Cherokee storyteller Robert Lewis

Posing with the storyteller

The Mt. Hood Cherokees invited Robert Lewis to Portland to tell us some Cherokee stories. Miss T and I brought some food to add to the potluck, then pulled up chairs and had three hours of fun. (The event was four hours, but T had a commitment so we had to leave early.)

Mr. Lewis explained that he got into professional storytelling by accident, when he found himself in an emergency situation: with a group of children on a school field trip in which 30 third graders needed to be kept still and quiet for about 10 minutes. The only thing he could think of was to tell the kids a story his father had told him, about how Coyote put the stars into the sky as a special job for The Creator of Everything.

He works for the Cherokee Nation, sharing and teaching cultural knowledge in the form of storytelling, and also teaches art at Northeastern State University, where he gained his formal education in literature, music, and humanities. He works a lot with kids, and says it is his greatest joy to watch the look on their faces when they “get it.” He told me it was his very first trip to the Pacific Northwest. I offered to take him on a quick tour of Mt. Hood and the Columbia River Gorge, but his schedule allowed only storytelling and travelling: no exploring. I told him that was positively sinful. Next time, he needs to insist on a couple of hours of free time!

Mr. Lewis told stories for an hour and a half, pulling audience members into the center of his performance space. Each character in his story had to be acted by someone from the audience as Lewis narrated, and told each character what to do and what to say. We took turns playing roles such as Opossum, Rabbit, A Beautiful Woman, The Creator of Everything, Bullfrog, Panther, Alligator, and Bear.

Each story had a lesson, of course. We learned why Rabbit and Opossum aren’t friends anymore, how Rabbit got big ears because he already has knowledge, where the first Cherokee clay pot came from, how Thunder is a Mighty Warrior, how Woodpeckers came to be, how the Stars got into the sky, why Opossum has no hair on his tail, how Rabbit’s song is so powerful he sings it from his heart, and even why you shouldn’t do what everyone else is doing just because they’re doing it!

Then it was time to eat. Mr. Lewis blessed the meal and we invited the guest of honor and elders to take their food first. Then we began to eat from the tables piled with goodies, as always. When we were finished eating, Lewis told stories for another half an hour. Then he had to jump in his rental car and zoom off to Eugene to tell stories to the central Oregon Indians!

I was proud to see my kid eagerly anticipate the event for the last two weeks, and then attend with me, fully committed. Once there, Lewis recognized their willingness right away and pulled them twice onto the floor to participate. I am hoping to continue to gift some of our Indian heritage to my child.

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