By James Dungeon
[Editor’s note: The following interview was culled from conversations between the reporter and Cindy Gresser, executive director of the Smoki Museum. The annual Storytellers at Smoki event is 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Wednesday, Dec. 27, at the Smoki Museum, 147 N. Arizona Ave., 928-445-1230, SmokiMuseum.Org., $6-$7, free to children 12 or under and native people.]
How did Storytellers at the Smoki get started?
I believe we started this about five years ago. It started pretty small. We just reached out to a few people, to folks we knew would really enjoy it. It turned out to be this wonderful thing where people came and relaxed and heard some really great stories. The kids really enjoyed it. People have folks in town for the Christmas holiday and want something to do, and this has been a hit. We’ve had to move it to a bigger venue. It’s been a great reason to sit around the fireplace.
How did it come into being as an event, though?
We were looking for another children’s activity, something that would engage kids and also have learning involved in it. One of our volunteers came up with the idea of string games. I remembered playing them when I was a kid. My mom used to crochet and knit, so there was always string around. So I brought in a loop of string and started playing with it. One of my Hopi friends came by my office and saw me making a figure with it. He looked at it and said, “Oh, you know bow and arrow.” I said, what, he said, “You know, bow and arrow.” But I’d learned it as teacup and saucer. We knew the same thing, just with different stories. I gave him a loop and we sat down for the next two hours making forms out of string and telling stories. He told me something that I already knew but got me thinking: For many native peoples the time to tell stories is in the winter. It makes sense, right? It’s when families gather together, stay inside, share meals, and try to keep warm. It’s when elders try to impart things to kids. Stories are a way of teaching that’s entertaining, too. So, we thought, when’s a good time to do stories in Prescott in the winter? We are Arizona’s Christmas city, and people come here from all over the country, so it made sense to do it around the Christmas holiday. So that was that.
What’s your target audience with the Storytellers event?
It was families. As it’s grown, it’s grown from our membership to the people they invite who are visiting and from out in the community. There are more and more kids from extended families coming who are from outside the area. You know how it goes: The toys after Christmas are sitting there and now it’s time to get out of the house and do something. Prescott has a pretty limited youth audience, but those numbers go up during the holidays. It’s a good time for them to listen to stories, learn something, have fun, and have cookies.
What are some of the stories about?
Manuel (Lucero) tells the story of how Bat got his wings. Fil Kewanyama tells the story of how Mouse defeated Hawk. Niicci (Lucero) tells the story of why the moon is never the same size. There are stories about things in nature that we see everyday. These are new ways of looking at them, of understanding them, that add interest to your daily life. Gary Keene tells amazing stories from the two different cultures he comes from, and his son, Noah, whom we’ve all known since he was a little boy, has started telling stories, too. … Last year, we had a visitor from Scotland in town for the holiday who came and stayed all day to hear the stories. We got to talking and she just thought the stories were fascinating. She finally got up and told a story of her own. It’s good to have sharing, and sometimes it happens in unexpected ways like that.
Why do you think storytelling is such an enduring tradition?
It goes back to the days before television and internet. When there were forms of entertainment outside the home, what did you do when you were at home? You told stories. Some were from your family and some were from far-away places. I think, as people, we naturally want to come together and tell stories. Even if you’re just sitting around a table to eat or have a coffee, what do you do then? You sit and talk. You tell stories. Sometimes they’re stories about your day. Sometimes they’re stories about your life. They’re stories about the things and people around you. You’re always telling stories; you’re always storytelling.
[Editor’s note: The following interview was culled from conversations between the reporter and Manuel Lucero IV, assistant director of the Smoki Museum, member of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, and a participant in Storytellers at Smoki.]
Would you give us an overview of the event?
For many Native American tribes, storytelling is done during the winter. It’s the time when our elders speak, when Grandma and Grandpa tell us stories. At the Smoki, for the last several years, we’ve had children come in from all over, as well as adults — I should say children of all ages. We have hot apple cider and homemade cookies, and all those good things about wintertime. A lot of Native American stories have lessons tied to them. Think about old fairy tales. They always have a moral at the end, right? A lot of native stories have that, too. They teach us what to do in certain situations or what not to do in certain situations.
