A Tradition of Storytelling

By Dickel, Gail M. | School Arts, April 1996 | Go to article overview

A Tradition of Storytelling


Dickel, Gail M., School Arts


A trip to New Mexico--the Land of Enchantment"--opened my eyes to the rich culture that exists in many Native American pueblos. It sparked all kinds of ideas for art lessons,for my kindergarten through grade eight students. Of all the possibilities, the one image that kept coming back to me was the storyteller figurine.

These sculptures show a seated, open-mouthed adult figure covered with listening children. Becoming familiar with these sculptures seemed to be a way into understanding the rich oral tradition and culture of the Pueblo people.

Learning through the Storytelling Tradition

The students were drawn to the sculptures. Their curiosity opened the door for me to teach about the storytelling tradition and how the Pueblo use storytelling as a means of teaching about their history, the Earth, nature and their values.

I showed the students a slide of the Taos Pueblo, and we talked about its history and the way of life of the people who live there. Then, I asked the following questions: Do you think their life is like ours? What would be different? What would be the same? Would you like to live at Taos? We talked about life at the Pueblo--How the people make a living and why they might choose to live there.

Honoring the Storytellers

As a way of honoring their storytellers, the Pueblo began a new tradition in 1964, when Helen Cordero made the first storyteller out of clay. Cordero was a member of the Cochiti Pueblo; the figure she made was of her grandfather, Santiago Quintana. Since that time, many Pueblo potters have begun making storytellers.

As we discussed the history of storytellers, we looked at slides of them. We talked about the similarities and differences between them--facial expressions, costumes, colors, and the compactness of the figures.

After exploring the Pueblo culture and storyteller tradition, I helped the students focus on their own lives with the following questions: Do you know anyone who likes to tell stories to you? Who is this storyteller? Do you enjoy listening to these stories? What are these stories about? We talked about making our own storytellers. I asked the students to focus on an important person who had told them stories.

Beginning the Main Figure

I distributed to each student a 2" (5 cm) cube of clay. For inspiration, I played the cassette Songs of the Indian Flute, by John Rainer Jr., a member of the Taos Pueblo. I told the students we were only going to begin our adult figure, and that at the end of the class, we were going to put the clay pieces into plastic bags, so they would remain moist and workable.

The next week, nearly all of the students finished their storytellers. The figures were beautiful, and each student was eager to tell about her or his storyteller.

Who is Your Storyteller?

During the third session, we talked about why people tell stories. I asked the students to write about the following things: Who is your storyteller, and what is her or his relationship to you? What kind of stories does your storyteller tell? Who are the children who are listening to the storyteller? …

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