Fiction has never been entertainment for me. It has been the work I have done for most of my adult life. I believe that one of the principal ways in which we acquire, hold, and digest information is via narrative. So I hope you will understand when the remarks I make begin with what I believe to be the first sentence of our childhood that we all remember — the phrase “Once upon a time….” – Toni Morrison Nobel Speech
I listened to the recording of Toni Morrison’s Nobel speech and it gives me goosebumps when I hear her strong, confident voice. The power of language has always captivated me into sitting a little longer when I heard stories and even those lectures. It was led me to my calling as a teacher, writer, and mother. All three identities overlap and switch back-in-forth in my journey of language.
It is amazing; today, my students asked if I had a Navajo (traditional) name. We are currently reading The Way to Rainy Mountain by N. Scott Momaday, and it is a memoir about a Kiowa man’s journey to understanding himself – culturally, politically, and historically. He recounts the journey of his ancestors and his own through three distinctive voices in each chapter and each chapter is only two pages long! (which is great for a reading class) Each paragraph is dense with descriptive details on legend, historical facts, landscape, memory, and personal reflection.
My students chuckle and laugh and listen. Most of my students are not raised in a Navajo “traditional” setting. I find each year that more and more of my students are not versed in the old sense of the word “traditional stories.” Many do not have Navajo names, do not know where their families originated, and they are hungry. Hungry to know, but do not know how to ask, who to ask, or what to ask. One student asked, and it sounded more like a challenge than a mere curious question. But the question he asked, “Do you have a Navajo name? What is it?”
I stopped and all of my (at-risk) students looked at me, waiting. First, I slightly admonished them for being so brash as to openly ask and demand an answer to such a personal question. I told them the rudeness showed careless disregard to me, and I shared the etiquette to show respect for a person and their stories. They did not know and reminded them that that was how I was taught and each family has their own way to get such personal information. Most said they do not have that teaching at home, so it was new to them.
My name is “Going to War,” and I can only give the English translation because the Navajo name is kept in family, memory, and ceremony. I was given my name by my grandmother, Daughter of Black Sheep Woman, and it is a name I share with another family member, my aunt. My aunt and I have many similar characteristics and I wonder if my grandmother knew this when I was still a baby. I can tell you stories that come with that name, I can tell where my clan name came from, where my family migrated from, and how bears and crows helped my women ancestors evade Ute raiding parties. I am descended from these people and I know this through language, memory, and landscape. It is who I am.
My students listened and their eyes shifted down when I finished. I sensed a sadness, an emptiness, especially when I said some of the stories I can only pass on to my children and could not share with them. That is the power of language – it creates the person you are. If you don’t have stories, then who are you? They said they did not have stories like that and I told them a secret, stories change. They are not static – your stories today, those that shape you are as valid as the old ones. Times change and I reminded them that I am of a different generation than they.
Be nosy, I told them. How do you think I found these stories? I did not sit, waiting for my family to tell me, I had to ask around and listen to people talk. My brothers don’t know all of these stories because they did not ask. If you want to know, seek it out. Another said his family were Christians and did not believe the traditional stories, and I said that is fine. I challenged him to find out what brought them to Christianity, because it is valid, and it defines him. Again, I am of a different generation, as were my parents. They were not born in hospitals, but outside, under blue sky and near their homesteads. They have stories that I’ve only tapped the surface, and sometimes I envy that they heard these old-time stories without the distraction of television, different perspectives, and “technology.” These stories were not “fiction” or only entertainment, they were the way things were – to emerge into this world from three previous ones, that animals could talk and help humans discover the way of the world and humanity? That is beautiful to me.
I can only imagine and what that felt like, and then later lose.
This is a long post – but I’ll admit it was a wonderful class period. I felt refreshed because the lesson did not go as planned. We got off the lesson plan and I am pretty sure they enjoyed it, as did I. I was reminded that it is winter, time to tell stories, and to recreate the world and one’s self. Although it may be the symbolic season of death, it is the time to remember where you come from and why you are here. I am a teacher, writer, daughter, sister, aunt, and mother.
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