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Storytelling helps preserve Navajo culture

December 28, 2006

Laura ToheLaura Tohe, an associate professor of English at ASU, grew up listening to stories, so it's no wonder that she enjoys traveling the state telling tales as a speaker for the Arizona Humanities Council (AHC).

For her years of work with the AHC, “telling the stories that help us to understand and relate to each other,” Tohe has received the AHC's Dan Shilling Public Scholar Award for 2006.

Tohe, a Navajo, or Diné, has been a member of the AHC Speakers Bureau since 1994. She gives four different presentations: “Armed With Our Language, We Went to War: The Diné/Navajo Code Talkers,” “Dick, Jane, Puff, and Spot: The Boarding School Era,” “Storytelling Tradition Among Southwestern American Indian Writers and Storytellers” and “Women in Charge of Themselves: Southwestern Matrilineal Cultures.”

“Storytelling is part of the oral tradition of indigenous peoples,” Tohe says. “Stories impart values, language, memories, ethics and philosophy, passing them to the next generation. A lot of people think of storytelling as just entertainment for kids, but for the Diné it helps maintain tradition and language.”

Tohe, who was born in Fort Defiance on the Navajo Reservation, said she listened to stories that her mother, father, uncle and grandparents told her.

“I grew up surrounded by stories and gossip,” she says. “Some of the storytelling was unintentional. A lot of storytelling would take place in the car, when my mother would tell us stories about people she knew and stories that her grandparents told her about Navajo beliefs and creation.”

Other times, Tohe heard older people telling stories.

“As a child, I was intrigued by their stories,” she says. “That has greatly influenced me as a writer and poet.”

Her current writing project is an hourlong oratorio, which was commissioned by the Phoenix Symphony and will have its debut in 2008.

“The composer and I have developed the story line,” she says. “It's about a veteran who comes back from war. He has to confront the impact of the war on his life. He has to find his way back to making peace with himself.”

Tohe says she never has written an oratorio. In fact, she had to do research to learn more about the musical form.

“It will influence the way I write poetry,” she says. “For an oratorio, you have to write shorter lines and make the language work more efficiently.”

Though she learned in 1982 that her father was a Navajo code talker in World War II, the oratorio will not be his story. Much of Tohe's creative work is underlined by the strife the Diné have endured on their own lands.

“As native peoples, we've had our own wars, and we're still trying to put our lives together,” she says. “There is a lot of reluctance to tell those stories. You have to find someone who's willing to talk about it.”

Her recent book, “Tséyi' Deep in the Rock,” which was chosen as a Southwest Book of the Year for 2005 by the Tucson-Pima Public Library, focuses on one of those wars, fought in an unlikely place: Canyon de Chelly.

Tohe said she never visited the canyon, an ancestral home to the Diné, as a child. She first saw its red-rock vistas as a college student, then later, heard the canyon calling to her to “tell its story.”

In response, she wrote “Tséyi' ” over a period of several years.

“By the 1860s,” Tohe writes, “the Diné had firmly placed their roots in the bottomlands, planted their cornfields and peach orchards, and raised their flocks of sheep. The canyon had accepted The People. In turn, the Diné had found agreement with the canyon, where they could build their homes, raise their families and live a harmonious life based on hózhó.

That life nearly came to an end in the mid-1860s, when the U.S. cavalry arrived to remove the Diné and march them to New Mexico, where they were imprisoned for four years.

Tohe notes that this story had a happy ending, when the Diné signed a treaty with the U.S. government in 1868 that allowed them to return home.

Her poems and prose in “Tséyi'” tell the story of the canyon, its peoples and its tears and joys.

In an essay titled “Returning,” she writes: “I am returning to the red rocks that once cradled us and from whose arms we were torn when death marched in, surrounded us and slaughtered everything that we loved.”

Though Tohe has a full life with her teaching and writing, she enjoys traveling around the state as an AHC speaker.

“I can give something back,” she says. “And I enjoy speaking because many of the writers and storytellers I talk about in my presentations are unfamiliar to most of the people in the audience.”