Acclaimed storyteller Gayle Ross suspected some students at a Hoyt Lecture Tuesday would think she didn’t look like a full-blooded Native American despite her traditional Cherokee attire.
But Ross, whose mother was not a Native American but a “Southern Belle,” is an enrolled member of the Cherokee Nation and a descendent of the legendary John Ross, who served as principal chief of the tribe during the Trail of Tears. She said she has always felt unity with the Native American community.
“I grew up with a very strong personal identity as a citizen of the Cherokee Nation,” she said.
Ross shared her Cherokee legacy and performed oral recitations of traditional stories with over 200 students assembled in the Silliman College dining hall. The event was held in honor of Native American Heritage Month.
Ross said her substantial repertoire of traditional stories is the result of listening to her elders including her grandmother, who was also a storyteller. Ross said she also learned about storytelling from her travels to other tribal nations, where she said she experienced a vast array of languages, cultures and traditions.
“I found that stories are a source of commonality among all the nations,” she said. “Stories are sacred to all people. They are living things that travel with us as friends, trying to remind us of what makes us good people.”
Included among the three stories she told was the Cherokee account of how the world came to be. The story, which began with an inquisitive water beetle’s discovery of land beneath a previously all-encompassing body of water, demonstrated what Ross referred to as nature’s means of uniting mankind.
“Every step you take, you step on land, all of which is sacred to Native America,” she said. “Since that is literally our common ground, it should be sacred to all of us.”
Ross emphasized that Native American stories are easily misinterpreted. She said anthropologists who crowded reservations at the beginning of the 20th century were the primary sources of erroneous conceptions of Native American culture.
“Anthropologists say that the Indians worship the sun,” she said. “But that isn’t true. We have a relationship with the world around us. We call the sun ‘Grandmother Sun’ because that’s her relationship to us.”
Ross said mankind’s inherent ties to nature — including being fed, clothed and sheltered by environmental resources — led to the Cherokee notion of humanity as part of a larger order instead of occupying the center of the universe.
“It’s impossible to say ‘animal’ as opposed to ‘people’ in all [Native American] languages,” she said. “That’s because we’re all interrelated.”
She said it is important to acknowledge the common concerns, practices and attributes of humanity as a means of attaining unity and effecting positive change.
“We are one strand of the web,” she said. “You cannot damage one strand without destroying the integrity of the whole web, so Indian issues don’t just affect Indian people — they affect everyone. Indian history is [all of] our history.”
Juliya Litichevskaya ’07 said that during Ross’ stories she felt more connected to the natural world.
“I was also touched by how the Native Americans interpret the world,” she said. “I thought it made a lot of sense.”
Christopher Ashley ’05 said he was impressed with the literary merit of the stories.
“As a literature major, I get really excited about anything where storytelling is near the heart of a culture,” he said.
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