With the release of our new book, “First Fire,” which is a retelling of a Cherokee folktale, we decided to sit down with storyteller, Lloyd Arneach, to find out more about the culture and the art of storytelling. Arneach is a longtime Native American storyteller that got his start in a rather interesting and unexpected way. He’s keen on Cherokee culture, having grown up in Cherokee, North Carolina, and learning from his family. Arneach spent about twenty years sharing the culture and history of his people at universities, museums and even Girl Scout meetings. Now he’s been a storyteller now for over twenty years and still has a lot of stories to be told.
Me: Can you tell me a little bit about how you first got involved with storytelling? What inspired you?
Lloyd: Well, I really backed into it! My late wife and I were living in Atlanta, and we had a babysitter who was in a Girl Scout troop. And she couldn’t find a book on Indians in the entire county library system. And she said, “wait a minute! I babysit for an Indian, maybe he can help me.” So she called me up and asked if I could help her and I said sure. She told me the requirements, and they were fairly simple and I said, “sure! But I’m going to have to come straight from work, I won’t have time to go home and change. Is that going to be a problem?” She said no, so the next Girl Scout meeting I came straight from work. I went in and sat down and the young girls looked at me and I could hear one of them say, “I don’t know where the Indian is but he’s going to be here pretty soon.” I was working as a computer programmer at that time and I was wearing a three-piece suit, so you don’t see many Indians in three-piece suits. I got up to talk and you could hear their jaws hitting the ground. She started calling other scout leaders who had the same problem in that county, they couldn’t find books on the Indians. I became a resource material as a result. Boy scouts started calling, and then schools started calling, and museums started calling. I was sharing primarily Cherokee culture and history at that time.
In 1985, I got a call from student at Georgia State University and she said she was in a Folklore class. Her assignment was to record stories from original tellers, and I said she would need to go to the reservation in Cherokee to find a storyteller. She said “no, you’d be fine!” So she came and recorded some stories, and I didn’t think anything about it. Then in ‘88 I got a call from Dr. John Burleson at Georgia State and he said “I teach the Folklore class here at Georgia State and our students have been collecting stories. And the stories we have recorded from you I’m going to be putting in a book with these others I have collected, and I’m calling all storytellers to be invited to a book signing. Would you be willing to come?” I said, well let me know. Well, in November of ‘88, we discovered my wife had a terminal brain tumor. It destroyed her motor capabilities and she couldn’t walk, she had very little control of her hands. But her mental capabilities were still there and her ability to communicate had not diminished. My father-in-law, my son, and I brought her home and someone was with her twenty-four hours a day. I was still working at that time, so I would go to work and my father-in-law and son would be taking care of her during the day and I would come home and I would relieve my father-in-law and he’d go fix supper and come back and relieve me while I ate supper. This is how it went until the spring of ’89. Dr. Burleson called me back and said “we’re going to have a book signing in September would you be willing to come?” And I talked to my wife, Charlotte, and she said “go ahead!” you know, I needed to get out of the house. Well, she passed away in the end of August in ’89 and I was doing everything I could to fill my time. So I went to the book signing and as I was taking a break, a lady came up to me and said “I’m Betty Ann Wylie and I’m a member of the Southern Order of Storytellers. We have a storytime festival in January, would you be willing to come and share your stories?” and I said “YES!” so in January of 1990, I started sharing stories. It was never something I intended to do.
So from 1970 to1990, I was just sharing Cherokee culture and history, but in 1990 I started sharing stories and I’ve been doing it ever since. So it was never something I intended to do, I literally backed into it.
It’s something I thoroughly enjoy, I had never really thought about it. I was a very introverted individual. My late wife brought me out of my shell. She taught me that people are interesting, but you have to talk with them to find out these interesting things about them. If you don’t talk, you don’t know. She was a very good people person; she had unbelievable people skills. She taught me to come out and enjoy people, and if she hadn’t done that I would have never agreed to do the first session in front of the girl scouts.
Me: How did you learn the stories? Who taught you?
