Indian Country Today Media Network caught up with Sequoyah Guess, one of the storytellers who contributed to Cherokee Stories of the Turtle Island Liars’ Club. Read ICTMN’s review, and a chat with author Christopher Teuton.
How did the group start calling itself the Turtle Island Liars’ Club? How is the term lying in Cherokee related to storytelling?
Hastings Shade ??? [tsigesv—denoting he has passed] is the one who originally came up with the name. He always liked the term Turtle Island ’cause he used to say if you put the land masses around the world back together it looks like a turtle’s back. And, of course, liar came from what folks call storytellers. He’s the one who brought us together. He noticed how [Hastings, Sammy Still, Woody Hansen and myself] all seemed to be at the same place at the same time, and he thought we might as well get together and form this group.
Lying, in Cherokee, is not necessarily a negative term. We don’t have a word for storyteller in our language, so lying is the closest thing. The stories we tell are totally up to the listener to decide if they are actual events or things that are made up. Stories are living entities that touch each listener in their own personal way.
How long have you been a storyteller?
I started in the month of August after my gramma Maggie Turtle died in February 1981. My mother, Lylie Guess, had a group of ladies from church visiting, and she asked if I would share some of the stories that Gramma had left with me. I’ve been doing it, to some greater or lesser extent, ever since.
How important is storytelling?
It’s one of the most neglected media among our people. A lot of our oral history is passed down through storytelling. Our book contains some history that most Cherokee people never knew existed. Our migration from the south is something that the majority of our people don’t know about. Teachings are passed down through storytelling. Each story has a purpose even if we don’t see or hear it at first.
Do you see storytelling continuing as tradition?
It may not seem like it right now, but I believe it’ll continue, though its presentation might change. Right now we mostly tell stories around a campfire with a small group. The Liars’ Club has had the chance to tell stories in front of thousands of people, which is something that I know Gramma never even dreamed about. I myself have told stories on stages around the country, on the radio and on television. Some of my friends and I have taken a few of the stories and made short films. I’ve even incorporated some stories into my novels. The stories will continue, but their mode will evolve.
What impact do you think modern society has had on the art of storytelling?
In my case, as was in the case of my gramma, the art of telling a story and keeping the attention of the audience had to change. My gramma would update the stories she told me so I could relate to them better. I do the same thing. In one story, the way I tell it, Rabbit and Possum are walking down a highway and dodging cars. When Gramma told me the story, they were walking down a dirt road dodging wagons and horses. Things are added so the people will remember and relate to them, but the kernel of the story remains the same. One of these days, they might be dodging robots.
What was it like working with Christopher Teuton on the book?
It wasn’t really like working on anything. We did what we always do and that was to share what knowledge we had. Chris, whom we kinda took into the group as a sort of “at large” member, was on a journey to find his own heritage. All we did was help him along. His recording or writing down our words wasn’t that dissimilar than what we were used to already. When he came up with the idea of doing the book, it was Hastings who agreed to it and we just went along with it. He, after all, was the Elder of the group. It’s sad that Hastings never got to see the end results of all that work. When Chris started working with the publishers, we asked if the book could be more about Hastings than the rest of us. He was a wonderful man who had a lot of knowledge and wisdom to share. We’re glad that Chris dedicated the book to Hastings Shade.