Escape Artists and Other Storytellers
And there we are side by side in a stolen car driving a promise road fast trying to escape the very place we’ve come from and paid good money for, and you floorboard it down the paved road until we hit the guardrail and sail across a dusty sandstone cliff onto an Oklahoma hay pasture, the car bucks to and fro like a rodeo bull but you don’t flinch; no, sir, you yank the gear shift into first, gun it, and off we go toward Big Sandy Creek, laughing. Somehow we look into each other’s eyes and I can hear you say, see, what did I tell you. . .
My poem is an attempt to explain how I feel about Oklahoma, I love it, but I often run away from it like an escape artist. On September 16, 17, at the 5 Tribes Story Conference writers, storytellers, filmmakers, performers, researchers broke all boundaries between us — and I was reminded (again) why I always return home . . .
The event was held at the famous Bacone College in Muskogee, Oklahoma and shows why artists migrate in and out of Oklahoma, ever-returning, ever-living in Indian Territory and parts unknown.
Some things I said in my opening remarks were that for most of my life, I’ve tried to live up to what it meant to be an American Indian. When I was young, I was very ignorant of what it meant to be “Indian.” Everyone in my family was “Indian,” both my adopted Cherokee family, and my Choctaw birth family. I didn’t know that we were any different from other families. We were just people doing what people do. When I’ve stopped to think about it, I’ve had relatives that were barbers, soldiers, sheriff’s deputies, bakers, cleaning ladies, farmers, bronco riders, teachers, local feed mill workers, and Avon ladies. Two of my great aunts worked in airplane factory in California during WW2. All these people were Indians.
But does any of this sound particularly “Indian?”
As I was growing up in the 1960s, the world seemed very chaotic: the Vietnam war, the struggle for civil rights, the police beating up American Indians in Oklahoma City every Friday night, these were reoccurring events, juxtaposed against regular family gatherings in Ada, and other towns in southeastern Oklahoma. Some of my great uncles and aunts went to stomp dance, and would also host family reunions in and around Ada. Relatives would come home each summer from California, Arizona, New Mexico and even Texas. There were all night sings at Stonewall with a great aunt playing the piano, my grandfather playing the fiddle, elders feeding the spirits, and me, eating crackers and squirrel dumplings listening, watching all these goings-on until I would fell asleep on family quilt. My relatives would sing church hymns and popular songs, and I can remember my Cherokee grandmother singing Mockin’Bird Hill, a song written by Vaughn Horton, 1951. I still know the refrain.
Does any of this sound particularly “Indian?” (There’s that word again.)
Tribal peoples in Oklahoma would say “yes,” but mainstream Americans would say, “not really” because they expect Indians to look and be like “Hollywood Sioux,” riding horses and making statements like, “Today is a good day to die.” I don’t mean to be disrespectful to the Lakota, Dakota, and Nakota peoples, I’m merely suggesting that because of Hollywood, everyone thinks we look like the Indians in John Ford films.
The 5 Tribes Story Conference showcased stories about who we are now, and who we were back when. . . I’m indebted to my Choctaw brethren, Greg Rodgers and Tim Tingle, and Mary Robinson, director of the 5 Tribes Museum in Muskogee, Oklahoma for creating this wonderful event.
My storyteller definition includes academics, (especially theorists) no matter the discipline. The umbrella is large, but not unwieldy.
Can you name any of the storytellers in the pictures without captions? If you can, give them a shout out the blog and I’ll send you a bookmark.
Pictured are various writers at the first Carr Series’ dinner for Rolando Hinojosa-Smith for Creative Writing at Illinois. And one pix from the 5 Tribes Story Conference. C’mon, names anyone?