Magazine Feature

Keepers of the Word

Bilingual storytellers blend history, tradition and culture to teach the power of language and story.

It's not your typical day in Southern California, and the 4th- through 6th-grade students huddled in the auditorium at the Dr. Edward Russell Elementary School in Santa Ana know it. It's unseasonably cold -- 50 degrees for a high. The sky, usually vibrant blue, is a somber, leaden gray. Fine droplets of rain lay a cloak of mist on everything in sight, conspicuously clouding the atmosphere both inside the room and out.

It's not going to be a typical day for the 180 hoodie- and sweater-clad Latino and Asian-American students gathered in the auditorium, for although they are accustomed to meeting for 8:30 a.m. assemblies, this time they don't appear to know why they have been brought together. Some students, obviously only half-awake, sit quietly and patiently, glancing drowsily at paintings of snowmen hung on the walls above their heads. Others, trying not to take the form of the icy works of art, blow into their hands and rub their upper arms to keep warm. No matter for what or for whom the children believe they are waiting, they instantly realize something is about to happen when Geri Keams appears.

A short, stocky woman with long, straight, jet-black hair, Keams commands attention. All eyes are on this resplendent figure decked out in black boots, a royal purple velvet blouse, sparkling turquoise and silver jewelry, a floor-length skirt and a flowing black cape that rustles behind her as she strides confidently to the microphone. Just by looking at her, the children sense they are in for a real treat.

As the mystery lady gently removes her handheld cowskin drum from its case, the once silent and melancholy throng begin to giggle and fidget, whispering questions about the stranger to their neighbors seated beside them on the cold concrete floor. But before the curious youngsters can fashion their own responses, Keams steps up to the mike and gives them all the answers they'll need, and much more.

"Hello! Good morning!" says Keams.

"Good morning," the children timidly respond.

"Can you say Yaaht'eh abinii?" she asks.

"Yaaht'eh abinii!" they all repeat after her, this time with a lot more gusto, as they begin to shake the cobwebs and clouds from their heads and lend Keams a careful ear.

"You know what?" asks Keams. "You've just said 'Hello and good morning' to me in the Navajo language. How many of you have heard of the Navajo?" No one responds.

"How many of you have heard of the Indians?" she asks. Hands shoot up in the air like wildfire, while the smiles on the children's faces, coupled with gasps of astonishment say it all -- Wow! She's a real, live Indian!

After the students calm down, Keams introduces herself as a native Navajo storyteller who has come to tell the classes some of the stories her grandmother told her as a little girl growing up on a reservation in the Painted Desert region of Arizona. According to Keams, the stories she will share originate from the days when there was no electricity to run a radio or television, and so the people of her clan, the Streak-of-Black-Forest people, had to entertain themselves with stories. One of those she will tell today is so old, she explains, that it recalls a time way back when the world was very young, way back when buffalo could talk. And so begins her tale.

By the time the hour-and-a-quarter assembly is over, the students who have heard the Navajo storyteller are no longer cold, sleepy or curious. Rapt by the stories until their very end, the children are visibly animated -- laughing as they recount their favorite parts of the tales with their classmates, mimicking the actions Keams used to bring her stories to life, cutting out of their class lines as they exit the hall to run up to the storyteller and tell her just how "cool" they think she is.

The weather outside the Russell Elementary auditorium hasn't changed. But the 4th-, 5th- and 6th-graders filing out of the hall couldn't care less if it were snowing right now. For them, the heat emanating from Keams' cowskin drum easily evaporated the rain as together they sang call-and-response Navajo chants and songs, patting their laps in unison to the beat. The hot rush of pride experienced from learning how to speak another tongue vanquished the cold, invigorating the students with each "hello (Yaaht'eh)," "thank you (Ah'eheh)" and "be well (Hagohneh)" they learned to say in Navajo. The sunshine generated by the heartwarming story of the "quillwork girl" and her seven brothers who created the Big Dipper reached into the students' hearts and minds, enlightening them to the ways of Native American culture, the value of history and the beauty of language, all through the magical power of story.


