The Practice of Becoming Native

The Practice of Becoming Native

It’s not about having a federal Indian card, and surely not about getting a share of casino profits.

Illustration Credit: Coyote and Butterflies by Alexandra Loesser

To feel a little more native, sometimes I gaze at old photos. I am reminded of faces, stories, and landscapes of my youth. Maybe I visit an ancestor’s grave. Maybe I read an Old Time myth from my southern Oregon homeland. Though these are good, they’re usually not enough. For me, being native is not about how long my family has lived here. It’s not about having a federal Indian card, and surely not about getting a share of casino profits. It’s about celebrating a primal connection to place, people, and stories. And that can happen anywhere, for anyone, at any time.

Today I want to feel as deeply native as I can, so I take a walk, and I listen.

I saunter along the creek, listening to the end-of-summer trickling of water. I listen to the drumbeats of a woodpecker far off in the woods. Squirrels rattle through dry leaves looking for autumn food.

I come to an ancient creek crossing. Fur trappers once crossed here on their way into the mountains, and Native Americans crossed for centuries before that. I pause and try to take it all in. For this to work, I need to get quiet and sit still for quite a while. This challenges my little-boy urge to wiggle, but it’s worth it. I am fully attentive when I am ready to receive, listening to all of the sounds as well as silences between the sounds. Silences and sounds are equally powerful. Eventually, I feel the place vibrate with life, happy to have its story shared and listened to. The more deeply I listen, the better the story is told.

I knew this intuitively as a child. On the playground, I was the kid who stood back from the crowd and took in the sounds: laughter, shouting, crying. I listened to the wind as it streaked clouds across the sky. I listened to Bluejay squawk a tale from the top of the monkey bars. In sixth grade, I wrote a poem about all of the sounds I heard at recess.

Then came the ’60s and ’70s. In the noise and chaos of my life as an environmental and antiwar activist, I forgot how to listen. I was convinced I had all the answers, that everyone should just shut up and listen to what I had to say. Years passed before I learned how to listen again.

In 1981, I decided to become a native storyteller. Back then there were no classes in how to tell stories. So I did what generations of tellers before me have done. I sought out the elders, and I listened. As I learned the stories, I began to visit the wild, sacred places the stories come from. I listened to the language of the landscape, and to the stories of ALL the native people who lived there: Tree People, Salmon People, Bird People, Human People, and the oldest ones around, the Rock People.

At the creek crossing, I get deeply quiet, and diverse sounds of water fill my ears. I wait for the words, and I scribble them into my notebook: “This crossing is a place where stories linger after people have left. Without words, a story survives as a ghostly presence in the place where it lived. Stories find a voice in the crash of a waterfall, a fall breeze that twirls leaves into the creek, the night steps of deer browsing through a meadow. As people cross the creek, they carry their stories with them. Where they settle for a spell, their stories find a home. They mingle with the varied voices of the landscape. They mix with the lingering tales of generations of people who passed through before. They are retold by those who stop by for a visit. After the words are silent, a few of the stories remain.”

I walk back down the creek and into town. A man plays a cello on the corner to a gathering of folks who are smiling. I walk past two old women on a bench sharing stories. In a coffee shop, a romantic-eyed couple lean close and whisper back and forth.

Place, people, and stories share an ancient lineage. To listen to each is my way of being native. As I participate in my world, I feel I have a stake in its well-being. I care. I am a caretaker. After listening to others, when it’s my turn to share, I tell another story from my homeland.

Doty Meets Coyote, an eight-hour audiobook of traditional and original Native American stories, by Thomas Doty, will be released on February 1 by Blackstone Audio.

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