Traditional storyteller Adair chosen as Seven Feathers recipient
TAHLEQUAH – Among the cultural arts the Cherokee Nation is working to protect is the rich tradition of storytelling.
Storytelling is intertwined with the heritage of many tribes. The Native American-style stories can entertain and use the theatrics of stage performance, convey lessons and wisdom, and in the days before writing, they often passed along historical knowledge and taught skills.
Janelle Adair, winner of the Cherokee Phoenix Seven Feathers Award for Culture, is a Tahlequah resident and former Miss Cherokee who works for Cherokee Nation Businesses as a storyteller – sharing her expansive knowledge of tribal culture and history.
“When I ran for Miss Cherokee, I needed a traditional talent, and my Mom and I didn’t know what I was going to do,” Adair said. “She said to tell a story. I cut one down to the time limit and won the talent portion in 1999. I was really proud because I hadn’t known how I was going to do that. As Miss Cherokee, I got to perform my talent around the U.S.”
Adair said Native storytelling has its artistic attributes. It isn’t the equivalent of standing at a mic and reciting “Goldilocks and the Three Bears.” A more apt analogy might be the Broadway “triple threat” of acting, song and dance.
While leading Cherokee Nation Cultural Tourism’s “Stories on the Square” series each year in downtown Tahlequah, Adair dons traditional dress and tells stories in a manner consistent with Cherokee storytelling. The series is a cultural outreach effort, and the gazebo on the Cherokee National History Museum often can’t accommodate the crowd, which collects around it to hear Adair. She also serves as a CNB interpretive guide.
“When you see a storyteller, they are different from someone who just recites a story,” she said. “When you tell a story, you’re spent, but you’ve taken people somewhere else. (Stories on the Square) has helped reach an audience we wouldn’t reach. We’ve had other high-quality storytellers who have donated their time.”
Adair credits her storytelling skills to the traditional upbringing provided by her parents and wisdom shared from some of the most seasoned Cherokee storytellers.
“Sammy Still, Sequoyah Guess, Hastings Shade, Woody Hansen – that was the circle of men who, even if I’d known them peripherally, I gained acceptance as a storyteller,” Adair said. “I wasn’t a public storyteller before I met them.”
Now, Adair is often paid for the time she devotes to storytelling – and that the willingness to compensate arises from a wish among the public to learn more about Cherokee culture. But Adair’s devotion to storytelling has never been about the money.
“I didn’t know you could get paid just to tell people a little about your culture,” Adair said. “I’d grown up in my culture. I didn’t need to look it up in a book. Still, I have become very selfish in why I share culture – it is because of my family and it comes back to them. I have to know it is there for my kids and grandkids. I have a son, and if he decides not to share (through storytelling), that is OK, but I want him to know who he is, and be able to tell his kids who they are. I don’t want him to have to look in a book to find out how Cherokees used to be, what they used to do, and how they used to speak.”