Painting Words, Coloring Culture

Before the written word, there was the spoken word. As societies developed all over the world, individuals who could best speak the word and convey its meaning earned a revered place in the community. Thus evolved the role of the professional storyteller, the one to whom people turned for news, explanation and entertainment. Whether they go by the name griot as in West Africa, hakawti in the Arab world or shanachie among the Celts, storytellers of every cultural background have been looked upon as the keepers of the word, bearers of knowledge, custom and the truth of the particular group of people they represent and serve.

In recent years, the art of storytelling has seen a resurgence in popularity in the United States, marked by the multitude of storytelling festivals taking place across the country each year. Still, tellers of Geri Keams' ilk are rare. As attested to by Scheherazade, the main character in the age-old tale The Arabian Nights, the ability to tell stories well takes confidence, talent, wisdom and charm. To tell stories well in two different languages, however, takes all four qualities combined with a linguistic flair that only a few tellers on the national storytelling circuit possess.

Fluent in both Navajo and English, Keams never would have realized just how gifted a bilingual storyteller she is had a friend not offered her a gig in a Los Angeles-area school one day. Keams' friend asked her to present the children with a program of Native American stories in English, sprinkling in the Navajo language wherever possible to give them a glimpse of Native American culture. As a result of her first bilingual storytelling performance, Keams saw the need for the inclusion of more "things Native American" in the school curriculum, and, with the backing of several teachers, she began her storytelling career.

Some 12 years later, after traveling throughout the United States, Europe and Australia and adding the titles of actress, author and teacher squarely behind her name, Keams still sees herself as a Navajo storyteller, first and foremost.

"When I get up to tell a story, it is who I am. I was born and raised as a Navajo, I speak the Navajo language, and it's a legacy of my heritage that I want to carry forth and have children understand and value," says Keams, explaining what drives her work.

At Russell Elementary, although all classes are taught in English, 6th grade teacher Jerry McCracken clearly recognizes the close and often sacred connection between language, culture and identity that Keams personifies. For McCracken's students, Keams' skill and artistry convey a lesson that is too often lost in political debates about bilingual education.

"Since our school serves the educational needs of a small barrio of mainly Latino kids, I feel that it's important for them to get to know other cultures and languages in addition to their own," says McCracken a 29-year veteran teacher at the school.

"I go into students' homes a lot for conferences," he says, "and I always tell the parents that we want their students to learn English, because that's what we speak in America, and we want them to be good communicators. But that doesn't mean that we want them to forget their number one language -- Spanish.

"I think Geri Keams showed the students very well how important it is for them to hold onto their traditions, language and culture; otherwise, it'll all be lost."

This message, Keams fears, is one that young members of her own culture may be losing. Though they are born to Navajo parents and raised on the reservation, few Navajo children can speak in or understand their native tongue. According to Keams, the reverence once given to oral tradition and the storyteller within the clan is quickly being usurped by the talking heads of mainstream American television.

"I don't know exactly when traditions and storytelling lost their value for my people," says Keams, "but I think there is a lot of residue left over from messages coming out of the Bureau of Indian Affairs back in the '50s and '60s, messages that said, 'You must learn English and you can't speak your language. Your culture is inferior to the American way.'"

In Keams' recollection of events, the propaganda generated by the infamous federal agency allowed an attitude of inadequacy to permeate the lives of the parents of the children she deals with on the reservation, and that attitude still pervades the lives of Navajo children today.

"When a Navajo child goes into an American school and he can't speak English, that child is looked down upon by either his classmates, the teacher or the system," Keams explains.

"The part of himself that the child feels most comfortable with, that part that he brings into the school with him on the very first day -- his language -- is figuratively put away and locked up as quickly as it can be by the teachers. The child then feels less than everyone else and stops speaking his language. By the time I get to the Navajo kids on the reservation, they don't want to speak to me in Navajo. They would much rather speak their English," Keams says plaintively.

Driven to save the lives of her descendants instead of her own as the heroine Scheherazade does in The Arabian Nights, Keams views her work as a bilingual storyteller on the reservation with an added intensity in light of the realities her people face. Using the same techniques as she does with children of other cultures, Keams tells the same tales to Navajo young ones in the hope that they will learn how to hold onto their culture and language as eagerly as they have assimilated someone else's.

When there is absolute silence in the school auditorium, except for the sound of my voice … and the eyes of 300 kids are all focused on me and if the school bell rings to end the session and no one—no one—moves, then I know my story is working.

