By AJ Eversole
Recently, I took an intro level screenwriting class meant to teach basic concepts. It culminated in a workshop of a five-page screenplay, but I struggle with limiting a story to a small length. So I chose to adapt a shorter Cherokee trickster story, How the Deer Got His Horns.
Jistu (Rabbit) is known for being a mighty jumper and Awi (Deer) is known for being a mighty runner. In the story, they decide to run a race through a thicket and the winner gets a pair of fancy antlers. Rabbit is a trickster character in many Southeastern Native traditions. In this story, he says he is unfamiliar with the land and wants to do a quick warm-up, but really he is gnawing down some brush in order to run faster. He denies it, but when he is confronted with the evidence he is told that since he enjoys gnawing at branches he may do so forever after.
My professor noted that Jistu never grew in the story. We should see Jistu ashamed, they critiqued, and Jistu should learn something.
I wanted to laugh. What Native trickster in history ever learns their lesson? When I said this to the professor, they replied that for the purposes of this workshop we wouldn’t be focusing on non-western narratives.
This country is full of Native life. It’s so deep in the land that I believe its roots hold despite colonization, so why are we the unteachable narrative structure?
As Lizzo says, the truth hurts. We were assimilated by force. It wasn’t a willing thing to abandon the familiarity of our story structure. Our ancestors were thrust into western ideology and away from our own. It can be difficult for Native writers to embrace a traditional Native story structure because we are so accustomed to adapting our stories for different audiences.
Choosing to not adapt that structure and instead to claim it with planted feet is an active way to participate in decolonization and reclaim what is ours—and that’s something I encourage all Native creators to do.
There is still a story in How the Deer Got His Horns. It’s just not the type of story that western eyes are trained to pick up on. There isn’t a three-act structure. We could break it down into one, but I argue that it is unnecessary. The characters don’t change and aren’t supposed to change.
The emphasis on growth in this story isn’t an emphasis on character growth in Jistu, but on the growth of the reader who listens to the story. The stories provide social commentary, but they also teach us a way to understand why the deer has horns and why the rabbit gnaws at thickets.
The themes of Native stories are as varied as any culture’s, but they fall outside western expectations when they focus on broader concepts rather than narrow ones. Typically, our stories provide universal interpretations of the world around us and give commentary on our possible place within it. Sometimes this means the plot isn’t as fast-paced as expected. The children and YA market is conditioned to toss out things that are extraneous. If it doesn’t matter then it doesn’t need to be there. Chekov’s gun or bust.
I was taught to enjoy the peace of the moment. In my family, we freeze our walks in the woods just to admire a bright red cardinal perched atop a branch. In Cherokee culture, this bird is a messenger. Seeing it perched signals to us that we should stop and listen. Sometimes we need to be humbled by acknowledging the giant world around us. This means that we slow down the storytelling. We take pregnant pauses. The point of the story is to discover the world around us and listen to what it says to us, to let it tell us our story and where we fit into the world around us.
It would be easy to compare Native stories like this to Aesop’s Fables. To call them moral tales and leave them at that, but doesn’t that seem reductive? Native storytelling focuses on every bead in the design, which sometimes means we aren’t the main characters of our own stories and we acknowledge that. Sometimes a bead does double work. It is both a piece of the structure and a color to fill in the design. A story can teach us why the rabbit gnaws on branches and also show us that all tricks are discoverable.
Something unique to non-western storytelling structure is that we are so much closer to the oral traditions than many western styles are. The art within isn’t just the prose, but also how it is conveyed. While oral tradition is reliant upon gesture and body language, an obvious component is the audio. With audiobook popularity on the rise for readers, this provides an opportunity to deliver some of that oral tradition to young readers.
In an odd way, storytelling is one of the greatest pieces of our culture we have left. It is something we keep close to our hearts. It’s why there can be internal conflict about sharing what we have with the rest of the world. Why would we, when it has been taken out of context, corrupted, stereotyped, and claimed by others as their own? When we share it, we share our hearts.
The world is making great strides and running in a direction of understanding and empathy. We are finally seeing the support for Black, Indigenous, and people of color’s stories in the world. These things give Natives hesitant hope and open our willingness to share what is ours with the world.
The challenge I leave you with is this: Read, share, and support the unorthodox pacing and characterization of Native storytelling structure with a passion. I truly believe the future of storytelling lies outside the western perspective and structure, and it is rich. Supporting any alternate format brings us closer to making it more mainstream and establishing its rightful place in the world.
AJ Eversole grew up in rural Oklahoma, a place removed from city life and full of opportunities to grow the imagination, which she did through intense games of make believe. She graduated from Oklahoma State University with a B.S. in Strategic Communications. She is a citizen of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma and hopes to be traditionally published in the near future. She currently resides in Fort Worth, Texas with her husband. Visit her on Twitter: @amjoyeversole and Instagram: @ajeversole