Storyteller Celebration

Happy New Year to you all…

Storyteller for a story teller

Storyteller for a story teller

Jim’s Christmas gift to me gives me an excuse to tell you about an art form I have admired for many years: the pueblo storyteller figure.  The earliest versions depicted an adult with her (storyteller figures are usually female) lap filled with children to whom she is telling a story.

Interestingly, according to the book Pueblo Stories and Storytellers (which I highly recommend), the first storyteller figure was of a male.  I quote: “The first true storyteller figure did not appear until 1964, when a well-known collector of folk art, Alexander Girard, encouraged potter Helen Cordero (1915-1994) of Cochiti Pueblo to expand on the mother and child concept [of the already extant “Singing Mother” figure].  She eventually made a figure of a pueblo man with five children on his lap and shoulders, inspired by and made in memory of her remarkable grandfather, Santiago Quintana.  Quintana was a Cochiti elder who had followed the ancient tradition of maintaining his village’s culture through storytelling.”

In the years since Helen Cordero honored her grandfather with the first storyteller, the form has spread to most of the other pueblo groups and to the Navajo as well.  Storytellers groups aren’t even always human.  I’ve seen figures featuring cats, dogs, bears, and owls.  Sometimes “koshare” – the trickster figures responsible for keeping ritual order in the pueblo – are depicted.  This seems very appropriate, since stories are the means of passing down traditional values to the next generation.

Sometimes – as in the figure Jim gave me for Christmas – there is a mixture of human and other figures.  To me this reflects the sensibility common among these Indian groups (southwestern indigenous groups usually prefer the term “Indian” to “Native American”) that animals and humans share many characteristics, including telling stories.

If you take a close look at my figure (by Bonnie Fragua of Walatowa aka Jemez Pueblo), you’ll notice that the two cats are not simply there as props.  Like the children, their mouths are open, as if they are responding to the story being told or perhaps telling it along with the storyteller.  (Anyone who has ever told a familiar story to children knows how they love to take part.)  One of the children holds a child in her arms.  To me this seems to symbolize the stories being passed on not just to the next generation but to the one after that.

Storyteller figures vary in size and complexity.  Some are huge set pieces.  One of our favorites was a lovely one that we admired as part of the permanent collection at the Acoma pueblo visitor’s center.  Some are tiny.  Most are of a comfortable size to be kept on a shelf.  Mine is about seven and a half inches tall and four inches wide.

I’ve been admiring storyteller figures for years, but had never found one that seemed just right.   When I opened my package, I was completely delighted.  Much of my own writing is done with a cat or two on hand, so I particularly liked how cats were part of the ensemble.

Jim said, “It seemed about time the story teller had a storyteller.”  I’m very glad he felt that way…  I’m going to find a place for my little group in my office and take pleasure in feeling that when I tell my stories I’m becoming part of this larger New Mexico tradition.

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One Response to “Storyteller Celebration”

  1. paulgenessesse Says:

    Fascinating. I’d never heard of this before. Thanks Jane and Jim.

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