Gimme that old-fashioned oral tradition

Taos resident Pat McCabe (Navajo) is one of this year’s featured storytellers 

For Jan Smith, stories are central to who we are as humans.

“I think there have always been people who have sat around a fire in a cave, a cabin, a house, or a hut telling catch-up stories, like what happened since the last time we met. The oral tradition is the way a lot of our ancestors learned things,” says Smith, executive director of The Society of the Muse of the Southwest (SOMOS). “The Taos Storytelling Festival is a celebration of the ability of people to mesmerize us with a story.”

But that can be hard when faced with social distancing restrictions; a time in which Zoom family happy hours and online readings have proliferated. In the spirit of keeping multiple traditions alive, SOMOS hosts its 21st annual Taos Storytelling Festival online on Friday and Saturday, Oct. 9 and 10.

This year’s featured storytellers are Gayle Ross, a direct descendant of John Ross, who was the principal chief of the Cherokee during the Trail of Tears in 19th century; Francisco “Cisco” Guevara, owner of Los Rios River Runners, in his 17th appearance at the Taos Storytelling Festival; and Pat McCabe, a Navajo mother and grandmother whose spiritual name is Weyakpa Najin Win or Woman Stands Shining. The Taos resident is an activist, artist, writer, ceremonial leader, and international speaker on themes of global peace and healing. All of this year’s featured tellers are Indigenous, which Smith says is a way of highlighting and honoring the 50th anniversary of the U.S. government’s return of Blue Lake to the Taos Pueblo. The Blue Lake land and watershed was placed into a national forest in 1906 without the pueblo being consulted. They fought for its return for 64 years before President Richard Nixon signed new legislation on Dec. 15, 1970.

Ross, Guevara, and McCabe will tell stories at the Grand Finale, joined by the person who wins the Friday night StorySLAM, at which 10 invited storytellers each tell an eight-minute story to compete for the top honor. Ross, Guevara, and McCabe judge the StorySLAM.

“The judges are looking for some dramatic presentation — tone of voice, gestures, and movements that make the stories more alive. And they’re looking for an arc, a beginning, middle, and end, which is no small feat in eight minutes. You have to be pretty on point,” says Smith.

Guevara says he’ll be looking for a story that speaks to his heart and spirit. “If you tell a good story and have it perfectly memorized but don’t deliver it with heart, it won’t speak to me. I would rather you stumble and speak from the heart than recite it perfect from an inauthentic place.”

Like poetry slams, the stories must be told from memory or off the cuff. No reading is allowed. Asked what the difference is between hearing a story read and hearing story told, McCabe says, “We create with sound — we open doorways or portals with sound — as is exemplified in cultures all around the world. I also believe we engage lineage and ancestors telling the stories with our voices.”

Ross, who lives in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, grew up hearing stories about Cherokee people on the Trail of Tears and their fight to hold onto ancestral lands. “I have always loved stories,” she says. “From stories of family history to folk and fairy tales to traditional Cherokee legends. When I was in school, I discovered that those who know the best ghost stories get invited to the best slumber parties.” Ross leads a seminar on Saturday, Oct. 10, called “Seeing Red — Looking Past the Stereotypes,” about cultural appropriation and exploitation in literature and storytelling.

Guevara never memorizes his stories, and he finds that the act of writing them down sets them in stone and prevents him from being able to tell them out loud anymore. He fell into storytelling just over 20 years ago when the people at SOMOS asked him to participate in the first festival based on his reputation for sharing entertaining anecdotes with his raft groups on the Río Grande. He says that the first few times he got on the stage were as scary as rafting the Taos Box in the Río Grande Gorge. “I was completely lost. I told the good people of SOMOS that I didn’t know what stories to tell. They said just tell your most memorable day on the river.” Those standout days often involved Guevara finding dead bodies, so he soon became known in the small town of Taos as the guy who told the most horrifying stories. Mentored by more experienced storytellers over the years, he eventually found less gruesome stories to tell.

None of the featured storytellers will do more than hint at their plans for the Grand Finale. Ross promises to share “The Three Brothers Journey,” which was told to her by a beloved Cherokee elder, among other tales. McCabe says hers is a variation on a story that was told to her by “spiritual allies to help me understand and guide my life.”

As for Guevara, he’s a little intimidated by the virtual nature of the 2020 festival. “It will be a large challenge for me because normally I draw from the energy of the crowd as I walk out on the stage, and then the stories come forth as I tap into that connection. Can I do that in this virtual format? It’ll be interesting to see what happens. I’m confident that the stories are strong and that they will be interesting, entertaining, and true.” ◀

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