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"A Storyteller's Perspective," Swapping Stories
Bertney 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.

An 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.

About the Transcriptions


National Endowment for the Arts.

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