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  • Writer's pictureBrandon Spars

Perspectives on Cultural Appropriation, Part 3: Joseph Bruchac

This is the third part of the series of blogs I am doing on cultural appropriation and storytelling. As I mentioned in the first two, this is part of the groundwork I am doing for the third book in the Live to Tell series, which focuses on interfacing folktales and personal stories. I tell several legends from Bali, and during the writing of the book I began to question the appropriateness of my doing so. Simon Brooks encouraged me to reach out to tellers of color, and it was Simon who put me in touch with Joseph Bruchac. The interview was by phone on August 5, 2021.

I’ll begin with the very end of the interview when Joseph asked me if I had any other questions. Just prior to the interview I had checked his name on the web, where I learned that he had written over one hundred twenty books, which just astounded me. That was why the first question I had was how he had written that many. He answered by informing me that he had actually written over one hundred seventy books, and then I don’t really remember what he said after that—something about working steadily a little bit every day. Basically, what I took away was that there is no method that leads just anyone to writing one hundred seventy books; Joseph Bruchac is simply an extraordinary person with a lot to teach us.

Joseph began his response to my topic by telling me that a storyteller must first know their own roots. If the stories are like the branches of a tree, the history of the teller and their connection to their stories are equally vast beneath the surface, like the roots of any large tree, which sprawl as far as the branches or further but are unseen beneath the earth. By analogy this is what the teller must know about a different culture if they are to tell stories from that culture.

Stories, Joseph told me, have two purposes: to entertain and to teach. At the time, I was reminded here of a book by Martin Prechtel entitled The Disobedience of the Daughter of the Son, in which a written version of this myth is followed by five chapters that analyze the various layers of the story. There is a surface story about a young woman and her lover, Tall Girl and Short Boy. Their relationship is met with disapproval by the girl’s parents, who happen to be the Sun and the Moon. Therefore on the surface of the story, it appears to be about the difficulties of youth when facing their older generations. Of course, this is the level that young listeners would identify with as they try to navigate their way through their first loves and heartbreaks. The older listeners would understand the perspectives of the parents as well, who want the children to think about more than simply their attraction to their partner. It was the second and third and fourth layers that reminded me of Joseph’s warning that if a teller is not firmly rooted in the culture from which the story is from, they will simply be “skating on the surface with the great risk of falling through the ice.” Not knowing, for example, that the Guatemalan myth Prechtel is retelling is about the different kinds of time—linear, circular, sudden occurrence, gathered time, and ecstatic time—might lead to a teller omitting something crucial about the story. Not knowing that Tall Girl represents the flow of fresh water from the mountains to the sea, and Short Boy represents the Ocean to which she is drawn might diminish their relationship to something whimsical and trite. I also thought of The Calon Arang, which is one of the Balinese legends that I tell. In the story, the witch named Calon Arang, appears to be evil and destructive. One of the key insights I have made over the years to this drama when it is performed in a village is that the witch, while evil in the narrative, is actually a positive, protective presence when she makes her appearance. She is so powerful that she drives other practitioners of black magic and other demonic presences away, not to mention disease and depression. Whereas she is the villain of the story, she is a savior goddess to the people of the village. She is feared and revered simultaneously, and not to know that would be missing the whole point of telling her story.

Joseph didn’t give me specific examples like the two I outlined above, but he referred me to his book Our Stories Remembered, which I immediately purchased. He emphasized that he would never tell a storyteller that they cannot tell a Native American story because they are not Native American. He simply said that unless they do not have an understanding of the respective culture and traditions as deep as their understanding of their own culture, then they probably should not be telling that story. Later I was able to read the book, and delve deeper into what storytelling means to Native American people. A sense of not only how important storytelling is, but also how important the stories themselves can be if they are revered. Joseph writes:

Perhaps then, in the long run, it is only through our own stories that people -- Indian and non-Indian alike—can begin to understand the American Indian heritage. Stories have always been at the heart of all our Native cultures. Although they have been classified as myths and legends, or placed under the rubric of oral traditions, these powerful tales are not just spoken or written words to American Indian people. They are alive. Alive as breath and the wind that touches every corner of the land. Alive as memory, memory that shapes and explains a universe, alive, aware, and filled with power. Our stories open our eyes and hearts to a world of animals and plants, of earth and water and sky. They take us under the skin and into the heartbeat of Creation. They remind us of the true meaning of all that lives. Our stories remember when we forget. (35)

