over. On Saturday though, I thought to myself, "Where have I been for the past forty-five years?" On that warm June afternoon, the storyteller's' stories resonated with me.
Storytelling predates writing, with the earliest forms of it primarily oral along with gestures and expressions. When writing came along, stories were recorded, transcribed and shared over wide regions. But despite the advancements in ways to record a story, oral stories continue to be committed to memory and passed down from the generations.
Neeake, a descendent of three Shawnee families who escaped the Shawnee Trail of Tears in 1832, delivered his family's history along with stories of the Shawnee people. Neeake is also known as Fred Albert Shaw so, he says jokingly, he can get a driver's license. Dressed in a red linen shirt, topped with a headband and feather, and adorned with a painted-on stripe running down the center of his face to symbolize the ashes from his ancestors, Shaw artfully wove his stories together so that we his audience learned a side of history we skimmed over in school. His stories also reflected the respect shown to the earth, a value much cherished by the Native American people with story being one of the most instrumental ways to guide future generations and provide their culture's identity.
It's one thing for grown-ups to pay attention. It's altogether different for children to. Along with watching my son George out of the corner of my eye, I spied a family clumped together just outside the tent on the grass. There was a little girl about five-years-old and a young boy able to walk but still quite attached to his stroller. Licking their ice cream cones, they were glued to Shaw's hand gestures and theatrical voices. (His grandmother turtle depiction stole the show.) Slowly but surely, though, they began to roll on the grass, looking at the sky's clouds then engaged in a little catch-me-if-you-can game. Not too loud. Not too raucous. And all around the knees of their seated and attentive family. They didn't mind. I didn't mind. And Shaw didn't mind.
Later I told my friend about it, and his reply was that storytellers have to hook kids in quick and fast. But, no, that's not it. Watching those kids move from enraptured listening to fun-loving play was the perfect progression for them, just as a story has a perfect progression in its own way. For children, they move in and out of active listening, even when a storyteller is animated and engaging. It seemed right that this small family had its brood playing at their feet as words of caution, reflection and culture came from the stage. I couldn't help but imagine so many families before them playing out the same scene. A different time and people but yet the same words floating upon the ears of the young, waiting for the time when they take hold and resonate in older and wiser hearts, but for now seeded in the most hopeful of hearts.