MaxT asks: Did you pick up any new stories?

How could I possibly go to a place I’ve never been to see people I’ve never met and not come back with stories? **grin**

Max is long-time professional storyteller I met early in my performing career. Max is a generous storyteller who’s infectious humor and dedication to entertaining audiences has inspired me for years. I started performance storytelling in 2006 when I joined the Bellingham Storytellers Guild, a local group of storytellers dedicated to preserving what one member calls “the original social media.” For centuries, people have shared knowledge and culture through oral storytelling.

So, when Max asks about new stories, what he’s really asking is whether I was able to bring back traditional tales from the tribal leaders I met. Asking for stories is tricky business, though, when it comes to primarily oral cultures. Stories hold cultural knowledge, values, and worldview. Indigenous peoples have had their stories taken out of context, watered down, and misinterpreted. Traditional stories can lose much of their relevance and emotional impact when they are translated into other languages – the greater the gap between the languages, the more likely the stories will be distorted in translation. Elder storytellers are often reticent to share stories as a result, especially when stories include spiritual teachings. I hoped to hear good stories on my trip then ask the Tellers for permission to retell them when I returned.

What I discovered, though, is that the stories I’d typically see in performance in the US were deeply embedded in the tribal cultures represented at the gathering. Traditional stories were assumed to be part of every ritual and prayer so the details of the stories were not apparent. Each elder displayed a deep knowledge of the cosmology of their people and their relationship to both the Divine and the environment without ever giving the details of that knowledge overtly. I realized that this was not uncommon – the West tends to separate things into neat packages – science from experience, animals from plants, past from present – whereas indigenous cultures are more integrated because they treat all things as interconnected. The stories are assumed and almost taken for granted; the focus of their work is healing and the smooth relationships between all beings.

Coupled with this view of embedded stories, was the belief many babaylan had that they were not educated. About half of the leaders gathered apologized for only knowing their own language or having only a few years of primary schooling. They saw themselves as flawed for not knowing any of the more wide-spread languages of the Philippines: Tagalog, Ilocano, or English. They perceived their knowledge as backwards and lacking modern sophistication. Their own sense of inexperience with the world outside their tribe coupled with centuries of colonial oppression and deep sense of the importance of humility made them reluctant to offer the knowledge and wisdom they had cultivated over many decades.

Thankfully, storytellers can recognize storytellers, and the impulse to connect other lovers of story can be strong. Just like Max’s curiosity about new stories, I found myself in quiet conversations with others preserving tribal stories once I revealed that I was a storyteller in the US. I was astonished one afternoon when Dr. Alice P. Magos approached and told me of a project she’s working on to publish 10 epics of the Panay people. I had read articles by Dr. Magos on Filipino folktales and never imagined I’d meet her, let alone hear of a new project that might give me new material for performance. Learning one epic can take several months, then years of practice to perfect in performance. I’ve thought of learning an epic to stretch my skills, so the thought of having access to not one but ten epics thrilled me. Later researcher Dr. Erlinda “Arlene” Natocyad found me and told me about her recently published book Rich Cultural Heritage of Kadaclan, Mountain Province: Oral and Material Culture. Suddenly, my research schedule was set for the foreseeable future and I quickly wrote down publication information so I could locate the books when I returned home.

Although I love to research stories, the best ones are those given orally and being approached by Manang Myrna Pula of the TBoli gave me that chance. I could hardly believe my good fortune when she purposefully came up to me and said “I have stories for you. We must talk.” As it turned out she not only gave me the TBoli origin story to share with my audiences, but also the story of Lake Cebu. We sat together in the evenings and I recorded her tellings. Manang Maban, a TBoli babaylan, would usually be nearby to offer details that she felt were important. When we parted, Manang Myrna asked if I’d be willing to help her move tape recordings of stories and chants to CD, and I confirmed, knowing in my heart that my storytelling community would be more than happy to raise funds for such a project.

When I returned to the US, I performed the TBoli origin story to two different audiences. Both were struck by the unique qualities of the story – the emphasis on community and cooperation, the awareness of the environment, and the most of all how dance figured so prominently in the making of the world. All these details showed the values of the TBoli people and brought their culture to people who likely had never heard of Mindanao or the TBoli people.

Stories bring the world together, but even more importantly, stories show how we all have a need to make meaning out of our experiences and to share that meaning with others. I came to performance storytelling to learn my culture on my own terms instead of from the lens of assimilation that degraded traditional knowledge as primitive. I’m grateful I had the opportunity to hear and learn stories embedded with the land and its people while visiting the place where the stories have lived for centuries.

PAMATI: Listen to the Water and Songs of the Ancestors was a gathering I attended July 1-10, 2015 at Balay Agusan, in the Municipality of Bunawan, Northeastern Mindanao, Southern Philippines. My FB friends have been helping me process my experiences by sending their questions about my recent trip.