His story in the making

As a boy growing up in the town of Cherokee, Lloyd Arneach was immersed in tales of the Trail of Tears, the terrible forced exodus in 1838-39 of eastern Cherokee Indians to Oklahoma.

But when Arneach became a professional storyteller, he was drawn to a tale of a different tribe, from a land he’d never seen — the story of Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce, whose home was the beautiful Wallowa Valley in Oregon. In 1877, to avoid being herded to a reservation in Idaho, Chief Joseph led his people 1,200 miles on a heroic but futile struggle for freedom in Canada.

He had to surrender to the U.S. Army only 40 miles from the border.

“From where the sun now stands,” Chief Joseph said then, “I will fight no more forever.”

When he died in 1904, never having been allowed to return home, he was buried on the Colville Indian Reservation in Washington state. On Tuesday, the 100th anniversary of Chief Joseph’s death, Arneach will give a performance at the Diana Wortham Theatre to pay tribute to him, and to the legacy of courage he left to all Americans.

“I have no idea why I’m compelled to tell this story,” Arneach admits. “It just touches me more than any other story I know.”

The Chief Joseph saga, which takes about 20 minutes for Arneach to tell, is always his last story of the evening — because he’s usually too drained to tell another one afterward. Often he’s not the only person present who’s left in tears.

“When you’re fighting for your life,” Arneach says, remembering his service in Vietnam, “you’re fighting for your buddy, the guy next to you. That’s why the combat experience is the closest a man will ever feel to another human being.” Perhaps it’s that bond of warriors that connects Arneach to the legendary Nez Perce leader.

“On occasion,” Arneach says, “when I’m telling his story, I feel Chief Joseph’s spirit with me.”

Arneach’s two uncles taught him the Cherokee tales, and his late wife Charlotte brought him out of his terrible shyness — but it was his children’s babysitter who actually got Arneach started on his storytelling journey.

Twenty years ago, the story goes, the young girl really wanted her Scout troop to get its badge in Indian Lore, but the local library didn’t have any books on Indians. So she asked Arneach to lend a hand.

When the “real-live Indian” arrived at the troop meeting in his IBM-computer-programmer business suit, the other Girl Scouts, he remembers, seemed extremely disappointed. Where were the feathers and the war paint? Worse still, he didn’t have even one tale about sleeping in a teepee.

Soon, however, they fell under the charm of Arneach’s mellifluous voice and booming laugh, and the rest — storytelling festivals, powwows, CDs, books, TV shows — is history. After the Diana Wortham performance on Tuesday night, Arneach will drive to Washington, D.C., where he’ll be one of the tellers at the long-awaited opening of the National Museum of the American Indian.

Like many practitioners of his art, Arneach doesn’t plan his program too tightly, instead letting the responses of the audience guide his selection. Sometimes he’ll tell traditional myths, such as “Strawberries” (the tale of a woman who forgives her husband in a particularly sweet way) or “Turtle Stampede” (about a man so lazy he gets run over by a horde of reptiles).

Arneach has nothing against a modern story — so long as it portrays a theme compatible to the Indian way of thinking. He tells “Seagull” — the amazing true tale of Eddie Rickenbacker, former WWI flying ace, and the bird that saved his life out in the Pacific — because it dramatizes the Indian belief in the benign relationship between all living things.

Joining Arneach for the first time at the Diana Wortham event, and making her debut as a solo artist in Asheville, will be Cherokee singer Paula Nelson. She’ll perform Native American social songs — the story-songs that families pass down among themselves — accompanying herself only with a rattle.

Though Nelson knows many songs (she sings in 10 different native languages), she is prevented by Cherokee tribal custom from performing some of them in public (hunting or war songs, for instance, belong exclusively to the realm of men’s power.)

So, in contemporary singer/songwriter fashion, she’s started to write from her own experience, creating songs she says are “not necessarily in the Cherokee language, but are both inherently Cherokee, and inherently Paula.”

This intertwining of her cultural history and her own life may help explain the profound passion she’s found in performing.

“When I sing, what surprises me is the overwhelming sense of joy that comes to me inside,” Paula reveals. “It’s like a little ball of light that expands, and I feel like I’m going to burst.”

[Freelance writer/movie reviewer Marcianne Miller is a frequent contributor to Xpress.]

Remembrance of Chief Joseph with Lloyd Arneach and Paula Nelson happens at 8 p.m. at Diana Wortham Theatre on Tuesday, Sept. 21. Tickets are $10/adults, $5/children. Refreshment vendors will be on site. Call 257-4530 for tickets, or 497-5172 for more information.

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