Storytelling Festival: Remembrance and Renewal | The Process Series | Wednesday, Feb. 17 – Sunday, Feb. 21 | $5 suggested donation per show
Dovie Thomason: How The Wild West Was Spun (excerpts) | 7:30 p.m., Wednesday, Feb. 17 | Undocumented Indigenous | 8:30 p.m., Friday, Feb. 19
Kaya Littleturtle: A Creation Story | 6:30 p.m., Friday, Feb. 19
By now, Kaya Littleturtle knows the drill.
Whenever the cultural enrichment coordinator for the Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina is invited to perform in a public forum, his hosts always want the same thing: “Some dancing and singing, ‘like how you did it back in the day,’ Littleturtle says. “I always hear that kind of verbiage.”
“With us as native people, there’s always a box drawn,” he says. “It’s not drawn by us, but we have to step inside that box.”
Dovie Thomason, a professional storyteller of Lakota, Apache, and Scottish Traveller descent whose career has spanned some thirty years, is also familiar with our culture’s conspicuously narrow interest in historical Native American tales, as opposed to grittier accounts that reflect the present-day experiences of those communities. In her view, it’s based on a colonial culture’s wish to view Native Americans as archival, “so they could voyeuristically look in on us as museum specimens,” she says.
But both Littleturtle and Thomason were surprised when Joseph Megel, director of the Process Series at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, made an odd request when inviting them to participate in the online storytelling festival, Remembrance and Renewal. The five-day event will livestream works from more than 15 cross-cultural raconteurs, including Native American advocate and North Carolina Heritage Award winner Senora Lynch, of the Haliwa/Saponi tribe, Wednesday through Sunday next week.
In keeping with the mission of the Process Series, Megel wanted new works, new stories. He was also willing to pay the artists to create and workshop them before an online audience.
“I asked them, ‘What do you want to talk about, now?’” Megel recalls. “What stories do you need to tell, now?”
People in the arts “feel like we’re telling stories all the time,” Megel notes. “We know good storytelling has the power to move people—move them from where they are in their lives, move them politically toward action, or to open themselves to looking at how they are connected to others.”
For him, commissioning new works from cultural storytellers is an experiment that might enable both artists and audiences to “move forward in some way.”
For Thomason, the platform represents a “more than rare opportunity, which never really existed when I did just traditional stories.” Over the last decade, she’s delved increasingly into original solo works, like How the Wild West Was Spun: a lively and critical deconstruction of what she terms the “manifest mythology” in the 1880s traveling shows of Buffalo Bill Cody.
Her new work, Undocumented Indigenous, draws on her family’s decision, several generations back, not to enroll under a new federal policy with the Apaches of Oklahoma. That choice continues to have profound repercussions in Thomason’s personal life and career. “I’m known in the storytelling world as ‘a person of authentic voice’—which is really ironic,” she says. “Since I’m not ‘enrolled,’ within some indigenous communities, I’m not legitimate.”
Having her identity and heritage regularly questioned as a “pretendian” fed another demon familiar to accomplished women: imposter syndrome.
“Certainly I’m not the only one,” Thomason says. “We all feel kind of fractured, and I think this last year has brought those fractures to the fore.”
In her view, our culture as a whole is currently suffering from imposter syndrome.
“One of the sentences we keep hearing in America today is, ‘This is not who we are,’” Thomason notes. “Well, who are you then? Is this new to you? Because it’s been my life experience!”
“You don’t tell Americans they’re colonials,” Thomason observes. “They say, ‘We were the colonies, but we’re united now.’” Then comes the zinger: “No, you’re not. Your states are not united; your states can’t even elect a president!”
The festival commission offered Littleturtle the chance to add deeper emotional and spiritual context to a Lumbee creation myth he has repeatedly performed over the years—or, as he describes it, “a full scope, a full scale of who we were, who we are, and who we plan on being.”
“I actually get to speak about the importance of long hair, and about our tobacco: how we were given it from the Creator for our prayers, how we still use it today, and how that prayerful tobacco has helped our people through the COVID,” Littleturtle says.
He notes that the pandemic has forced indigenous communities to rely on traditional medicines, songs, and stories, and describes the crisis as an unexpected source of personal development.
“People have had to sit with ourselves, which in society today has not been something that we’ve been accustomed to,” Littleturtle says. “Before that, someone might not have necessarily recognized their emotional trauma, their intergenerational trauma, their historical trauma; you get lost in the bustle of everyday life.”
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