Monday, September 8, 2014

The Importance of Storytelling

Storyteller is a book of short stories recounting author Silko’s personal experiences intertwined with Native American legends. Accompanying these short stories are photographs that serve to enrich their meaning. A number of portraits of elderly Native Americans in traditional clothing resonate with viewers as they hint at a vast cultural tradition. Distinguished among these photographs are two simple pictures, photographs 2 and 3, which feature Silko with older relatives. These two photos appear to be innocent personal reflections rather than expansions of the story they bookend. However, it is these two photographs that clarify the purpose behind Silko’s retelling of a woman’s vengeance and the Native American legend that foreshadowed it. Silko surrounds “Storyteller” with two portraits of herself and older relatives in order to emphasize the value of oral storytelling as insight into human nature and its relevance to present day.

The story these pictures expand upon is the account of an Inuit woman.  Determined to get revenge on the man who killed her parents, the woman lures her target out onto unstable ice. She takes advantage of his emotions to push him into a state of unpreparedness. The storeman is overcome with lust, frustration, and a sense of entitlement to her body and fails to realize that he is without the necessary protection to be out in the cold. He allows his feelings to win over common sense. This narrative is interspersed with an older tale of a man’s attempt to hunt a polar bear. The fluid intertwining of these two plots reveals how much they parallel each other.

The hunter, nervous and intent on not being found by the bear, forgets that his foremost enemy is the bitter cold. In surrendering his warm hat in an attempt to confuse the animal, he also surrenders his buffer to the weather. Sitting still in the freezing temperatures further establishes his fate, and he falls victim to the cold. He and the storeman share the same fate, as their emotions solidify the victories of the bear and vengeful woman.

These parallel accounts reveal the accuracy with which legends can predict human behavior. The woman in the story even acknowledges that the polar bear tale she had heard so often mirrors her revenge plan. The ability of these stories to shed light on human nature is what makes them most valuable. Much like the woman from the story, Silko understands that these legends are relevant to present day. Her inclusion of the two tales in the book shows that she finds Native American legends to be applicable to all people at any point in history. This belief in their importance implies that she believes traditional storytelling should continue.

She communicates this belief by placing portrait 2 a few pages before “Storyteller.” This photograph shows an elderly woman smiling down on a small girl. The presence of two different generations in the photo mirrors the method of storytelling in that it is passed down to younger generations. The women’s attention to the little girl also holds a deeper meaning. She is investing time, energy, and knowledge into this child, much in the same way younger generations are infused with the collective memory that their elders bestow in legends.

Immediately following “Storyteller” is Portrait 3, a photograph of two girls and an elderly woman reading together. While similar to the previous picture, this image also shows another aspect of oral culture. All three people in the photo are completely immersed in the pamphlet they are exploring, but cannot possibly be interpreting the material in the exact same way. The same feature exists in storytelling. Not everyone who hears the same story comes away with the same insight. The large variety of perspectives on these stories is what makes up a culture’s collective memory. In Silko’s case, this memory is the result of thousands of years. The traditional storytelling she grew up with was gathered over time to reflect human nature and provides valuable insight into people’s behavior. As reflected in Portrait 3, the beauty of storytelling is that both young and old can, and should, take part in it in order to continue the legacy of a culture.

“Storyteller” and these two portraits are used to communicate the importance of oral storytelling in maintaining an extensive collective memory that provides insight into human nature. By using both photographs and a story to illustrate the value of this tradition, Silko reveals the logic behind her desire to continue her oral tradition. She does not view the legends of her ancestors as simple stories that can be disregarded and forgotten. Instead she sees them as a powerful tool in understanding both herself and the people around her.

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