Tell me what you see when you think of the word “story”. Is it the image of small children being read to? A newspaper article or work of popular fiction? These are all stories and yet they are only the opaque surface of something larger, a deeper set of pictures, which are connected to stories and their telling. Stories are not just a passive absorption of information, but rather a co-creative and dynamic experience. This active engagement in the tales we know shapes our idea of who we are. Stories offer us something to believe in and they are constantly barraging us with new ways of thinking, feeling and opportunities for action. Thomas King writes: “Stories are wondrous things. And they are dangerous.” (9) The power of stories is that they do shape our beliefs; the stories we hear and those we do not have a profound effect on what we believe about the world and ourselves.
Well, where do we start in forming our beliefs? Generally the beginning is a good place to start any story. So, in the beginning, there is a kernel, a seed from which all stories grow and change with the telling. This kernel is pretty much the same for most of us; “And in the beginning God created Heaven and Earth…” (King 21)
Or perhaps you are more secular in your approach, and you believe we came out of the nothingness we will return to.
This is your twist on the beginning. Your kernel is still just starting to grow.
Maybe your beginning is not so readily recognizable, maybe it has been forgotten, but it is still there. We may have to dive down deep for the seed which unites our stories, but it is there. It must be there, because our belief in its existence informs the rest of lives, the rest of the stories which share ideas and attitudes with us.
And what, exactly, does our beginning, our creation story inform us of?
It guides us on our journey of finding things to believe in, and things to reject. It lends itself to our beliefs about our identity. King writes about the photographer Edward Sheriff Curtis, whose famous pictures of Native Americans helped reinforce a belief not only of what Native American means for non-Native Americans, but also for Native people themselves. “…the idea of ‘the Indian’ was already fixed in time and space.” (King 37) Now, these pictures were not realistic representations of Native people. But Americans thought that’s how they should look, Curtis thought so too and pretty soon some Native Americans thought, well, that must be how I should look! So sometimes, when we lose our beginning, we forget who we are, so people have to tell us. And we believe them.
What to do when other people have begun to tell our story for us? You may not mind. That’s okay. Sometimes losing our identity seems inevitable, or a means to an end. “Indians. Now you see them. Now you don’t.” (King 133) It can take a while to claim your story as your own. “There are stories that take seven days to tell.” says Cherokee storyteller Diane Glancy. “There are other stories that take you all your life.” (qtd. in King 122) Remember that it takes two to tell a story. At least two. There must be some contrast to feed the imagination driving the tale. This means something both magical and scary. This means that you can tell your story the way you want to hear it. We do this all the time, did you know? As I write this I am winding a ball of yarn for you, but it is your choice to keep winding or unravel the ideas and feelings my story creates. You can be Curtis, winding the same yarn tighter, or you can be King, unwinding the myth of who you are. Because belief is a funny thing. It tends to go with whomever convinces it of the truth. And I submit to you that there is more than one truth.
Take identity. We may be mothers or sons, or perhaps teachers or stockbrokers. Is it possible that we may be more than one of those things? And if we are, the people who might claim our identity to be “mother” are likely wholly unaware that there are others who lay claim to us as a stockbroker who teaches on weekends. And our students may be unaware that we are also a mother. And so on. This works for our belief about ourselves as well. “Native culture, as with any culture, is a vibrant, changing thing…” (King 37) Native Americans who believe in Curtis’ pictures may have forgotten the reality of who they are (whatever group of identities they might claim). But this does not mean that Curtis’ pictures or their other identities do not exist all at once. So in one final analysis, it is not our identity that we believe in. “What’s important are the stories I’ve heard along the way. And the stories I’ve told. Stories we make up to try to set the world straight.” (King 60) It is the multi-colored yarns of the stories about who we are that we believe in, and if we listen to each closely, we may remember the kernel joining us all at the beginning.
So, our identity may seem a dangerous thing to believe in, because it is fluid, it changes with culture, with new truths made clear to us by others and within ourselves. This experience of identity changing and folding back on itself may be alarming. “We trust easy oppositions. We are suspicious of complexities, distrustful of contradictions, fearful of enigmas.” (King 25) But that is okay. Identity is of no consequence if we see ourselves through the prismatic perspective of storytelling. Belief structures are fed by our words, and our thoughts. Both words and thoughts make stories. “People used to think these things, you know, and they used to say them out loud. Now they don’t. Now they just think them.” (King 147) These thoughts may feel good to us, or they might make us feel bad. We might trust others to create our beliefs for us; we might let them make the magic, wind the yarn that is what we believe about the world and ourselves. “For once a story is told, it cannot be called back. Once told, it is loose in the world.” (King 10) We can tell each other that this is a bad thing. “Oh, they like you well enough, said Coyote. They just like your feathers better” (King 127) Or we might keep believing that others will eventually want what we want, tell our stories in the way we want them told. “ I told her she was crazy to let people treat her like that…she understands the world as a good place where good deeds should beget good rewards. At eighty-one she still believes that that world is possible, even though she will now admit that she never found it, never even caught a glimpse of it.” (King 4-5)
So, what should you come to believe from this story? Is it possible that there is nothing to believe until you begin to tell your own story, to mix up your yarn with my yarn? I invite you to do this. To dive back into your own creation story, find your footing, and wind until you are out of breath and imagination, because, as King says: “The truth about stories is that that’s all we are.” (2, 32, 122)
King, Thomas. “You’ll Never Believe What Happened Is Always A Great Way To Start” The
truth about stories: a native narrative. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003.
4, 5, 9-10, 21, 25 Print.
King, Thomas. “You’re Not The Indian I Had In Mind” The truth about stories: a native
narrative. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003. 32, 37, 60 Print.
King, Thomas. “What Is It About Us That You Don’t Like?” The truth about stories: a native
narrative. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003. 122, 127, 133, 147 Print.