Storytelling Beginnings from Native American Cultures

For writers, it’s all about the story. We tell stories, whether it’s about a murder, planning a trip to Santa Fe, or a boy wizard conquering evil. They are all stories. And while readers read for multiple reasons—to learn, reduce stress, build skills, improve vocabulary—ultimately it’s the story that draws us in and keeps us interested.

Long before we had keyboards, typewriters, or writing implements to pen our stories, storytelling was already a rich tradition in Native American cultures. Oral storytelling could be dramatic or humorous. Both villains and heroes were present. Stories had plot points that moved the story along. And themes? These stories explained the world and how to live a good life.

native storyteller with young children

Because storytelling was so valued, tribal culture and beliefs was passed down from generation to generation. Listeners remembered the entertaining stories that explained who they were and where they came from. Like any great allegory, Native American storytelling helped listeners understand how to survive and thrive. For the educators out there, look at the effectiveness of this form of pedagogy. Wow!

There are thousands of Native American tribes, each with a distinct culture, traditions, and language. Yet many share common threads in storytelling. Here are a few I most enjoy.

Creation myths

Actually, creation myths aren’t unique to Native American culture. Greek, Roman, and Nordic cultures also had stories about how the world came to be. Wanting to know where we came from is Human Curiosity 101.

Is the earth a great island suspended by four cords hanging from the sky? Did the Eagle mold the first human out of clay? Perhaps the gods Tepeu and Quetzalcoatl thought the physical world into being, and then wanting to be praised, created people from clay and wood. When these beings angered the gods, did the gods sent a great flood to take them away before starting over again? Did the Ant People help keep the Hopi from starvation?

One of my favorites is the Iroquois creation story and perhaps why I have such an affinity for turtles. When Sky Woman was pushed from the sky by an angry husband, the animals caught her. Little Toad gathered mud from the bottom of the ocean in his mouth. The animals took this mud and spread it over the back of Big Turtle. The mud spread and became North America. Sky Woman stepped onto the land, then created the stars, moon, and the sun.

Listen to a creation story.

Anthropomorphism

Anything can be a protagonist or antagonist in a Native American tale, including elements of nature or the gods. They talk. They feel compassion or anger. But the majority of anthropomorphic characters were animals. And they taught lessons, like how conceit or vanity should be avoided. When Coyote felt invincible, he decided he could dance with a star. He ended up burning up.

Have you ever heard the story of Possum’s tail? Once upon a time, possum had a long, silky tail. He was very proud of his beautiful tail and made sure everyone knew it. The other animals soon tired of hearing about it. Rabbit told Possum he was invited as an honored guest at a council meeting, but suggested Possum clean his tail so it looked its best. After spreading a special medicine on the tail, Rabbit wrapped it in snake skin. Rabbit left instructions to leave the snake skin on until the council meeting. When Possum arrived at the council meeting, he ceremoniously unwrapped his tail and all the hair fell off. Possum fell to the ground and pretended to be dead, which he still does to this day. We’ve all heard of “playing possum.”

Listen to this animal tale.

Trickster

As you can probably guess, Trickster played tricks, but he was so much more than that. He was incredibly sharp, and he enjoyed creating chaos. Trickster could be any animal. In Lakota culture, the Trickster was a spider named Inktomi. Trickster caused a split between the Sun god and the Moon god, which led to night and day.

Often, Trickster is a coyote, seen as a sly and devious creature. Yet even though Trickster is smart, someone can usually find a way to thwart Trickster. A common theme is that by working together, we can adapt and survive.

Learn about Te Ata.

Today, we may view stories as entertainment and escapism. But remember that stories are so much more than that. They teach us about ourselves and our world. And ultimately, they teach us how to survive and be better people. Here’s hoping you discover some wonderful stories this Native American Heritage Month.