What are some common themes or characters across cultures?
Here in the Southwest, you get a lot of stories about Coyote. If you remember from the old Warner Bros. cartoons, he’s always trying new and improved ways of trying to catch that roadrunner. He always tries to do things differently, and it never quite works out the way he thinks it will. Well, the lesson for young people there is sometimes you stick with something tried and true, you know it’s going to work out just fine if you stick with it. In the Southeast, it’s Rabbit who’s the trickster. He’s the guy you don’t want to be, being too witty for his own good. Think of Bugs Bunny wearing costumes and tricking people to get his way. So, those are two popular examples.
What’s one of the stories you like to tell?
One of my favorite stories to tell is how Bat got his wings. It’s a story that has to do with playing a game of stick ball — what we’d today call lacrosse — and there was this very small animal, Mouse, who wanted to play. The animals had gotten together to see who was the best, the four-legged animals on one team and the fliers on the other team. So, while they were picking teams, Deer, the captain of the four-legged team, tells Mouse he’s too small, to go away, that they don’t need him. He’s very sad and walks off. As he’s walking in the woods, he comes to a tree where all the fliers had met and were picking their team. Their captain, Eagle, looks down at little Mouse, who says he wants to play, and says, I don’t know. Then Hummingbird speaks up and says, I’m the fastest of the fliers and you don’t judge me by my size, so everyone agrees, and Eagle fastens Mouse a pair of wings. So they play the game and it’s back and forth, back and forth, and the score is tied. Mouse comes in as the sun goes down and is so fast he trips up agile Deer, gets past Bear by going between his legs, and scores the winning goal for the fliers. And, to this day, Bat still isn’t used to working his wings, so that’s why he flies the way he does. … One of the morals is that, when you’re picking teams, never to count anybody short just because they’re smaller than you. They may end up playing —and winning — for the other team. My grandmother told me that story when I was 6 years old. Me and my cousins were playing basketball and my grandmother was watching. One of my littler cousins wanted to play but we told her she was too small and that she couldn’t play with us. My grandmother called us over and told us that traditional Cherokee story. When you’re a kid, you really remember that kind of a thing. When I tell it, it makes me think of my grandmother. She’s no longer with us, of course, but it’s a happy memory for me and it makes me feel good that I can pass on these teachings to my own children as well as others.
Why is winter the time for storytelling?
Like I said, it’s the traditional time. Native people think of time and the seasons a bit differently. We also think about them in terms of where you’re at in your life. To the East is the morning, where the dawn starts, in the spring, when you’re an infant just coming into this world from the spirit world. Then there’s the South, which is summertime, when it’s warm and you’re finding yourself, when you’re finding your first love and you think you’ve got everything figured out, when you’re a teenager. To the West is fall and change, which also represents adulthood and becoming the human being you’re meant to be. To the North is the time of elders, which also represents wintertime. Think about what’s next. The elders are close to completing the circle. That’s why grandparents love babies so much; they’re getting ready to pass on and go home again, which where that little one just came from. So, when it’s winter, we think about our elders.
Why do you think storytelling is such an enduring tradition?
Times change, but people don’t. We still have the same problems and still face the same situations in our day-to-day lives. When we hear a story, it sets something up. Later, we’ll be reminded of it and the best way to go about things. Stories show how people work things out, how people overcome problems. … It’s funny, we’re living in a time when people can’t seem to understand body language when they’re talking face-to-face any more. There’s more to communication and storytelling than just the words. There are expressions and emotions. When you sit down and listen to someone tell a story, you understand it in a different way — perhaps even more so now. It’s important that we sit and listen.
The annual Storytellers at Smoki event is 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Wednesday, Dec. 27, at the Smoki Museum, 147 N. Arizona Ave., 928-445-1230, SmokiMuseum.Org., $6-$7, free to children 12 or under and native people.
James Dungeon is a figment of his own imagination. And he likes cats. Contact him at JamesDungeonCats@Gmail.Com.