"I know I've been successful with my storytelling when the audience can see and respond to the untainted beauty of the words being painted on their minds," says Keams. "When I go out to the reservation, I use my storytelling as a way of talking to the younger Navajo generation about their own culture. It's a way of trying to build a sense of pride, of making them see clearly that when they know their original language, and that language is not under attack by anyone, including themselves, they can go into the White man's world and learn the White man's culture, but always know that they can go back home and embrace their own culture, too."


Strengthening Voices, Creating Vision

It wasn't until bilingual special needs teacher Berta Berriz began "painting with words" in her Boston classroom that her students really began to enjoy school and to relish the strength of character they already carried inside them as a mark of their ethnic heritage. According to the Cuban native, she began to tell stories to the largely immigrant elementary-age students attending the Joseph J. Hurley School out of a sheer sense of obligation to provide the children in her care with the most fulfilling educational experience the Boston Public School System could offer.

"All of the students in my classes came from the Spanish- and English-speaking Caribbean, but the classroom was devoid of materials that reflected their lives. For example, we had traditional fairy tales and folktales from American or European culture in our library but almost nothing from the largely Afrocentric culture native to the students. There were also few selections in Spanish," she says.

"When I would ask the children to create their own stories based on the books we read, they had no examples that they could relate to, no examples that said, 'Oh, my people write, too!'"

In direct response to her students' needs, Berriz began to research stories from the Spanish- and English-speaking Caribbean that not only reflected her students' cultural background but also spoke to the issues in their lives. A grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities supported her research, and in 1991 she was named Teacher/Scholar of the Year for the State of Massachusetts for improving classroom practice in the area of humanities.

With Bahamian storyteller/musician Derek Burrows as a mentor and storytelling companion, Berriz brought the stories she researched into her classes and saw an immediate change in her students' approach to learning.

"One of the first things I noticed was that the students' literacy ability changed. Many of the stories I chose to tell the students had to do with island life, and, since they knew something about that, they could talk about it easily. Being able to express themselves orally had a great impact on their writing, which then had a great impact on their reading, and so their grades and self-perception improved," Berriz explains.

No longer a teacher with the Boston Public Schools, Berriz continues her storytelling on a freelance basis while working toward an advanced degree at Harvard University. But whenever the opportunity arises for her to go back into the classroom, she makes sure to contact her mentor Derek Burrows, as together they found an added purpose for their art. In eight years of working together in storytelling workshops held over several days in Boston-area schools, Berriz and Burrows encountered Haitian, Cape Verdean and Puerto Rican students who somehow felt that their native languages and nationalities held no resonance within the polyphony of Americana.

"As a young child of eight years, one of the most traumatic experiences for me as a Cuban immigrant was the loss of my name," says Berriz, in commiseration with the students' plight. "The teachers at the first school I attended in America encouraged me to change the pronunciation of my name from Berta to Bertha -- a more American name that everyone could pronounce.

"As a speaker of Spanish, I didn't know how to make the 'th' sound and that meant a loss for me. It marked the beginning of a silent repression of my inner voice. It wasn't until the 1960s, with the Civil Rights Movement and the influence of the African American people's struggle, that I decided to regain my birth name and understand what had happened to me during that silencing period from age 8 to 18. As a teacher, I tell stories to the students so they don't have to go through that pain."

The pain of enforced loss is something Derek Burrows also identifies with as a product of colonialism.

"I was born in the Bahamas and grew up in a very colonialist, European society. I remember being told quite often by the British rulers that we, as native Bahamians, had no culture," says Burrows. Like Berriz, he felt silenced by that notion, and it wasn't until he began to explore the folktales and legends of his ancestors that he realized he had something valid to say and share with the world.

A favorite story Berriz and Burrows tell to address the students' lack of a sense of voice is a Cuban story of how the drum got its echo. In tandem -- Berriz speaking Spanish and Burrows translating in English -- the two tell the tale of a little boy who disobeys his parents, gets into trouble and gets trapped inside a drum by Ayapa, the turtle and Cuban trickster. It is only by using his beautiful singing voice to simulate the sound of the drum that the boy is recognized by his parents and rescued from his trap.

