Cherokee voices, old and new

Throughout history, great epics have been told in verse — Gilgamesh, Dante’s Inferno, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and, in Wales, The Mabinogion, to name a few. The roots of epic poetry are oral — storyteller/bards entertaining and inspiring countless generations of listeners — and Barbara R. Duncan uses this oral form to great advantage in Living Stories of the Cherokee (University of North Carolina Press, 1998), a collection of tales both old and new.

Six living members of the Eastern Band of the Cherokee — Davey Arch, Robert Bushyhead, Edna Chekelelee, Marie Junaluska, Kathi Smith Littlejohn and Freeman Owle — spin a mix of animal stories, creation myths, legends, ghost stories, family stories and tales about Cherokee history and modern-day experience. Duncan weaves these pieces into an eloquent patchwork recording history, myth and song.

Over the past 20 years or more, the western North Carolina folklorist/scholar/songwriter has been one of the most influential and hard-working cultural documenters of folk life in the southernmost Appalachians.

She’s worked with the Foxfire Fund, the Cherokee Heritage Museum, the Western North Carolina Mountain Heritage Center, the Scottish Tartan Museum and numerous grant-funded educational programs for secondary school systems, as well as with elders from both the Native American and European-American communities. Quietly, yet diligently, Duncan has labored — as both archivist and activist — to boost awareness of important cultural history in the Southern mountain region, and to help preserve that history.

Her new book is precisely the kind of groundbreaking work for which Duncan has become known. To begin with, these stories, which she has been collecting for years, constitute the first major new collection of Cherokee tales published in nearly 100 years — since James Mooney’s Myths of the Cherokee, and Frans Olbrecht’s work at the Bureau of Ethnology. But the book also represents a major contribution in terms of form: The stories are written in poetic free verse, a rare (if not unheard-of) undertaking among modern story collections.

“In order to convey to the reader the fundamental oral nature of these tales and their beauty as they are told, they are presented on the page word for word exactly as they were spoken,” Duncan explains. “Because the storytellers tell their tales in a rhythmic way, the stories are transcribed in lines of different lengths, like free verse, indicating natural breaks and pauses in the teller’s speech. If you read them aloud, or listen to them in your mind, you will hear the stories as the storytellers speak them. To convey the voices of the people, folklorists call this method of presenting stories ‘oral poetics.’ When stories are rewritten to be more literary and ‘readable,’ they lose the beauty and style of the oral versions and their tellers, whose voices are drowned out by the conventions of standard English and the changes of the editor.”

In her introduction to the book, Joyce Dugan — principal chief of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians — summarizes the charm and power of Living Stories of the Cherokee:

“Through the years, these legends have grown and changed and become contemporary along with Cherokee people,” she writes. “You may have heard these legends on cassette tape. Soon you may hear them via computer, and in the next millennium we can only guess the media through which you will experience these stories. The critical message is that the stories continue. … The voices you hear are those of my friends and neighbors, and now they become yours.”

Cherokee language

Repeat after me. Siyo.

A little louder. Siyo.

You said “Hello.”

Osigwugah osigwugah.

You said “How are you?”

Osigwuh osigwuh.

All right [laughter].

Now you learned my language.

I learned your language when I was five years old.

I had to, regardless if I wanted to or not.

When I went to school we were told that we had to learn one way or another.

If I didn’t learn I had to go to the bathroom, wash my mouth out with Ivory soap.

But I never did wash my Indian language out, I still got it in my heart, and I still carry on my Indian language.

— from Stories of the Cherokee

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