Storytellers exhibit their craft
What should have been a walk in the park Thursday, Diamond Point Park to be precise, turned into a walk to the Headwaters School for Music and the Arts.
Some 20-plus children from Bemidji Public School's Summer Kids Program joined the program already in progress. After initial bewilderment, and much to their surprise and delight, there in front of them was the author of some of their favorite books. Alison McGhee was within touching distance, and they chattered to each other in the innocent abandon of 7-10-year-olds. Arranging themselves on chairs and on the floor in front of McGhee, they settled down to listen to a story about a little girl who was afraid to go to kindergarten because she couldn't tie her shoes.
The children, and some other children with their parents, agreed that there is nothing better than being read to by the author of one of your favorite books. McGhee arrived in Bemidji after a long drive up from Minneapolis to be one of Thursday's authors for the Bemidji Book Fair. When asked what she wanted to speak about today, she thought for a moment and offered that perhaps it would be good to learn how to begin writing, or how to publish a book but she never mentioned - or thought about - how much fun it would be to read to a group of lively youngsters who just happened to bring their parents along for the trip.
McGhee first started writing novels and enjoyed some awards and a nomination for a Pulitzer Prize for her second novel, "Shadow Baby." But her sister, who was then a children's book editor, kept at her to think about writing for a larger audience. McGhee's sister was supportive, all the while prompting that she start a picture book and her first publication took three years to write, "Countdown to Kindergarten." McGhee said writing a picture book is not an easy thing to do because you have to tell a story in only 27 pages as the entire book is always 32 pages in length, owing to printing parameters and legal requirements. She said it sometimes takes an artist up to a year to complete the drawings for a book, all during which time the manuscript is passed around from author to editor to illustrator and back again.
"What shall I do next?" she asked, and the resounding answer was "Read another book." So she read "Mrs. Watson Wants Your Teeth," the story of a young girl who was afraid that her first grade teacher, Mrs. Watson used baby teeth in her necklace or her earrings for some outer space, alien reason. A fable told to the first grader by a second grader on the bus, and which the younger girl believed. McGhee not only read her stories, she performed them.
In the afternoon, at the Cabin Coffee House and Café, a different audience eagerly waited for another story teller to begin her journey. Elaine Fleming, known as One Thunderbird Woman in her Loon Clan of the Cass Lake Band of Ojibwa, spoke dramatically of how one "name giver," Cedar got his power.
Fleming spoke of her growing-up years in Cass Lake, and how it did not relate in any way to the families she saw on television. She and her family were day laborers. They worked in the fields - sugar beets in North Dakota - or on the waters -harvesting wild rice - and her father did not put on a suit to go to work, nor did her mother put on an apron. Her people lived in clapboard or tar paper shack homes. She talked about doing all this work with rollers in her hair in preparation for the evening's social activities. She spoke about the years she spent away from her home and her return to her people and the realization that she did not really understand her background, those who came before her; their struggle with "foreign" invaders and the secret "keeping of the flame." It was then, as an adult and professor at the Leech Lake Tribal College that she learned the old ways - the traditions, the spiritual ceremonies and the love for her culture.
She was asked if she is going to bring back some of the plays she wrote and produced at the Chief Theatre in downtown Bemidji, such as a woman's version of Neil Simon's "The Odd Couple," which takes place in Cass Lake, "Don't Dust My Woodpile." A shadow crossed the elder's face, and she explained that writing helps her to grieve, but she is not yet ready to re-start telling her own story. But that will come. She said her grandson is 10 days old, and very soon she will again takes up the pen and record the stories and legends of her people.
Another story teller finished the day at the Indian Resource Center, Jim Northrup who speaks from a male perspective in his aptly named, "Fond du Lac Follies," as endearing letter from home. Northrup's observations and re-telling of family and clan events are personal and simply told. In one of his latest epics, he tells of having stints implanted in his leg and the worst thing about the procedure was having the catheter removed--rather personal information one would suggest. The columns are printed in "The Circle," "The Native American Press" and "News from Indian Country."
He and his family live in a teepee in a traditional Anishinaabe lifestyle in northern Minnesota where he held a summer total immersion camp to teach youngsters the way: build hand drums, make flutes, pottery, birch bark boxes--all the things he lost in the process of assimilation at the tender age of 6.
"I feel a great sense of loss," Jim admits, "and everyday I learn a new word, a new phase in Ojibwa language. As soon as he and his sister, Judy, stepped off the bus at the Indian boarding school, he was reprimanded for speaking the only language he ever knew." Northrup is proud to announce that plans are in the works for next year and the years after. He wants his camp to be a part of the Language Camp Circuit along with the Pow Wow Circuit and the Convention Circuit.
Perhaps it was his hardscrabble background of being born in a government hospital on a reservation and attending Indian board school and serving in Vietnam that gives him the right to say it aloud. The right to talk about the dark side of living on reservations and the abuse he suffered at the hand of the white man. But then again, we hear the inner person speak with the clarity and humor that one can only accomplish by coming through the "dark," embracing it, tasting it and digesting it." It stands to reason that he also eliminates it!
Northrup's two books, "Walking the Rez Road" and "Rez Road Follies" are funny and irreverent peeks at "Rez" life and pokes at white men and their quest for more and more. He talks about his grandfather, Joe Northrup, who, in the 1920s, wrote about the coming of the blackcoasts in the 1680s.
The greeting to the audience, "Hello my fellow human beings." He is telling us that we are alike and that we all have dreams, desires, and yearning that are called different things in different languages. He wants us to know "what we think is funny. Reading from a list of comments by youngsters of what they think about Indians, he quoted, "They are the first people here that did not discover America."
Northrup spoke of the skill of learning how to get off a floor diplomatically. First you make believe you are looking at a crack, then you follow that crack and slowly start to get up and keep going until you're off the floor and no longer crawling.