Lloyd: I had two great uncles who were wonderful storytellers and at our family gatherings, Uncle George would tell a story and Uncle Dave would tell a story. It was like a tennis match! And without realizing it, I was learning the old stories of our people. And then my mother had Tuberculosis for two years and I went to live with my great uncle. My great aunt taught French at the University of Oklahoma, so we went out during the winter to Oklahoma where she teached University. My other aunt, my mom’s sister, was studying languages and lived on the cottage at Aunt Dell and Uncle George’s property. She and Aunt Dell would speak French. Well without realizing it, I was in second grade, I started picking up conversational French. So after the school year ended, we came back to Cherokee for the summer. I was walking through downtown Cherokee, after graduating from the second grade, and this tourist stopped me and said “Hau! You speak-a the English?” and I said “Bonjour! Comment ça va?” He called his wife over, “hey Gertrude! Get over here and listen to this kid speak Indian!” So that’s when I realized how much people really didn’t know about Indians, in second grade. So when I was going out sharing culture, I tried not to dress in the feathers and buck skin, because I realized the young people would think this is what an Indian looks like today. So I wanted to try to avoid that stereotype. Also not many people knew of an Indian who was a computer programmer – they don’t associate those two.
Me: Do you find that stories change over time since they are all learned through word-of-mouth?
Lloyd: The nucleus of the story stays the same, but each person uses different words. Some people might use very flowery descriptions of the “long winding trail to the sharp rock,” somebody else might say “he took the long trail up to the top of the mountain.” But still, the important essence was that he went to the top of the mountain.
Me: Which do you prefer? Do you prefer more flowery descriptions?
Lloyd: Not flowery, but I try and visualize the story as I’m telling it and describe what I see. I’m aware the audience may not be aware if I say “there were snake dens,” but if I say “there were Rattlesnake dens,” suddenly they’re realizing “oh my gosh! This wasn’t just a walk past snakes, but they were dangerous snakes!” and it pulls their attention into the story. I’m trying to keep the audience involved in the story. If I say, “Well, there were some Indian medicine right along the trail, that means nothing. If I say “there was kudzu” which we have learned to use for medicine, they say “oh!” and it’s a totally different approach to the story.
Me: Do you have a personal favorite story to tell?
Lloyd: Yes, Chief Joseph and the Flight of the Nez Perce. A very moving story and for me, I have to have about an hour with the audience. And what I do when I first go into a program, I do a couple of stories and do a very quick read on the audience. And by “read,” I mean that when I tell a story, there may be a point in the story where the audience should react and they may laugh, but instead their response should be an “ohhh yes” and when I get that reaction I realize they don’t understand the story. And so I’ll switch to a different group of stories and they’ll never realize the program has changed in mid-stride. It’s just been garnered over years of sharing with different groups and seeing how they respond. One of the best pieces of advice came from an internationally known storyteller named Carmen Deedy, and she was really my first good mentor when I was coming up. She was very quick, she picked things up very very fast, a very intelligent woman. And we were talking, I was grousing about the programs I had and how I couldn’t get this one guy to pay attention. And she said “Lloyd, if there are a hundred people in the room and one person isn’t paying attention to you, why are you focusing on them? There are ninety-nine people who are hanging on every word, share with them. If the one person comes around, fine, but reward the ninety-nine people for their attention.”
That would save me so much heartache over the years, because it was obvious some people didn’t want to be there. “Storytelling? That’s for kids!” But I’d tell them, if you give me twenty minutes and an open mind, I will change the mind of any adult.
I’m seventy and I only have a few summers left where I can get out and travel on my own without someone attending me or worrying about me. So I’m cutting down a lot of my programs now, because there’s still things I want to do – I’ve still got my bucket list! And that involves traveling.
Me: Is there one thing you’d want younger generations to know about the Cherokee or storytelling?
Lloyd: Stories are meant to be shared. Share them. Everybody has stories. They might not realize it but everybody has stories.
If you’re interested in learning more about Lloyd Arneach, visit his webstie at www.arneach.com
Learn more about our book “First Fire” here: http://www.sylvandellpublishing.com/bookpage.php?id=FirstFire