A few nights ago I took my kids to a local storytelling festival. The storytellers were all Native Americans or had Native American heritage and the stories they told were trickster stories — Coyote stories, etc. — that traditionally may be told only during the winter months. I enjoyed the stories (as my husband did when I retold them later), but what I liked more was the reasoning behind why these stories were told to this audience. Rebecca Stoneman, one of the storytellers, said, “The stories are alive, but they need our breath to keep going.”
These stories don’t exist as expressions of individuality or as showcases of the storyteller’s special talent. They exist as a common resource. They are taken in as breath, a privilege to all, and then exhaled into the general atmosphere. The Navajo attitude toward knowledge is that everything we need to know surrounds us and, if we look for it, the world offers its wisdom willingly. So when someone gleans a good insight, it is propagated in language and other art forms for the benefit of all.
In his book The Anguish of Snails, Barre Toelken compares the attitudes Native Americans and Euro-Americans harbor toward discovery. “We [Euro-Americans] seem to feel that discoveries have to be ferreted out of an unfriendly — or at least reticent and inarticulate — environment, and then — to become acceptable — they must be weighed, measured, and analyzed in distant, objective laboratories where professional scientists guard against wishful thinking and coincidence (Toelken: 168).” Then, of course, there is the problem that when possible, Euro-Americans rush any insights they prize from experience and the natural world to copyright or patent offices, thereby controlling community access and preventing unauthorized reproduction.
But for Native Americans, “Knowledge about this integrated process [experience in the world] is archived and continually dramatized in story, sacred customs, religious rituals, art forms, and dance, not simply recorded in objective, explanatory, data-centered commentary (Toelken: 169).”
In other words, Native American rituals, customs, and art forms exist to weave old and new insights directly into the fabric of the community. Knowledge doesn’t exist in a vacuum but thrives in relation. Any attempt to appropriate or restrict it for personal gain attracts suspicion and might well provoke accusations of witchcraft.
At the end of the storytelling festival, one participant asked the (small) audience how would it be if next year everyone there came back with their own stories to tell. Maybe, he said excitedly, the festival would last two days instead of just a few hours. My own inner storyteller sparked at the idea. I wondered what stories I had that might be appropriate. “Maybe ‘The Rampaging Shoe,'” I thought. “That story might work for all the cultures present here.” But the thought of sharing it provoked a spasm of reluctance. I knew that if I told that story to this audience and they happened to like it, it would immediately enter that out-of-control and downright viral environment tagged “the public domain.” Storytellers could take up the tale and pass it along, perhaps even adapting it to fit their own cultural contexts. Who knew what might happen to my precious story!
But then I wondered if throwing “The Rampaging Shoe” into the public arena might be the ultimate test of whether or not the story is alive. Hm, I might just do it.
There’s another reason I might put the story out there. If I succeeded in introducing it into the communal domain, I might take a few first steps into genuine reciprocity — into a deeper and perhaps different relationship with the godly. Reciprocity, as Toelken explains, is part of the natural balance of the process of discovery of vital knowledge and its propagation. He gives an example of reciprocity in the relationship between people and corn (maize).
Recognizing this strong relationship, humans seem to have made their own gods by investing this botanical creation with sacred power. Yet godliness here, as with the Sioux and other tribes, is expressed fully only through a reciprocal process — not the one-way power of a superior being. Not only were there maize gods and goddesses but there was a delicate concern for the safety and sacredness of the corn itself: said the Zunis, “love and cherish your corn as you love and cherish your women.” Knowing how central the creative power of women is in Pueblo society, one can glimpse the significance of this sacred equation (Toelken: 172-173).
Like corn and its sustaining properties, true insight carried in kernals of the best stories helps bring prosperity and progress to the communities that cultivate it. If my being in the world has provided me insight that has helped me maintain balance and overall well-being, then I should, by the principle of reciprocity, cherish that insight. I should propagate it intelligently through the stories I choose to tell and, in communal acts of cooperation, I should trust the stories’ care and further propagation to other human beings.
So far I’ve talked only about myself, about how I’m considering engaging in an experiment to see what I might learn, but of course I wondered how the Mormon way of storytelling compares generally. How do Mormons participate in reciprocity, if they do? I’ll say up front that it seems to me that many Mormons, especially those of us of Euro-American extraction, are likely to share the Euro-American view of the world and behave jealously where our treasures are concerned.
On the other hand, our Christian belief in charity (caritas), combined with our perhaps unique belief in mankind’s prospects for progression, ought to offset the Euro-American reflex to exploit, horde, and control vital or even sacred insight or other important natural resources. Such beliefs might even provide the very vehicles we need to discover other delicacies contained in the truths we hold sacred. Also, do we recognize and allow for the intelligent propagation of insight outside our cultural expectations and seek it in places other than the usual Mormon corridors (or foyers) of expression? Perhaps a little more of the spirit of generosity, a little more willingness to breathe the common air, would hasten on and strengthen the voice of a real (read: vital to all) Mormon literature. Perhaps we would all breathe more deeply.