Preserving Knowledge One Story at a Time
The best gatherings are filled with stories. Since we began reviving traditional Menominee theater pageants in 2016, our rehearsal room has been a space to share ideas, perspectives, and laughter. Our crew is a mixture of seasoned and emerging actors and technicians, we’re quick to encourage and tease one another about our modern interpretations of the half-century old blocking and set choices. Yet when it came to accuracy about cultural or historical matters, including translating lines written in English to be spoken in Menominee, it was Mike Hoffman who helped set the record straight. Mike’s expertise was not only sought and revered, but his animated gestures and perfectly timed pauses built our anticipation for his impromptu lessons.
We lost Mike this past April, and our stage is noticeably emptier without him. Still, some of Mike’s work lives on through his interactive web project, Kae:yas-Mama:ceqtawak Kaehke:wae:hcekan (Ancient-Movers, Full of Life, Marked Thing so that You Will Know It), or the Menominee Place Names Map. In visiting that site, we can take solace in knowing some of Mike’s insights remain accessible, but when we think about him we picture the richness of the wry smile he wore while teaching. Those memories lift both our spirits and the quality of our production. Listening to Mike’s stories paid dividends.
One would be wise to recognize that the adage “listen to your elders” is sage advice, because there’s a narrative behind each of the positive changes won by Indian people over the past 50 years. In a single generation, Native people launched the tribal college movement and ended the federal termination policy. They’ve helped make the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act the law of the land, thereby giving Indigenous people a voice in policies that affect them. The same goes for the Indian Child Welfare Act that thwarted efforts to separate Native children from their tribal heritage. Indian gaming became widespread and added revenue to tribal coffers, and countless Native people became decorated trailblazers in the disciplines of art and STEM. Every Native Nation has citizens living on their reservation who made the path easier for their descendants to travel, and their stories need to be preserved.
My work researching the Menominee pageants has led to countless elder interviews filled with enlightening revelations. I now know the reason the late Menominee playwright Joe Keshena staged “The Legend Hiawatha,” a theater pageant adapted from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s 1855 poem. Some have purported that the 1940s show was an attempt to reclaim the narrative for Native people. Yet in 2016, Joe’s sister-in-law, Jeannine, told me that he adapted it at the request of his mother. Sitting next to a picture window in her apartment, Jeannine swiped her hand to dismiss misconceptions about Joe’s motives. Pointing at my notebook as if to say write this down, she conveyed the fact that Nell Keshena liked the poem, and Joe was a dutiful son.
I’ve also learned that those fighting for Menominee restoration nearly five decades ago were able to share a few laughs despite their dire situation. When the leaders of the newly established Menominee County began selling land to raise revenue, non-Natives flocked to “The Lakes of the Menominee” and imposed their own values upon anyone they came in contact with. This influx of non-Menominees exasperated many, but land-protector Lloyd Powless sought to do something about it. He approached a group of encroachers waving a weasel skin and shouting gibberish. Years later, his allies laughed aloud as they remembered how they followed him around as the assembled pack scattered, trying not to look stoic and proclaiming, “He’s cursing us! He’s cursing us!”
Perhaps the best text on the rewards of conducting interviews is two-time Pulitzer Prize winner Robert A. Caro’s memoir Working. Caro’s work documenting the lives and power of New York City developer Robert Moses and U.S. President Lyndon Johnson resonates because he asks questions of anyone who can add to the understanding of his subjects’ lives. Caro implores people to describe a moment again and again, each time hoping to picture what these experiences felt like. In the audiobook version, Caro’s narration ebbs and flows to the pace of his research, providing a blueprint for aspiring nonfiction chroniclers.
Caro’s methods resonate because it’s in hearing stories multiple times that one can fully grasp their details. While trying to revive the pageants, I was always honored to hear interviewees speak about the staging, blocking, and costumes of pageant productions from yesteryear. I conducted follow-up interviews to add richness to the established facts. In doing so, I learned what it felt like to be present at those original shows. I now know that the only sound between acts was the music of the spinning carousel on the adjoining fair grounds, and that the pre-show entertainment was the airing of Milwaukee Braves games over the public address system. I can tell you that a child, who is now a faculty member at College of Menominee Nation where I teach, interrupted one show to castigate her thespian aunt’s vile actions towards her mother. All of these memories help myself and others to picture what it was like to be present during an important time in the tribe’s history. Writing about my findings adds to the indelible record.
The knowledge of elders is an invaluable, finite resource we must strive to preserve. Invest your time in hearing their stories. Ask questions, appreciate that tangential asides are gifts in their own right, and share what you glean with others. While we can no longer ask my friend Mike questions, the stories he shared live on. Telling them when we’re gathered together, often replete with hand gestures and pregnant pauses, has become a balm for our wounds. Preserving stories is good medicine for us all.
Ryan Winn teaches English, theater, and communication at College of Menominee Nation.
Caro, R. A. (2019). Working: Researching, Interviewing, Writing [digital audiobook]. New York: Random House Audio.
Hoffman, M. (2013). “Menominee Place Names in Wisconsin.” The Menominee Clan Story. Retrieved from: https://www4.uwsp.edu/museum/menomineeClans/places/
Editor’s note: The opinions expressed in the Writer’s Corner or any other opinion columns published by the Tribal College Journal (TCJ) do not necessarily reflect the opinions of TCJ or the American Indian Higher Education Consortium.