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A Library is a Thing of Wonder

Our democracy is made up of federal, state, and local governments. Local and state government is often a microcosm of federal government. Laws and regulations are made and enforced. Each branch comes with different duties and responsibilities. Specific agencies and departments fulfill defined functions. And like thee diagram of a cell cycle, if you insert or take out a piece, the larger unit is changed. OK, Civics 101 lesson is over.

With all of units of government surrounding us, which would you say is the most important? Which is the most integral to people? My vote goes to the public library. In my community, the public library is a part of county government. Libraries can also be state institutions. And the largest library in the world—the Library of Congress—is a federal institution. But all are funded with tax revenue.

I’ll explain why I think libraries are the most important institutions in government, but first let me tell you why this subject popped up in my brain. You see, recently my regular library closed for approximately two weeks while they moved to a newly built building. I visit my library branch two to three times a month. More when I’m a tangent for new knowledge, new authors, or self-improvement. I generally have something on hold.

To say I felt a sense of loss during this transition would be accurate. Some people, including members of my family, wouldn’t understand. They would be unable to tell you where their local library was located without the help of Google Maps. Oh well, their loss.

Did I fear not having anything to read? Hardly. I have stacks of books in my house that I haven’t got around to reading yet. I generally include independent bookstores in my travels. If I quit borrowing books from the library, the stacks would undoubtedly shrink. But I find the idea of having nothing to read so horrifying that I have stocked up for the apocalypse. I also have access to two nearby branches of my public library plus two university libraries where I do research.

Feeling the temporary loss of my home library even while having plenty to read led me to examine the importance of libraries. Here are my top 10 reasons that public libraries should win the award for most important government institution:

10. Libraries provide a place for safe social interaction. Groups can reserve meeting rooms. Tutoring can take place. You’ll also find book groups and story time.

9.  According to the American Library Association (ALA), 73% of public libraries provide assistance with job applications and interviewing skills.

8.  Librarians can answer your questions. Most public libraries have reference librarians whose job is to help locate the answers. According to the ALA, reference librarians answer over 6.5 million questions…per week.

7.  Free computer use, Internet, and job resources are available at public libraries.

6.  Libraries support English language learning and literacy. Learning to read is a right, but too many people fall in the cracks. Libraries fill the gaps.

5.  Libraries add to a community’s quality of life. These institutions support cultural engagement. They often offers classes for everything from technology to fitness.

4.  Libraries open their doors to underserved populations. They shelter people from the elements while offering learning and entertainment.

3.  Libraries support truth. They fight misinformation.

2.  Libraries are free. You can check out books, kits, movies, and more at no cost. You can even borrow from other libraries through interlibrary loan programs.

1.  Libraries support learning. Need to know how to market your business, explore new careers, or the history of your region? Have a project at school or work that’s kicking your butt? Your library has the answers.

The United States has more than 9,000 public libraries. Sadly, the number has dropped in the past ten years. When you look at the world’s per capita rate of public libraries, the United States doesn’t even break the top 10 (spoiler alert: most of the top ten are in Eastern Europe!).

They are a community where everyone is welcome. Libraries do not discriminate based on race, gender, sexuality, socioeconomics, or age. And more so than any other government agency, libraries have evolved to meet the needs of people they serve.

My library reopened this week. The new library is very modern looking, which didn’t immediately thrill me. But there is lots of natural light and windows that look out over our small city. Cozy alcoves invite you to stay awhile and read. And there’s plenty of room for growth. Because libraries, like people, need to grow.

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Bouchercon Turns 50

I’ve just returned from my second Bouchercon. My first was in St. Louis in 2011, the year before my first (and so far, only) novel was published. For those not familiar with Bouchercon, it’s an annual world mystery convention for writers and readers. Bouchercon is named after avid mystery writer, reviewer, and editor, Anthony Boucher.