I think a good illustration of how powerful stories can be involves Joseph’s own description of stories with respect to the origins of his people. In a later part of the book, he summarizes different theories for the origins of the Native American people on the North American continent. He quickly mentions the version of history that I teach in my ninth grade classroom: the people known as Clovis Man arrived around ten thousand years ago by crossing the Bering Strait. He discusses how this theory based on carbon dating replaced an earlier one linking Native Americans to the Lost Tribes of Israel, put forward in James Adair’s History of the Native Americans, who had spent many years with the Chickasaws and Cherokees. As Joseph points out, Adair was unaware that the remnants of the Hebrew language and parallels to the Old Testament he had discerned were a direct result of white missionaries who had been there before him. Joseph then goes on to mention that both of these theories have now been eclipsed by the scientific belief that the original people of North America arrived much earlier, perhaps between 25,000 to 50,000 years ago. The shifting stories that science is telling about indigenous North Americans, however, does very little to destabilize what Joseph Bruchac knows to be true:

Uncertain and changeable as European scientists and theories may have been about Native origins, there was no doubt on our parts about who we were or where we came from. Native tradition—a word I prefer to use rather than myth or legend, since both those words imply fanciful untruth—links our origins to the American soil. Here in North America, on Turtle Island, we had our genesis. Story after story tells of our being shaped from this earth. At the very least, unless we are talking about the northernmost peoples of the American continent—the Inuits who have been going back and forth between Asia and North America for centuries—any “migration” to North America happened much longer than 10,000 years ago. Much, much longer. We are not just from this land, our stories tell us, we are this land. And the land continues to make us. As Oren Lyons, an Onondaga Faithkeeper, once said to me, “We see the faces of our children yet to be born, just there beneath the soil.” (51)

When I think about the metaphor that Joseph used at the beginning of my phone conversation with him—the image of a tree with roots extending deep into the ground, as deep as the branches are high—I begin to see how the roots to one’s origins, the threads connecting you to who you are and where you are from, and the necessity to know those roots so that you can tell a story that entertains and teaches, may be the very stories themselves. They are the living connections to the earth and to one’s heritage, to place and time, and because of that a story (with its living tissues) should never be told in a disrespectful way.

To be more precise, Joseph writes about three different classes of stories: stories of creation, stories relating historical events, and narratives of personal experience. Each has its appropriate time and place for telling, especially the creation stories. These, he writes, should be told only in the winter or at night at risk of punishment by the natural world itself:

Among the Iroquois, it is said that snakes will enter the house of a person who tells a restricted story in the summer. The Abenakis say that a bee may sting the offending storyteller on the lips. In the Southeast, among the Natchez, the Creeks, and many other peoples, stories were to be told only at night and after the coming of the first frost. The Pueblo nations, who stress the importance of stories as guides for behavior, typically relate their stories in their homes on winter nights. The Modocs and Wintuns of California stress that myth-telling in the summer attracts the Rattlesnake, while the Yuroks say that storytellers who recount traditional tales during the daylight hours will become hunchbacked. White Mountain Apache tales are also to be told during the night, when Sun cannot see you, during the coldest months—from November through February. That way, such great dangers as lightning, poisonous snakes, and biting insects , all of which sleep during the winter, would not know their names had been spoken and come to take revenge. Stories such as that of the contest between the animals of the day and animals of the night, the Chiricahua Apaches explain, must be told only on winter nights. Otherwise the animals of the losing side—such as Snake and Bear—will take revenge on the teller and his family. (36)

He goes on to write that ordinary stories, such as personal stories did not have restrictions and could be told at any time with much more flexibility. This makes it very crucial for the teller to know this difference between the different classes of story, which range from anecdotes to sacred texts that must be told word for word in recitations that could last for many days.

Therefore deciding to tell a story should not be taken lightly. Even as a member of the Abenaki, Joseph does not feel he has license to tell stories from the more than 500 different Native American traditions. He mentioned in our interview that there is a tradition from another tribe known as “The Grass Dance.” A member of that tribe requested that Joseph tell the story of the Grass Dance, which gave him permission to do so. Joseph’s book gives more detail.

Some stories are deeply personal, sacred, or restricted in some fashion. When Albert White Man, a Cheyenne traditional dancer from the Northern Cheyenne Reservation, taught me how to tell the Cheyenne story of the coming of the Grass Dance, he told me that I could tell that story only before someone was going to do the Grass Dance. That was more than a decade ago. I have told that story only once since then—at a powwow just before a Grass Dancer entered the circle. Rather than feeling limited, I regard myself as having been honored by being trusted in that way. However, there are also stories that I have heard and I will not tell or write down because I have been told to keep them in my heart. (40)

Interestingly, it might seem somewhat counterintuitive at first when we consider that the more one knows about a culture and the deeper the connection one has to that culture, the more cautious and careful one becomes with the stories, some of which are off limits because of the deep reverence that can only be internalized through years of study and devotion. In our phone conversation, he contrasted the Grass Dance example with an anecdote about his wife, Nicola Marae Allain, who is a professor at SUNY Empire State College. She is of Tahitian heritage and had spent her childhood in Tahiti, and was giving a one day workshop in Saratoga. After the workshop a woman approached her. She thanked Nicola and then let her know that she had recorded the dance and would be teaching it to her classes. Of course this was done without Nicola’s permission, and she immediately expressed her disapproval of what this woman was planning on doing. Unfortunately, this, according to Joseph, is the kind of behavior that is quite common among those that are privileged. I might add that this is also the kind of boldness that is possible because of the ignorance of the place that dances and stories have in the cultures that they are from. Ignorance and privilege seem to go hand in hand.

