"A Storyteller's Perspective,"
Langley, Elton, Jefferson Davis Parish, Louisiana
In October of 1997, Bertney Langley
commented on his experiences as a storyteller at the American Folklore
Society annual meeting. His recorded presentation is provided here with
the same transcription rules used throughout the Swapping Stories project.
False starts, uhs and ahs were removed; standard orthography was used;
grammar was not corrected; ". . ." indicates information the editors
considered extraneous; and square brackets [ ] indicate information
supplied by the editors.
As I would go from place to place, . . .
some of these storytelling events . . . didn't work out sometimes. Lots of
people have different ideas of who I am, who the Indian people are. If I
don't put together an atmosphere to tell my stories, it doesn't work. All
they expect to see is me with feathers and a drum and bow-and-arrow. I
can't take the stories anywhere like that. Some of these places that I
went to, the atmosphere wasn't right. Sometimes it was too rushed: 'Put
that Indian on, let him tell a few stories. In fifteen minutes, he's off
the stage.' . . . I saw other storytellers being treated the same way, no
respect for these folks. They pay them $50-75 a day. They sit there all
day [the storytellers are often also craftsmen] and they get rushed
through their presentation. They shouldn't be treating these people this
way. They should be able to listen to their stories in a place or
atmosphere where they feel comfortable.
On stage, you have to watch
what you say. You don't have fun. If you don't have fun, the stories
aren't going to come out right. Especially since I didn't bring my
bow-and-arrow, I was nervous. I didn't know what else they wanted to hear
from me or see. So I started substituting a flute, because I can play the
flute and make people relax. Since you don't know me, you don't know what
to expect of me. And if you don't relax and really relax and listen to
these stories, you are going to miss the meanings of these stories. That's
what I was finding out. . . .
I am getting invited all over. . . .
Most people, when I go out-of-state, are curious about Louisiana. So since
my storytelling takes me all over the state, I get to see and hear from a
lot of these other different storytellers. . . . Going back to the
festivals and storytelling, sometimes it works because people want to
listen, they want to learn.
Sometimes you get in a group, where
you have school kids come through. [One museum sits] you at a table, and
there's a whole bunch of these tables in a long row with storytellers and
crafts people. The school children go from table to table and it's very
rushed. They give you about 10 minutes to entertain and teach these
children. That is not enough time to do that. These little children come
up to me and say, "You are Indian?" I say, "Yes." "Can you speak Indian."
"Yes." Before I get to my story, it's time for the other group. You get
rushed and rushed, like quality by volume. It doesn't work. So sometimes,
I feel like I didn't accomplish anything when I go to these events. And
after a while, you enjoy it less and less. It's got to the point, I . . .
quit doing that for a while. It kind of burns you out. I don't know that
it's helping people. And when the fun goes out, you are going to lose a
lot of these storytellers.
. . . In this book [Swapping Stories],
some of the people in there, I know. But if they don't get anything back
from the book, no monies, no royalties--all you get is a book. That book .
. . may be good for people like y'all [folklorists] who want to teach
courses, but my people aren't going to read that book. When they read that
book, they are not going to understand what I was talking about. Because
that's not the way we hear it. We hear it in my language. What we say is
like backwards to y'all. English is backwards, because we were here first.
So whenever I tell a story [at home], it's . . . in my language and the
people that I tell it to speak Koasati. When Maida [Owens] and Pat [Mire]
were filming Swapping Stories [the companion video], I had my children and
my mother and my sisters listening. And when I started telling, they could
see that story and they started laughing, and laughing because they could
see the little bat falling and skinning his nose. But when I tell it to
English people, they just kind of listen and sit there because they don't
know what the story is about until I get through. There is a lot of
different ways to tell a story, but I would rather tell it in my language
to people who speak Koasati.
I also like the book because it
preserves stories from my tribe. Nobody in my tribe will take the time to
do that. . . . That's why I am glad to have people like y'all in this
room, who can kind of help us maybe one day put our stories on paper--not
from y'all, but from us. Whenever we tell it, we interpret it differently.
. . . It takes somebody like me to explain what it means and what they
were trying to relate. Like my wife [medical anthropologist Linda Parker
Langley], when she first started coming out there, nobody would trust her.
She was a white person. They would be nice to her, but they wouldn't let
her into the inner circles. It took a while. I had to marry her. See what
I do for you folks. . . . [Laughs].
I told her, she was an
anthropologist . . . from Boston. She graduated from Harvard. Got her
Ph.D. from Brown University. People ask how I got hooked with her. I say
that I needed a real good secretary to take down notes, to put my peoples'
stories on paper. [Laughs]. I told her that you need to learn from an
Indian what we are talking about. So she kind of knows the language now.
She can hear, but not speak it too well. So now the people in my tribe
accept her. They go to her without coming to me now. . . . Now my mother
tells her stories that she doesn't tell me--about me.
I do see a
lot of good coming from this storytelling. It is an enjoyable thing to do.
It helps the people. It helps my people. Lately my daughter has been
getting into it. She's about 23 years old. I used to take her to
festivals. . . . I thought she was hearing my stories, but she would go
and buy a Coke or go play. I used to get frustrated with her because she
wouldn't listen to the stories. But finally now, she is at a point where
she wants to do that. So now she comes back to me and I say, "Those other
people pay me when I go tell stories. What's your budget like?" [Laughs].
She is finally getting some of the things down. . . . When they come to my
house, I say, 'Tell me what you know, what you've heard.' I think now she
is trying very hard to remember what I've told her before, or from my
mother. If we can get that interest sparked and continue, our stories will
be around for a long time. Thank you.
audience member asked if Langley remembered any storytelling situations
that he felt were really good. He responded that some of the best were
situations where a professional folklorist moderated the session, asked
questions, and he didn't have to do all of the talking. It helped when the
situation is more relaxed and he could talk about his experiences and not
just tell stories. Another audience member asked what helps him relax and
create a good atmosphere. He responded that he watches the audience's
eyes. When he sees a twinkle in their eyes, he knows that they are
listening and like the subject. Other factors are whether he is tired and
whether the time of day suits him. A factor determining audience response
is whether he is early in the lineup of tellers.