Thursday, December 17, 2015

Stories, Ethics, and Students: Happy Holidays Everyone!

Jessica Clark Makes Pine Art 

Last week I was invited to a school to perform. They'd requested Native American stories. I explained to the PTA rep that I was 1/32 Cherokee from my dad's side, but that hardly qualified me to tell stories from Native American traditions. I tell a handful of stories from these traditions, but only because I have been given permission. The PTA rep was cool with that, and said it didn't matter. That was back in September.

When I got to the school, it occurred to me that the teachers might not have been given this information. 

I asked the person helping me set up the space if she had gotten the message about Native stories, and, surprise, she hadn't. I asked why they asked me to come and tell these stories. She said that they study the Lumbee people in fourth grade. I really don't have permission to tell any of the Lumbee stories. 

The parent told me that they just wanted someone to tell the stories well. 

Flattering, but not useful when it comes to content.

When the fourth graders got into the room, I informed them of the problem of just telling any stories you like when the tales are part of a living tradition. Both the students and the teachers were fascinated by this idea.

The teachers had no idea that the stories were still alive and living in the traditions. They also did not know that it was not okay for storytellers to appropriate any material they liked.

I got some interesting questions.

Student: Will the police come and arrest you if you tell one of the Native American stories you aren't supposed to?

Me: No. There are no storytelling police, but that doesn't make any difference. It is unethical for me to tell you these stories without permission. It is wrong for me to take these stories out of the cultural context and share them with you.  Even if nobody knows I did it except you, that doesn't make it right. I think our character is based not on what we do when everybody is watching, but how we behave when nobody knows what we are up to.

This occasioned a discussion about the things the kids were doing in their lives because they knew it was important. They were very proud to show that they understood the importance of doing the right thing even when nobody was looking. It was fascinating. 

One kid, however, wasn't buying any of this.

Student: I don't understand. Why can't you tell these stories? Why is it wrong?

Me: Imagine that you had a story about your grandmother. It was a story that you told amongst your family members, and you all knew and loved that story. Then, pretend someone overheard that story, and they started telling it. They told it as if it happened to their own grandmother, or they made fun of your grandmother because they didn't understand your family or how it worked. How would you feel about that? 

Student: (She looked wounded, as if I'd actually just done what I described) I would feel bad about that. I wouldn't like it.

We spoke more about cultural appropriation, and how in the past people had taken the stories of native peoples from all over the world and used them against the people who'd created them. Then, I offered up the few stories I do have permission to tell with the context of why I tell them. The students had a great time.

I ended with The Strawberry Story. I use the Cherokee tale. I told the kids it was a wedding story. In other words, I tell it at weddings.

When I was finished, one boy was very confused. He raised his hand.

Me: Yes?

Student: You said it was a wedding story.

Me: It is.

Student: But there was no cake! How could it be a wedding story if there was no cake?
A Western-Centric article about wedding cake

Me: When we started, you all told me things you remembered about studying the Lumbee people. You told me about their marriage practices. Was there cake there?

Different students: No (Others reflected on that, and some actually retold the process of getting married in a jumble)

Me: Customs and traditions have to start somewhere. They all have a beginning. Weddings haven't always been celebrated with cake. In fact, here is some homework...find out when cake started being used in wedding ceremonies.

Student: Homework? (He was outraged) But its Friday!  (Everyone started laughing)

Me: Christmas is coming up soon. There are lots of traditions we do at Christmas. They had to start somewhere as well.
A Possible History of the Christmas Tree

Student: There is no such thing as Santa Claus

Me: (Ignoring the student) If you want to find out why people do a thing, you can do the research, and usually, you can get a good idea where it originated.

Some Santa history

Student: I said there is no such thing...

Teacher: That's enough. 

I changed the subject.

It is always amazing to me how many subjects we can discuss, probe, and understand when we put them in the context of the stories we tell, love and honor.

My first thought when I approached that fourth grade class was to explain to them that Native stories are sacred, but I'm glad I didn't do that. Not because they are not sacred, but because that doesn't mean anything to a fourth grader.  They don't understand the word sacred, but they totally get what sacred is.

They get that the things they hold dear are important. They get that you don't make fun of some things. They get that you hold some things special in your heart. They get that if you cross certain lines, it can really make another person upset. At times, they get this better than grown up people.

This is the Season of Light, when we are supposed to shine our best selves in the world to combat the darkness. This is the season of miracles. The season when the sun, which has been drifting further and further away from us in the night sky, returns to warm us anew.

Days like last Friday, when I get a chance to share the joy and the responsibility of caring for our past and our present so that we can go into a better future, make me glad that I've chosen to be one of the keepers of story.

So, to everyone who stops by this space I wish you a happy holidays. Shine the light as brightly as you can.

I'll be back in this space again at the turn of the year.

Happy Holidays to everyone!

Happy Hanukah
Merry Christmas
Happy Kwanzaa
Joyous Solstice

Happy Merry Joyous to one and all!

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