It seemed like a good time to return to Bouchercon as I found myself facing an existential crisis in my own writing career. By day, I work as an instructional designer, a mentally demanding job. Whatever brain power remains is devoted to writing. In recently years, I’ve spent a lot of time on children’s educational nonfiction books with the occasional travel article thrown in for variety. And sporadically marketing. I’m in a rut. I finished a YA magical realism/suspense novel earlier this year and have been shopping (so far without success) for an agent.

Add a broken arm to the equation. After days of rain, I was on my back patio trying to do some things with plants and a rapidly filling rain barrel. I slipped. As humans are wont to do, I instinctively put my arm out. Ouch.

I spent the next 24 hours trying to convince myself it was a sprained wrist. It was barely swollen, but I couldn’t do much with it. I finally found myself at a doc-in-the-box where I was x-rayed and given a diagnosis of a distal radius fracture. An orthopedist put in a brace just in time to make the drive to Bouchercon. Did I mention that this happened to my left hand and that I’m left handed? I began thinking the universe was telling me to give up on writing. I needed Bouchercon to help me figure it all out.

Fifty years. Amazing. This auspicious anniversary was held in Dallas. One of my first clues of the perfectness of the location was the hats. Eight years ago, I was struck by the hats donned by many convention attendees. Most paid homage to detectives and private eyes. I’m deeply envious of people who can wear hats and make them look smart. I look like someone trying to play dress up.

So, already we have mystery writers and readers in hats. And then there’s Dallas, a location where cowboy hats are considered appropriate for street wear, board rooms, and formal events. It was a match made in crime fiction hat-wearing heaven.

In a panel of Anthony Award nominees for best book, a member of the audience remarked upon the fact that we were just a couple of blocks from the most famous crime scene—that of President Kennedy’s assassination. You could feel the tension in the room rise faster than the thermometers outside. Woe to the travelers from the north and east who arrived sleeveless and in brief attire for some of that Texas heat, only to find that their arrival coincided with the first frost instead.

Anyway, back to the JFK assassination. Our panel seemed to represent the demographics of the crowd. Forty percent declaring Oswald most likely acted alone, while another 40 percent argued for definite conspiracy. The youngest member, representing 20 percent, had no opinion.

Yes, the scene for Bouchercon was perfect. It was as if the Anthony award winners had crafted it from their imaginations. Did I find what I was looking for? Well, I left with ideas popping in my brain. As for the broken arm, author Lee Goldberg told a story during one panel of the time he broke both arms and kept writing. Another message from the universe.

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Call of the Aspens

I am on a quest. It’s a quest to discover the perfect aspen grove at the peak of its golden glory. I’ve been on this quest for several years now.

I live in the flat lands, only a thousand or so feet above sea level. While I can see oaks and sycamores go through their autumn costume changes, I have to travel over 700 miles to reach the 5,000 to 12,000 feet that aspens call home.

One year, I arrived too early. The pale limbs clung to their round green leaves. Another year, I arrived at the same time as a frosty mist that did its best to obscure the yellow leaves and left me damp and chilled.

A couple of years ago, I hiked an old fire tower trail to what is known as Devil’s Head Lookout in the Pike National Forest. The aspens were already starting to lose their brilliance. If only I had come earlier. Still, there were enough aspens to admire. Perhaps more importantly, they provided me with an excuse to catch my breath. My kids think Mom is just getting old, but you try hiking to 9,700 feet when your lungs are acclimated to an altitude that tops out at 2,400 feet.

Yet with each attempt to see aspens in their glory, I’m reminded of the tale of Goldilocks and the Three Bears. One year is too soon. Another year is too late. I’m looking for that “just right” that Goldilocks found with Baby Bears porridge and bed.

What is this obsession? I believe it started simply as wanting to see something unfamiliar. Although I have my favorite travel destinations, I still want to see or experience something that I haven’t crossed paths with yet. Aspens live in a concentrated area. They like Colorado, Utah, and New Mexico. They dismiss California, Texas, and Virginia. Certainly, they’ve never met Oklahoma.

