Cherokee stories and cultural themes come alive in Cherokee Stories of the Turtle Island Liars’ Club (University of North Carolina Press, 2012), the first new collection of traditional and contemporary western Cherokee stories in more than 40 years.
Every culture has origin stories, tales of epic heroes and heroines, and parables of the everyday and the fantastic. The stories of each culture are unique, yet many of them contain universal and valuable lessons. Cherokee Stories reflects on uniquely Cherokee themes and concepts while expressing the commonality we all share. Author Christopher B. Teuton, a Cherokee Nation citizen, collaborated with noted Oklahoma Cherokee storytellers Hastings Shade, Sequoyah Guess, Sammy Still and Woody Hansen on this richly layered book.
The word lying and the art of storytelling intertwine. In Cherokee ??? (gah-goh-gá) translates as “he or she is lying.” Building on this idea, the four Cherokee storytellers have dubbed themselves in good humor “The Turtle Island Liars’ Club.” Rather than being lies, the stories related in the book actually contain profound truths. The book’s unique narrative structure functions more as a conversation between the storytellers and Teuton than a straightforward collection of tales.
Some stories tell of times when all creatures on Earth spoke Cherokee, how the turtle lost its whistle to the quail, when mountains were formed by the flapping wings of the buzzard and even of how one storyteller was hit by a car while trying to rescue a snake. The tales, no matter how small or how grand, contain valuable pieces of Cherokee knowledge that teach and enlighten the reader. Each storyteller has a distinct narrative style, and Teuton keeps each voice intact by letting the storyteller relate events in his own words.
In between the stories are woven short recollections and dialogues between the author and each storyteller about diverse topics. These include growing up Cherokee, the reconciliation of Christianity and traditional Cherokee beliefs, the invasion of television and other technology into Cherokee life, the subtleties of Cherokee humor, and even eating habits.
Some of the stories are written in Cherokee syllabary accompanied by a phonetic transcription, followed by a word-for-word translation into English. These particular passages express the beauty and complexity of the Cherokee language by keeping intact the subtle phrasing and details that can get lost in translation.
The book is skillfully illustrated by award-winning artist America Meredith, also a citizen of the Cherokee Nation. The interweaving of traditional and contemporary stories, wonderful drawings, and the sensitive insight and commentary from Teuton merge to create an intriguing and captivating book. It elegantly captures a Cherokee worldview and system of knowledge that some feared may be lost.
Cherokee Stories is one example of how such ideas still thrive, and it will be an important document for generations to come. It should be an integral part of any Cherokee reader’s collection as well as that of anyone interested in oral traditions and fine storytelling in general.