Wednesday, November 14, 2012

The Story Appropriations Committee

At Huck's very nice house in Idaho
I don't know how I managed to get such a dorky passion.  But that's me; I am a storyteller and extraordinarily dorky to boot. This passion has all the sexiness of geriatric story time at the old folks home. I tried to change myself to please a few jerks, but as we all know, that never works. Hell, if I can support gay and lesbian friends and family as they accept who they are, whether society likes it or not, I can probably accept myself for who I am.  If you have a problem with stories, it's YOU not me. There are 7 Billion people here, I'm sure you can find people who communicate in the utterly boring way you need them too. I'm just being who I was born to be: a storyteller.  And you know, I love your stories too.  I can also be a fabulous story listener as well.

This passion is not sexy. It's been confusing to figure out how to execute this passion. It all began, in earnest, at the Wenatchee UU Fellowship, thanks to Rita and Rocci who opened up the Children's Story for All Ages to anyone who wanted to be trained.  And that's how I found out there was at least one place for me.  I brought the concept to Spokane and gathered and trained storytellers and then scheduled myself in there too. But I wanted to expand a little. And I finally applied to the Spokane Folk Festival, with my one video of The Girl and The Chenoo (see link at lower right).  I was very embarrassed to ask someone to record that for me and worried people would think I was egotistical.  I know so many many men who do not have those hang ups, including the one who introduced himself to me at the Folk Festival as "an incredibly powerful public speaker."

I'd already gotten notice of my slot so I didn't open the PDF of the festival schedule.  I also didn't open it because my computer doesn't like PDF's which, in my brain, stands for something I'm sure Adobe never intended. So I missed some crucial information that I discovered when I finally received the official, final paper version in the mail two weeks ago.  There I was, performing in Conference Room 126, at 5:00 pm, Sarajoy Van Boven, "Retells Native American Folk Tales."

6th grade basketball
What the PDF !!!?!?  I am 100% certain that I did not apply with that program.  I was thinking "American Folk Tales."  I could see doing one or two Native American stories as part of a slate of Americana.  But a whole program?  Anyone with any cultural sensitivity would obviously note the problem here: I am NOT, nor have I EVER been, nor will I ever be: Native American!  I am Dutch. I am all Dutch. 100%.  Horrifically, after 75 years in America, my family was still producing 100% Dutch babies in 1975. Of course, I radically mixed that up with my post-globalization kids who are 1/2 Dutch, 1/4 Norwegian and 1/4 German.

So what right could I possibly have had to tell these stories? NONE.  True, I grew up in Marietta, Land of the Lummi.  True, I've had many good friends of Native American heritage (who hasn't?).  But none of that gives me claim to their culture.  Shit, man, I'm already living on their homeland, I'm going to hijack their cultural heritage too?  And now, here I was, displayed for all to see, commandeering Native American culture for my own purposes, whether I wanted to or not.  Whether I chose to or not, I will forever be written down as having done this.  At least I wasn't getting paid.

The other problem was that I was hoping to get more recordings to audition for other performances from this presentation, but I realized that if I took any more recordings of Native American folk tales, I would be forever branded (if that hasn't already happened) as That Native American Folk Tale Lady, and/or the Moron Who Tried to Make a Go at Being an Aryan Native American Folk Tale Lady.  This borrowing of Native American tales is very very bad form indeed, especially in storyteller circles, such as they are.

A glass class Blue and I took for a school report.
What were my options?  I could ask my Native friends for permission?  Perhaps Sarah (White Earth Ojibwe) could give permission on behalf of the Pima? the Passamaquady?  There's Lily, maybe I could look her up again and she could give the go ahead for my Tlingkit tales?  But what right would she have to speak on behalf of all Tlingkits? I mean, it's the same damn issue since 1492: Native Americans aren't a monolithic group and don't speak for each other.

And why me?  American Indians have a flourishing storytelling culture still in existence today with festivals all over North America.  There's no reason a Dutch girl would even need to do this.  These people haven't died out. They're here. Alive. They're the remarkable descendants of those who survived several waves of genocide, broken treaties, lies, and abuse and continue to be either ignored or discriminated against to this day.  THEY can still tell their own damn stories.  They don't need me to speak on their behalf.  But as I considered the rest of the schedule, I could see that no performers were Native American.  And if I didn't tell their stories, however wrong it was, they wouldn't be represented by a single performance.

The Spokane Folk Festival is a bunch of seasonal volunteers who put on an amazing program.  They simply accept applications; they don't recruit.  One assumes they did not have any Native applicants, for whatever reason. The ENTIRE festival is basically white people doing other culture's stuff. That's the nature of the region, white. And Native American. There's the white African dance troupe.  The white Bollywood-ers.  The only people doing the right color thing are the Reel dancers and jig pluckers.

Since it was my first ever festival, I didn't feel entitled to do what need to be done, which was to thumb my nose at the schedule and do my own thing.  So, I prepared a few more Native American stories and got working on them.  And the closer I came to the deadline, the worse I felt. Until Wednesday and Thursday where my cultural appropriation angst reached a crescendo. I could not have bunch my panties any tighter.


This is what I saw: angry Native Americans picketing my performance.  Throwing rotten tomatoes.  Or better yet, ROCKS!  And all I could do was crumble to the ground and say, "I know. I agree. You are SO VERY right."  And throw rocks at me too.

But then I realized that the museum was having their annual Native American days celebration (which might account for the lack of representation across town) and so they'd be there. That wouldn't make it right, but I might avoid an unpleasant confrontation. But then (my god! the horror!) word would spread of this nutty lady trying to steal the last vestiges of their cultural heritage and they would all carpool across town in rental vans, sit in Conference Room 126, fold their arms and seethe hate hate hate at me. And rightfully so. Except that I'm a human, am I not? And should be treated humanely even though I cannot, apparently, find it within myself to treat other cultures with a shred of dignity. 

Not a meth lab. It's mining waste treatment experiments
So, obviously, I'd gone off the rails and Huck wasn't there to help me back.  I righted myself by reminding myself that most Native Americans, although reasonably protective of their culture, are also normal humans with a normal sense of how to treat others.  And they would not humiliate or stone me intentionally. 

And it was too late to put together a whole new program.  And I came up with a plan. I built into the program not one, but two opportunities for me to address the living-ness of Native Storytelling culture and my humble borrowings of it for one day only. And if anyone said anything more, I'd respond with this well rehearsed phrase: "You are absolutely right." 

But I think its worse than rocks.  Most people are too polite to say anything so I'll never get an opportunity to explain myself.  Unless they stumble upon this here blog.  Which is very unlikely.  Only the elite few of discriminating taste can find this gem.

In the end, I got my first festival performance. Spellbound-ness happened. I loved it. I can't wait to do it again. Only NOT Native American stories. It would be tempting to do, however.  They are so so good.   

Bonus joke:
Coyote: "Blue, ask me a 'yes or no' question."
Blue: "Okay. Which do you prefer, 'yes' or 'no'?"

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