Tuesday, July 31, 2007

An oft-posed question: "Who can tell your stories?"

Over on Saints and Spinners, a fellow blogger is discussing the question of telling stories (see her post on July 29th.) Stories, that is, from another cultural group. That blogger is a storyteller, and she's left Native stories alone, because she's not sure if it's appropriate, what permissions are involved, etc.

Course, we all know storytellers (and writers) that do this without thinking it through. Some are unaware of the issues involved, and others choose to ignore the issues, claiming that storytellers throughout history change details whenever a story is told again...

Which is true enough, but, when those details are so major that the story no longer reflects the values of the culture from which it originated, then it is no longer that culture's story, and should not be labeled as such. That erroneous labeling happens all the time. It is a major problem. When questioned, defenders of these books put forth 'creative license' and 'freedom of speech' arguments.

To return to the question posed at Saints and Spinners.

There is no easy answer.

Some years ago (note I didn't say "many moons ago") I was at a children's literature conference. Illustrator James Ransome was a guest speaker. He was asked why he had not illustrated any books about American Indians. His reply was something like "I haven't held their babies."

Consider that simple statement and what it embodies.

If I trust you, I will let you hold my baby. Foremost in my mind is that she is vulnerable. I don't want her hurt in any way. I don't let just anyone hold her. I have to trust that you will not hurt her.

If you are a storyteller, what is your relationship with, for example, the Pueblo people. Are you retelling Pueblo stories? Do you know any Pueblo people? Have you held their babies?



Jody said...

As a parent, I've tried to stick to Oyate when looking for stories to share with my children. It helps that the books I've bought have been enormously popular: Grandmother's Pigeon, How Chipmunk Got His Stripes, First Strawberries. Thanks to your blog, I've been able to start tracking down more books that show Indian children today, living their lives right now. (I've been dismayed that already, by the end of kindergarten, my children have been read enough books to think of American Indians as "olden times" people.)

But when I read about storytellers leaving some stories alone, I start to wonder, are their some books out there that really aren't meant for, shouldn't be read to, European-American children? Even at home?

Anonymous said...

"I haven't held their babies." I love that. Many writers now seem aware that they should be cautious about appropriation of stories from indigenous America. Yet they don't feel that same need when taking on stories from other parts of the world. Holding babies ought to be a metaphor for stepping carefully into any culturally specific stories. Thank you for sharing James Ransome's words.

Jan K-C said...

I appreciate James Ransome's words AND the comments from Jody about stories not meant for European-American children. I was a multi-cultural storyteller for several years. I told African folk tales (though I'm not African) and Native folktales (though I'm not native). My approach was through the lens of comparative literature and I asked listeners to listen for similarities in the stories and characters. When I presented the stories of Native Peoples, I brought artifacts and sometimes dressed in a brain-tanned dress made for and gifted from a friend of the Blackfoot tribe. When I began my master's program @ Miami University, a Miami Native was outraged that I would tell tribal stories and represent myself (in my dress) as native. I understood her anger but was hurt nevertheless. When I met Joseph Bruchac at NCTE he spent an hour with me listening to my concerns. At that time, I was the only person telling these stories. There were not nearly the number of books available that there are today and I'd spent many years reading the history, searching the stories, and listening to native tellers. I'd read Native writers- Silko, Allen, Momaday, Erdrich- and Beverly Slapin's "Through Indian Eyes." I even lectured on negative stereotypes in non-native literature before I began to tell stories on my own.
When I present native stories I try to create a setting and tone of respect. Students sit in a circle and participate in the stories. I always say I learned these stories from my friends who shared them as gifts and I give them to the children to share with their friends as gifts. Mr. Bruchac was quite remarkable because he told me I had to find the answer to the troubling question for myself. He said he believed I told stories from my heart and with respect and he agreed children should hear them. In the end, I gave up storytelling-in part because I didn't want to offend my native friends. I'm comfortable with the dialogue that has grown up on the subject and am hopeful when I see the number of native books that have gained a mainstream audience. But I still see many negative stereotypes being perpetuated. And I know that the experience of hearing a tale told by a good storyteller can do more than a good reading from a book.