Telling (Creation) Stories in the 21st Century

I recently read TRAIL OF LIGHTNING by Rebecca Roanhorse (Ohkay Owingeh /Black/Navajo in-law). It is considered a Sci-Fi/Fantasy postapocalyptic/dystopian book that takes place sometime in the near/far(?) future and the main character is a Diné womxn. Below is Amazon’s description of the book: 

While most of the world has drowned beneath the sudden rising waters of a climate apocalypse, Dinétah (formerly the Navajo reservation) has been reborn. The gods and heroes of legend walk the land, but so do monsters.

Maggie Hoskie is a Dinétah monster hunter, a supernaturally gifted killer. When a small town needs help finding a missing girl, Maggie is their last best hope. But what Maggie uncovers about the monster is much more terrifying than anything she could imagine.

Maggie reluctantly enlists the aid of Kai Arviso, an unconventional medicine man, and together they travel the rez, unraveling clues from ancient legends, trading favors with tricksters, and battling dark witchcraft in a patchwork world of deteriorating technology.

As Maggie discovers the truth behind the killings, she will have to confront her past if she wants to survive.

Welcome to the Sixth World.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book because, in all of my 20+ years of reading, I have never read a book that reflected my childhood growing up near Canyon De Chelly, and used the lands that I am familiar with. I have never read a book that captured specific cultural aspects that are nostalgic for those who do know them, yet were accessible in very particular ways for non-Diné folx. 

Yet, no matter how much love I have for this book, it could not protect it from criticism on cultural boundaries and possible misrepresentations. I have not encountered such arguments, possibly due to personal reasons, yet a dear friend of mine shared that they heard arguments that Roanhorse “sacrificed the sacredness of our cultural practices to suit her story”, which is highly possible, but also not. 

I want to respond to such a criticism, especially considering how we envision what storytelling could be like in the 21st century and what that could mean for many Indigenous youths who want to use personal cultural aspects in their own creative avenues. 

The Intention of (Creation) Stories

For the Diné and many other Indigenous communities, stories are not just stories in the fictional sense. The stories we hear, the stories that are told, are in many ways our own histories and our collective memories. It is through these shared histories and shared memories that we learn about the values of our community and the ways that culture and language mingle in explaining our universe.

From our creation stories, we hear tales of the Diyin Dine’é providing us, the Diné, the knowledge(s), material gifts, and rituals and ceremonies for a proper life that is harmonious with all of creation. It is through our stories that we learn to understand who we are as a community and what is our positionality within the lands and the cosmos. They remind us of our origins and serve as lessons for members of the community in detailing and outlining one’s responsibilities to each other and to the world.

Growing up, I only heard snippets of Diné creation stories. They were not as widely shared with me as compared with others. I remember the ones of Coyote and their influence on the world. I remember the Hero Twins and their mother, Changing Womxn. I remember these stories being told when the Thunder and Lightning People, Spider People, Bear People, and Snake People were slumbering throughout winter. 

It was not until I was in my first year of undergraduate that I read Diné Bahane’: The Navajo Creation Story by Paul G. Zolbord, a non-Diné person, and later Navaho Legends by Washington Matthews, an ethnographer and linguist who collected Diné stories of creation on his expeditions to the Navajo Nation between the 1880s and late 1890s. Both texts were written by non-Diné folx, yet were shared/exploited from Diné medicine people.

In many ways, these transcribed stories are remnants of a violent history and exploitation that many of us may not want to acknowledge because of what that could mean for some of us whose only access to Diné creation stories was through these books. They should not have been shared with outsiders, yet they are. Non-Diné folx know versions of our creation, but they do not possess the cognitive capacity to understand their intrinsic complexity. Regardless, we are allowed to have more than one creation stories that are based on our own personal and ancestral experiences. At the core of these stories that are shared with us is a collection of memories that portray the values and teachings that have been given to us since time immemorial.  

Limitations of the Written

It is the unfortunate reality that stories lose their malleability and become difficult to change and grow once they are written and recorded. Stories take on a value that is often determined between the listener and the storyteller. Dr. Jo-Ann Archibald (Stol:lo) argued in Indigenous Storywork: Educating the Heart, Mind, Body, and Spirit that textual forms of stories limit our understanding. The gestures, tones, rhythms, and personality of a storyteller are stripped away and replaced with that of the reader’s own (personal bias).  Stories reflect the people who tell them, who share them, and who invoke them. Stories are living entities. 

