The Story of My Storyteller

4.75” Original, kiln-fired pottery by Native artist. Price: $400, plus shipping and handling via USPS, C.O.D.

During the summers of 1998 and 1999 I spend a week each August at the Glorieta Baptist Camp in the Sangre de Christo Mountains, twenty-miles southeast of Santa Fe, NM. I am there for training as one of many state school counseling association presidents-elect or presidents through the American School Counselor Association. During the week we have several excursions down off the mountain and into Sante Fe, one for a walking historical tour of downtown and the Plaza, and another for a celebration dinner at the Inn at San Loretto. After our historic tour we have an hour or two to wander through the shops and vendor stalls surrounding the Plaza. That first year, I am fascinated by myriad storytellers featured in the shops. They range in size from two to three inches to twelve to fifteen inches, in configurations from single figures to complex groups, and in price from hundreds to thousands of dollars. In conversations with the shopkeepers, I learn that storytellers originate here in Northern New Mexico. In a tourist magazine in my dorm room at the Baptist Camp, I learn that the storyteller figurines originate in the Cochiti (ko-chee-tee) Pueblo, one of several Pueblo Native communities located between Albuquerque and Santa Fe. Wanting more than a souvenir, I determine that next year I will make my purchase directly from an artist, of which there are many, if possible.

During our end-of-training celebration dinner at the Inn at San Loretto, I sit next to my new friend, Trish, who represents part of California, where they are having a mini civil war over who provides leadership for school counselors across the populous state. They have two Presidents-elect. We are so engaged in our conversation and private jokes that we actually duck under the table for more privacy, pulling the long white table cloth out over our backs. And we are not even drinking wine. We carry on with our private entertainment for a good ten to fifteen minutes, until the National President of the American School Counselor Association comes over, taps our backs, calls us by name, and somewhat indignantly demands that we literally and figuratively “Straighten Up.” Our behavior is much too loose, especially, “for Presidents-elect.”

The following year, I return to Glorieta as State President, and I have a storyteller plan. I convince my friend Donna, the newly elected President-elect for out state to forgo the shuttle bus from Albuquerque, rent a car and go in search of Cochiti Pueblo, hoping to find a storyteller. Between Santa Fe and Glorieta, we find the turnoff for Cochiti Pueblo which should be 20 miles off the interstate. When we arrive at Cochiti, we see several dozen adobe dwellings, but the settlement feels nearly abandoned, no people and few vehicles visible. We make our way to the central plaza, park, and get out to look around. We notice several metal signs posted requiring no photos and no videos. In the center of the plaza, we see a ladder that descends into a kiva located below ground. More metal signs request respectful behavior, low voices and no contact with the kiva, the ladder, or the low wall surrounding the sacred area. Unsure of how to proceed, we are relieved when a car pulls into a nearby dwelling. The mom and kids unload groceries as the dad approaches us, asking if we need help. I explain that I want to purchase storyteller directly from an artist. He tells us, “Then you want to see Dennis Anderson,” pointing to his house down the hill and a few blocks away. He tells us how to make the turns to get there. We thank him and drive off in pursuit of our goal.

Unlike the adobe dwellings on the hilltop, the Anderson home is a white 50’s style bungalow with cultivated lawn in the front yard. We approach the door with some trepidation. A slim Pueblo man, a bit taller than average, opens the door with a question in his eyes. He welcomes us into his home, inviting us to sit even before we state our business. We explain to him our hope and that we were directed to his door by a local resident. He tells us, “It was not always this way,” then he tells his story, without a trace of acrimony, and with generous amounts of humility and grace. When his children are young, Dennis sends them to the BIA, Bureau of Indian Affairs, schools. This is an unpopular choice among the Native residents because the BIA schools do not respect Native culture and Native values. The Pueblo elders approach Anderson about his apparent rebellion. When he persists in obtaining a “white man’s education” for his children, he is cut off by the community for twenty years. No one speaks to him nor to his family. No one recognizes them in any way. For twenty years. Nevertheless, he and his wife remain in the community, conducting their lives as closely as possible to normal. His children leave the Pueblo to find their way in the world of the white man. His son joins the US Army and during his deployment to Germany, he marries a German woman, taking up residency in Germany after his discharge. Years after leaving the Pueblo, the son returns with his wife and children. During a community celebration, the now teenage grandchildren of Dennis participate in the ritual dances. When the broader community recognizes that Dennis and his children have preserved the teachings and traditions of the Pueblo community through the grandchildren, Dennis and his family are welcomed back. Ending with the same grace and humility, Dennis elaborates no further on this decades long personal trial.

Dennis guides us to his workshop, displaying samples of his work, describing the risks of the firing process. He tells us that even the smallest brush stroke on every storyteller has sacred meaning, none of which he can reveal to us. We return to the living room and negotiate my final product, described above, including whether I want a boy child or a girl child. A boy child—I will pass on this treasure to my son. Dennis explains how his storytellers differ from most others because they sit on two untitled books, one representing white Christian history and tradition, and one representing the broader history and traditions of all the inhabitants of the world. The book in the storyteller’s hands represents Native oral tradition. I catch my breath when he names his price, but I hold steady, much preferring the money go directly to Dennis as the artist. He shares two hours with us—worth every penny. Finally, he tells us that the finished sculpture will be signed by his wife, honoring the matrilineal nature of the Pueblo clans. Dennis admonishes that when I receive my storyteller, I am to send him a card on which I share another story. He shows us a bulletin board with dozens of cards from around the world which tell many other stories.

We thank him and leave, deeply moved. Mission accomplished.

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