I brought up my own case. I teach a ninth grade humanities class that looks at the transition from nomadic/hunting/gathering societies of the Paleolithic Era to the sedentary villages of the Neolithic Era, beginning, according to Jared Diamond in Guns, Germs, and Steel, around 11.000 BCE. Prior to studying the transition, the class looks at cave art from Lascaux and other sites, from which a rich cosmogony has been theorized. In an attempt to look at the effects that sedentary life and farming had on human consciousness we turn to Joseph Campbell who analyzes the rise of the Sacred Marriage, which involves the sacrifice of a king to The Goddess. Campbell includes a summary of a Native American tale from the Blackfoot tradition, entitled “The Buffalo Dance.” This story was created shortly after the Blackfoot were made to cease their perpetual travels with the buffalo herd and begin an initially miserable existence as farmers on a reservation. While I didn’t get into the specifics of how we analyze the story within this historical framework—the transition from hunting/gathering to sedentary farming/herding—we did discuss the appropriateness of using this story within this context (and my telling it to the class). Joseph focused on my source. Joseph Campbell, he reminded me, had his own agenda (read: purpose) when he summarized the story, and so, if I wanted to be more respectful, I should, right off the bat, look to a better source. He recommended The Sun Came Down by Percy Bullchild rather than Joseph Campbell to be used as a source for Blackfoot stories. Then Joseph critiqued the framework in which I was re-purposing the Blackfoot story. He pointed out, rightly, that people need to see nomadic cultures as fully sustainable rather than simply a preliminary stage on a deterministic path to agriculture and technology. Fortunately, I have been attempting to help my students see this for quite a few years, reading articles that point out the eloquence and sophistication of nomads. In one case, we read an article about the site Gobekli Tepe, which predates the Egyptian pyramids by thousands of years and is believed to have been built by nomads. When we study the Aboriginal societies of Central Australia, we look at the balanced system of custodianship of the land that existed there for tens of thousands of years before the Europeans came and ruined the land in a single century with their cattle. But, of course, this isn’t nearly enough, and I continue to look for more ways to enrich my presentation of nomadic cultures. I ordered Peter Bullchild’s book immediately as well.

I suppose the main reason for my talking to Joseph and the other extraordinary artists that I have interviewed on cultural appropriation for this blog series is to ultimately get advice about my own telling of traditional stories from other cultures in my classroom and occasionally on the stage. Thinking of my own small part in storytelling, after talking to Joseph, suddenly seems petty and selfish against the background of injustices that have been committed against Native peoples. At least I can do my small part to do a better job in my classroom and when telling traditional stories. Again, Joseph referred me to his book, and I will end with the following apt quotation:

There are, I believe, a couple of simple rules that should be followed by non-Native people in their use of our stories.

The first is to accept the fact that Native people do have the right to their own traditions. This means that the first people to turn to about a story are the Native people themselves. It also means that you have a responsibility to obtain permission to use that story if you are a writer or a professional storyteller. (I do not include teachers in this category if they are using material in their classrooms from books written by American Indian writers. I have been told by every American Indian writer I know that they welcome such use of their work in classrooms. That is why they wrote their books—for them to be read and well used.) Connected to the issue of permission is the author’s and storyteller’s responsibility to give something back in return for what they have been given. It may mean sharing royalties or making a commitment to support a Native community in various ways. Let your heart and your honor show you the way.

The second is, once again, to remember always that there is not one overall American Indian culture. There are many. When talking about an American Indian story you need to be specific about what particular Native nation owns that story. Always acknowledge the nation and the individual or individuals who have shared that story. Remember, too, that stories are embedded in a cultural matrix. Every story lives within the larger circle of a nation, and there are aspects of the story that can be understood only by knowing more than the story tells on the surface. (39-40)

Works Cited

Bruchac, Joseph. Our Stories Remember: American Indian History, Culture, and Values

Through Storytelling. Golden, Colorado: Fulcrum Publishing, 2003.

Bullchild, Percy. The Sun Came Down: The History of the World as My Blackfoot Elders Told

It. Lincoln, NE: Bison Books, 2005.


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