By Robert Blood
[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,” 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Thursday, 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.]
Why tell stories at the Smoki this time of year?
Traditionally, with most native people, wintertime is the time we tell our stories. It’s a time for our elders. It’s usually too cold to go outside to work or play, so you can eat some good food, maybe play some games, and then you say, “Grandma, Grandpa: Tell me a story.” It’s usually during this time our creation stories are recited. There are stories about the way you should or should not behave, stories about love, and sometimes scary stories.
Were you brought up with that as a child?
Absolutely. When I was a kid, my favorite story was how Bat got his wings. It’s a story about animals playing a game of stickball — what we call lacrosse today. And, in this story, little Mouse wants to play the game but all the other animals tell him he’s too small. So, Mouse goes over to the winged ones, the flyers, who are picking teams, and they fashion him some wings. And Mouse goes on to get the ball and win the game, and that’s the story of how Bat got his wings. The moral of the story is … . Well, my grandmother used to tell it when we wouldn’t let the little kids play ball with us. She told the story to remind us that you shouldn’t not include someone because of their size or how they look; they might play for the other team and come back to win the game.
How long has this been going on at Smoki and what’s the idea behind sharing these stories with the public at large?
I’m not sure how long it’s been going on, but I’d say quite a while — maybe six years? A lot of us, no matter what background we come from, have these stories. We’d sit around, usually around wintertime, and tell them — around what in the Western world we call Christmastime. It’s when uncles and aunts tell stories. It’s when grandfather tells stories about the family or past gatherings. It’s when old poetry is recited. And it’s really quite cross-cultural. You know, two years ago we were lucky enough to have a women from the Traditional Storytellers Society from Scotland join us and recite a few of her stories. … Usually it’s just us native people, but we were blessed with her visit. She was really excited to hear native stories and she was surprised how well some of them translated to stories she grew up with.
Can you share some more from other traditional Native American stories?
There’s one particular Yaqui story about death coming to help a family. He has all these candles set up and each candle burns down — each one represents a life — and the story has quite an amazing twist. I won’t give away the ending though, because my wife will be telling that story.
When people think of these kind of stories, animals often come to mind. Why is that?
Well, particularly with children’s cartoons like Bugs Bunny or Wile E. Coyote or the Roadrunner, these characters are taken directly from Native American fables. Bugs Bunny is the crossdressing trickster who always seems to come out ahead. He’s very witty and, in the East, for groups like the Cherokee and Choctaw, Rabbit is seen as a trickster. He’ll wear costumes or find witty ways to come out ahead. Now, here in the Southwest, it’s Coyote who’s the trickster. He’s always trying to find elaborate ways to do the same old job, and yet he can never seem to catch that Roadrunner, Acme batwing suit or not.
What’s the appropriate age range for this event?
From 0 to 99. We all like stories. Hey, we all sit around the modern-day campfire and listen to stories — we just call it the television.
What’s your favorite part of participating in “Storytellers”?
Seeing the expressions on people’s faces when they hear a story and they laugh. There’s a sense of humor that’s familiar across cultures, and it’s great to see that. It’s also great to see the puzzlement when there’s a difference in cultural understandings. And, hey, interacting with other human beings is always interesting.
Who are some of the storytellers this year?
Mr. Gary Keene from Acoma Pueblo is coming back again. There’s Michael Goodluck, who’ll be sharing personal stories as well as playing the flute. There’s Nichole Lucero, my wife. And I’ll tell some, too. I’ll try not to tell too many stories as everyone’s heard mine over and over again. In between storytellers, I’ll throw in a few, though. There’ll be a nice fire, hot apple cider, and homemade cookies, as well as Native American artists and vendors, as well.
Should people who plan on attending do some homework beforehand to become familiar with these stories or can you just come and enjoy the event?
You can come and enjoy the event. But, you know, if you want to do some research and educate yourself beforehand, we really appreciate that, too. The Smoki is an institution of learning. Between guest storytellers, I’ll reiterate the importance of storytelling and sharing traditions, as well as the Dos and Don’ts of the event. Again, it’s not necessary to do any background research, but it’d be nice and we’d appreciate it if you did.
What kind of questions do you normally field from patrons?
A lot of the time it’s questions like you’ve asked — especially the, “Why’s it always animals?” question. My response is generally that, first, a lot of these stories are for children. But, second, that just because a story says that Red Wolf came and gave someone a song doesn’t necessarily mean that it was literally a wolf that was the color red. It could’ve been a guy named Red Wolf. These animals aren’t always animals. And, with most Native American belief structures, it’s not so simple. We consider animals four-legged people, and there are plant people, and there are winged people. We instill in them the same intelligence we ascribe to human beings.
Any parting thoughts?
Just for people to come out and enjoy the event. Like a lot of things we do for the public, it’s about educating you about your neighbors. And, make no mistake, we are your neighbors. Maybe we’re the people who live next door to you, maybe the guy at the museum, maybe the professor you took that class from, or maybe the guy who works on your alarm system. Our cultures aren’t exactly the same and, at “Storytellers,” we’re happy and excited to share them with you.
“Storytellers” is 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Thursday, 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.
Robert Blood is a Mayer-ish-based freelance writer and ne’er-do-well who’s working on his last book, which, incidentally, will be his first. Contact him at BloodyBobby5@Gmail.Com