"Here's a story that deals with a child's predicament of being trapped in a drum, which for many of the students correlates to being trapped in a country that is different from their own, being trapped in an educational system that oppresses them," says Berriz. "I use this story to show immigrant children that the strength of their voices -- Spanish, French, whatever -- comes from the unique culture and language they express by just being themselves. I tell them that they shouldn't be ashamed to use their voices to free themselves from oppression. Everybody's voice, no matter how heavily accented, needs the freedom to be heard."


Spinning Tales, Learning Language

Perhaps no one better understands the need for non-English speaking students to be heard in American classrooms than Chicago-based storyteller Antonio Sacre, but he also knows that one's message is only as effective as the listener's ability to comprehend its meaning. In his work as a bilingual storyteller, he tries to communicate the importance of being able not only to speak but, equally, to understand different languages.

Though born to an English-speaking Irish American mother and a Spanish-speaking Cuban father, Sacre grew up monolingual -- Spanish being his primary language. On his first day in kindergarten, however, he says he was made fun of so badly for speaking Spanish that he "quit the language" altogether and took up English as his only mode of speech so that he wouldn't stand out and be thought of as un-American. It wasn't until he became a teenager that he realized just how much of life he was missing by being monolingual.

"The turning for me," recalls Sacre, "came about when I realized that my Cuban grandmother was getting older, and I wanted to hear her memories of Cuban life before she passed on. She told me she would never learn English because she was too old, so if I wanted to speak with her, I needed to be able to speak Spanish again."

Sacre isn't sure when the ability to speak English and no other language became the litmus test of a person's "American-ness," but, through the messages he conveys in his stories, he strives to diffuse the antipathy some Americans feel toward the acquisition of foreign languages and bolster the relevance of being bilingual.

"For instance, there's a funny story I tell about a cat threatening a mouse's family," Sacre says. "To stop the cat's threats, the mother mouse stands up and barks at the cat. The cat, surprised, thinks that all the dogs will hear and come and chase her, and so the cat runs away. The mother mouse then turns to her children and says, 'You see, it pays to speak another language.'"

For Sacre, being able to communicate in two languages is fundamentally fun, and he tries to bring the same approach to his storytelling technique so that his listeners -- monolingual or bilingual -- will get the true meaning of what he is trying to express and pick up some words of a language they are perhaps hearing for the first time.

"When telling bilingual stories to multilingual audiences," explains Sacre, "it's important to employ a lot of repetition, refrains and gestures so that I can reach everybody.

"If I know that the majority of my audience is made up of Spanish-speaking kids, with a few English kids, what I'll do is set up the story in Spanish first, all along emphasizing the physical gestures that give the story meaning. For example, if a part of the story goes, 'She gives me a kiss, I wipe it away and she walks toward the door,' I'll enact all of that, so that when I start speaking in English for the English-speaking kids, I'm doing the same gestures, and the Spanish-speaking kids can still follow along."

According to Dr. Helen Jorstad, professor of second-language acquisition and cultures education at the University of Minnesota, Sacre's storytelling technique is one of the best ways to introduce unfamiliar languages to children.

"The introduction of a second language through storytelling permits students to actually learn through osmosis," says Jorstad. "Children get so absorbed in the action of the story they are listening to that the language sort of seeps into their brains around the edges. The story gives the new language the children are learning such a rich context and foundation that it doesn't come across as 'different' or as 'foreign' as they had thought."

Jorstad and other experts who have studied exactly how human beings acquire language also say that the best stories to tell to enhance language acquisition are what they call cumulative and generative tales.

"'The House That Jack Built' is a great example of a cumulative story," says Jorstad. "Each new sentence told in the story builds upon the previous one, and this repetition, within the context of its meaning, is the most effective way for students to see a new language at work. After the story has been told, the children have the opportunity to either tell it back orally, draw artwork based on the story or rewrite the story in their own language, so, in this manner, the story becomes generative of other learning activities."

Regardless of how much experts and teachers praise the techniques of storytelling as an excellent means of teaching language, culture and history, it all boils down to one thing for bilingual teller Antonio Sacre: "When there is absolute silence in the school auditorium, except for the sound of my voice … and the eyes of 300 kids are all focused on me and if the school bell rings to end the session and no one—no one—moves, then I know my story is working. Then I know the magic is still there."

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