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Making ancient stories new again

Storyteller Thomas Doty grew up in a white, middle-class neighborhood in Medford and was terrified of public speaking. But when he was 28, Doty, who is part Takelma-Shasta Indian, realized no one was telling the ancient stories of his ancestors, and he worried that if someone didn’t record them, they might disappear from history.

“I had a speech problem and had to go to a special speech teacher,” says Doty, 63, who lives in Ashland. “I would avoid any college class that had public speaking. But my grandmother started telling me the Native American stories, and I realized no one was going to keep them alive. Amazingly, I decided to spend the rest of my life doing what absolutely terrified me.”

What really helped him turn the corner was a visit to his ancient tribal lands on the Klamath River, called Coyote’s Paw, with Hornbrook resident Carroway George. Descendants had “tribal memories” of his ancestors who left in the 1850s, when Shastas and Takelmas were force-marched to the Siletz reservation on the central Oregon Coast.

With some fellow poets, Doty in 1981 took a big “leap of faith,” reading his Indian tales at the long-gone Vintage Inn on Water Street (now Caldera). He later took speaking-acting lessons with Oregon Shakespeare Festival staff, and he hooked up with Takelma Elder Agnes Baker Pilgrim and Cow Creek chairman Chuck Jackson of the Northern Takelma in Douglas County, speakers of the Takelma tongue.

How do you make a living as a storyteller of Indian tales? It was something that Doty, then one of a half-dozen storytellers in Oregon, had to figure out. He did it by establishing a network of school districts, museums and wineries where he could make regular visits, set a speaking fee and draw new generations into the mythology of the people who lived here for 15,000 years before whites arrived.

“Telling an Indian story in person is a very intimate exercise,” says Doty, who always does appears in his signature vest. “There’s a lot of movement and gesture, based in the Indian sign language. It’s a sharing where you use all the tools at your disposal, including my 15 masks.”

A story is designed so that, no matter what stage you are at in life, it will speak to you at that level, he notes.

“So much is done non-verbally, the silence, the eye-contact, the pause before the first word, to invite them in. It’s one of the most magical experiences I’ve ever had. There are moments when it’s beyond the story and you know absolutely that all 100 kids are breathing in unison. It’s incredible how they’re so tuned in, not just to the story but to themselves, touching deep into their emotion in ways that facts can’t do.”

So immersed is Doty in the original lore and meaning of the landscape of Southern Oregon and Northern California that it’s hard for him to drive over the Rogue River by Table Rocks without recalling what’s really here — the Dragonfly Brothers (the upper and lower Table Rocks), who are the center of the Takelma universe. The Rogue is the blood of the Great Animal, which is all of life, and Crater Lake is the head. Gold Beach is the tail.

“It’s a symbol of all our lives. The gorge is like a wild child. The river smooths out in the middle, and Table Rocks are the ribs … A spot above the river between Gold Hill and Rogue River was for sacred vision quests. … In death the river flows into the ocean, to rise into the clouds and fall as snow in the mountains, starting life again.”

After 35 years of storytelling, Doty has compiled native stories — and his own tales, modeled after them in style and meaning — into a book, “Doty Meets Coyote,” published by Blackstone Publishing, with accompanying audio book. It's part of the Ashland publisher's series "The Legacy of the First Nation, Voices of a Generation."

Doty will read, tell stories and sign books at 7 p.m. Monday, April 18, at Bloomsbury Books, 290 E. Main St.

“There are two things I do as a storyteller,” he says. “I keep the old-time stories alive with integrity for the core of the story. It never changes. Second is the art of creating new Native American stories, as a storyteller, which is what’s been done for thousands of years. I make the ancient tradition a living art form.”

Native tales reveal that all tribes in this region were matriarchal — with women owning all dwellings and running the village, but allowing for a “man cave” for guys to get away. The purpose of storytelling, he adds, is “to entertain all night, sometimes for five nights in a row, to teach us who we are, the myths of how to build houses and where the fish and huckleberries are.”

However, says Doty, “the crux of it is that when you’re doing a magic story, the teaching is so deep that it’s healing. You feel better about a situation.”

Doty points out a tale in the book in which a fourth-grade girl, new at the school, was isolated and in pain, being teased about her skinny legs. Under Doty’s teachings, she insisted on telling a story, her new story, to the entire school.

It was about a crane harried by all the other animals for its thin legs, but soon they needed to cross the wide, swift river. They had no bridge or boat, so they asked crane to carry them. With that, the teasing stopped. They reached a new land where they could thrive.

“Out on the playground, an amazing thing happened,” writes Doty. “Oral tradition happened. The students who heard her story told it to those who hadn’t, and just like stories have been spreading for thousands of years, that story spread all through the school. By the end of the day, nearly all the students had quit teasing her. Within a week, she had some good friends. That’s what I call a healing story, a little something to make the world a better place.”

John Darling is an Ashland freelance writer. Reach him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.

Native American storyteller Thomas Doty will read excerpts from 'Doty Meets Coyote,' a collection of 40 traditional and original stories, Monday, April 18, at Bloomsbury Books in Ashland. Mail Tribune/Denise Baratta
The book 'Doty Meets Coyote' by Thomas Doty of Ashland is a collection of 40 traditional and original Native American stories. Courtesy of Thomas Doty