September 24, 2010

Audiences don't want dry facts

Conference promotes Native history through narration

By Keith PurtellChoctaw storyteller Tim Tingle remembers the first time he tried to tell an audience about the Trail of Tears.

He used historically accurate facts. The entire front row walked out.

Tingle was one of the organizers and presenters at the 5 Tribes Story Conference at Bacone College. The event started Friday and ends today.

The conference brings together renowned authors, storytellers and professors. Throughout the two days, tribal historians and Native speakers are discussing a wide range of topics, from the Trail of Tears to the boarding school experience.

Tingle, from Canyon Lake, Texas, said he has learned better ways to convey Native American history and culture.

“I tell the story now from the mouth of an 8-year-old boy,” he said. “My first line now is ‘I remember my mother.’ I talk about her long dark hair falling in my face, and how I would pull on it, and we would play a hair-pulling game.”

Tingle said he gets 15 minutes into the story before his audience realizes he is talking about the Trail of Tears.

“No one has ever walked out on that one, because I tell about a little boy,” he said. “As a writer and storyteller, then what happens to the character in the story happens to the audience.”
Comment:  A couple of points here:

1) The audience (or at least the front row) walked out of Tingle's factual presentation on the Trail of Tears. Maybe he was talking too loudly, had bad breath, or was boring. But the article implies that they were put off by the "depressing" subject matter. They didn't want to hear about the bad things their ancestors did to the Indians.

2) When Tingle told the same story as a drama with characters, the audience stayed in their seats. This demonstrates what I often say: that a dry, "textbook" approach to history only turns people off. That a fictional account--in a movie, TV show, novel, or comic book--is the way to engage people. To make them care about the "plight of the Indian" and other uncomfortable subjects.

But this isn't an excuse to falsify history. To turn every Indian into a spearchucking savage. The trick is to make history compelling with clever storytelling techniques. For instance, talk about a boy who remembers his mother, as Tingle did. Then you won't have to use stereotypes to make your characters interesting.

For more on the subject, see:

Valenti:  Movies are merely movies
Visual verisimilitude in movies
Accuracy in Mad Men
Only three "licenses" allowed?
Why people believe movies
Educating Russ about historical accuracy

Below:  "The audience at Bacone College listens to Joan Bear, Linda Hogan and Diane Glancy talk about the Trail of Tears and the preservation of Native American culture through writing and storytelling."

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

As a former student of Bacone College, it is not the same school as it was back in the day. Over the years Bacone has gone from a college with the goals of encouraging native culture to a school today that largely protects private investors and non-native interests.

Trusts me when I say, the only significance Bacone holds today is its history of the past and the filming of the Jim Thorpe Story with Burt Lancaster on that roughly 6 acre campus. I think they do still have a pow-wow there though.