Creation stories are meant to be interactive. They are meant to be told over an open flame in the middle of a hogan during the time of the big snow and wind. That is what many of us were told and what many Elders would argue that the Diyin Dine’é told us to do. The creation stories collected by Matthews, and later Zolbrod have lost a sense of themselves through their transcription. They can be accessed at any time, disrupting the balance we all (hopefully) aspire for. 

Yet, these stories offer a unique temporal situation that provides many Diné people access to knowledges that have been regulated by Matthews himself, and later Zolbrod. The written creation stories share with us the biases of the writer and reader, yet through critical engagement can reveal much to Diné, who are willing to engage with such work thoughtfully and critically while being conscious of oppressive ideologies historically and presently. 

TRAIL OF LIGHTNING & Present-Day Storytelling

TRAIL OF LIGHTNING adds a twist to the traditional form of storytelling and adds depth to the transcribed creation stories. It is a written text that, as far as I know, has not been recorded by a Diné person reading it, but was read and reviewed by Diné cultural practitioners.

Personally, TRAIL OF LIGHTNING challenges us to be critical of those we elevate in status. It is a book that adds depth and humanizes deities within our community; people who existed so long ago, and who continue to live through our memories. The book renews interest in our creation stories, encouraging curiosity for Diné folx to re-learn the stories told and the language used.

There are cultural imageries used that only those familiar with Diné cosmology understand and can relate to. The main character struggles and conveys the different teachings of the Beauty Way and the Protection Way in ways that are relatable and accessible for those who are wondering who they are and where they might be in this world. 

I argue the above because our cultural stories are not static. They are dynamic, they shift, grow and change, as we change and as the world changes. These changes contribute to our collective memories. The past can inform our present and future, and the present and future can inform the past. There is a cyclical opportunity here when we engage with stories that expand our imaginations. Creation stories remind us and will continue to remind us of the values and teachings unique to our community. 

TRAIL OF LIGHTNING does that in nuanced ways. Maggie’s journey and interaction with the dystopian world encourage us, me, to be critical of our aspirations towards indigenous purity that settler colonialism dangles in front of us. The book shares with us values and teachings that Maggie embodies. TRAIL OF LIGHTNING shares Diné knowledges that are not specific, yet can be implied for those who are familiar with them. The language appears, yet not entire songs and phrases that should only be spoken and not written. 

Storytelling is always going to be a dynamic interactive relationship between those who listen and those who tell. Creation stories are always going to be told in the winter, while our relatives rest. It does not mean that they are always going to be read during that time though, especially with the existence of two transcribed creation stories book. 

Final Thoughts(?)

There is a delicate balance between sharing our culture with people we trust and protecting our culture from those we do not. There is a history of exploitation and a history of sharing that we as Diné have. In spite of these histories, these stories of violence, we as Diné need to remember some teachings: dadílzinii jidísin, hane’zhdindzin, k’ézhnidzin, há áhwiinít’į, and many more. Our teachings are not meant to silence the voice of others, rather they encourage us to reflect and work through times of difficulties. They are embedded throughout our creation stories, our personal stories, and the stories of others.

To the Diné folx who critiqued Rebecca Roanhorse, I encourage all of you to self-reflect on how each of you has sacrificed the sacredness of others and our stories to suit your own aspirations and own framework of the world. We have a history of acculturation and integration to suit our own ways of knowing and sense of selves. 

As discussed with some of my friends @allebasIyehS  and @alialane, two Diné womxn, Diné folx are always integrating and evolving with various introductions of thought and technologies, yet always maintaining a sense of who we are as a people. There are stories of how the art of weaving was taught to us by Spider Womxn and the Hopi. Stories of how we became to value sheep brought by Spanish colonizers. Stories of how medicine people did not always ask for ‘money’ as payment. Yet, these stories reveal to me the innate curiosity and ingenuity of maintaining our livelihoods to the present/future. 

If Diné folx are struggling with what I am trying to convey, please feel free to share them with me, email the site or DM me on twitter. Let’s talk and discuss ways we can envision storytelling and embodying a diné aesthetic that encourages us to be critical in ways that respect the sacredness of all things and ourselves. 



Edit: For further reading, I wrote a review through Strange Horizons in which I focus on Roanhorse continuing the tradition of storytelling. 

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