As I continue my quest, I learn more about these elusive creatures. I discover why aspens grow in clusters or a stand, as it’s known. They are bound together by a shared root system. A stand is actually, scientifically, one organism.

This year was the closest yet. I was only about a week off. On the first weekend in October, we headed to Rocky Mountain National Park, along with a several thousand other people intent on seeing fall foliage and the mountains before snow closed access to the highest roads. Many visitors hoped for elk sightings because we’re in mating season. The elks, not the visitors. By the time we arrived, access to Bear Lake was cut off due to full parking lots.

Clumps of yellow looked like suns dropping into an evergreen landscape. The most brilliant of the roadside aspens danced in the breeze like golden coins shimmering just out of reach. Of course, none of the near perfect trees were anywhere near a turnout, limiting any possibility to lean against and commune with aspens, hoping they would share their secret of a happy life with me. I know, I know. I said a stand was a single organism, but I still considered them a plural.

The aspens I did get close to had already lost their glow. Instead of disappointment, I’m happy to be able to continue my quest. A part of me hopes I never locate the treasure I seek so that I can continue my quest. They say it’s all about the journey.

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Do We Need More Books About Women in STEM?

After a long wait, my latest books are out. The new Gutsy Girls Go for Science series comes from Nomad Press. I wrote two of the four releases, Paleontologists and Programmers. The other two are Astronauts and Engineers.

Yes, this makes two more books in my repertoire about notable females in exceling in non-traditional careers. They join two books I did for a Girls in Science Series: Marine Biology: Cool Women Who Dive and Meteorology: Cool Women Who Weather Storms (also Nomad Press). These were all written for 8-to-12 year old readers. Another couple of books, Women Aviators and Women in Space (Chicago Review Press) are for young adults.

Why more kid’s books about interesting women? Because girls need to know that “boy” jobs or “girl” jobs are a myth. They need to know about females who came before us, meeting with resistance, but persisting. Girls need to know that they can truly be whatever they want to be.

Let’s start with programmers. As Gutsy Girls Go for Science: Programmers shares, the earliest computer programmers were…female! Men were into the hardware until they realized that operating systems and software made all the difference in expanding who used computers.

By 1970, women earned only 13.6% of the bachelor’s degrees in computer science. That number rose to 37% by 1984, but by the time PCs came into our workplaces and homes, that percentage had been cut in half. Also since PCs became all the rage in the 1990s, the percentage of women working in the field dropped from 35% to 26% by 2013.

In paleontology, the odds are even worse. For a very long time, women were denied admission into professional science organizations even though women like Mary Anning made significant discoveries. And even once they were eventually admitted, women were supposed to stay in the labs or the classroom instead of doing fieldwork. Again, there were women who persisted. Many of them were subject to sexual harassment.

Women make up only 23% of the membership of the Paleontological Society. That number drops to 17% when you look at non-students, or the professionals. In the Earth Sciences, women earn 38% of bachelor degrees, 43.4% of master degrees, and 39.9% of Ph.Ds. Although most scientists with Ph.D’s work for universities, women make up only 16% of geoscience faculty in the United States. Furthermore, studies show that women are less likely to be hired, and when they are, they are subject to a lower salary (about $10,000 less for Ph.D’s) and sexual harassment. An excellent representation of women in the field is The Bearded Lady Project documentary.

We know things must change, and change comes from education and opportunities. STEM for girls programs like National Girls Collaborative Project and Girls Who Code help by exposing and encouraging girls to science and technology from a young age. And yes, this is why we need STEM books highlighting women in different fields. Professional organizations like the American Association of University Women pick up the ball once it reaches higher education.

We need technology and science organizations to step up and demand diversity in their fields. And more female mentors makes a world of difference for young girls wrestling with that age-old childhood dilemma–What do I want to be when I grow up?

The National Women’s History Alliance motto for this year is: Nevertheless, she persisted.

Books like Gutsy Girls Go for Science show us women who persisted. Let’s cheer on all females who demonstrate what’s possible.

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