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  • Writer's pictureAnna Lee Walters

Storyteller Extraordinaire

Updated: Jul 27, 2022

March 14, 2019

The image viewed here is about twenty years old and leads into my comments today.

Lives are parades of people passing in and out of it, bringing many things to each of us. Recently, I had a chance to spend an hour with Hin thunye, Rex Lee Jim, after he had completed a poignant reading from new work. He read mainly in English, with one reference to a Navajo name. He is known for his writing in Navajo, his first language, and he is an accomplished speaker of other languages. Two or three of his books have been translated into other languages. It was interesting to watch the interaction with his audience, representing a range of Navajo speakers. His story was quietly captivating by its directness and was the context for everything else he said that evening about language, educating oneself, and life lessons (though he didn't use that phrase) in the time he has lived.

Making a forty minute drive home afterward, a series of images whizzed by, from the time of our first meeting many years ago to this particular evening. During that time we functioned together as teachers and travelers to many native people in the Americas. We both wrote and told stories about ourselves and the meanings we found in our work. On occasions we did readings together. Not many people know that he has written plays and has performed in them for the community. They have been hilarious; some were bittersweet behind the hilarity.

Images. There were the moments in Mexico City, standing at the city's center, when he shared a sacred story with me (but he would not now or then ever call it "sacred" himself), and I told him that the earth was trembling under our feet. Did he feel it? There was the time in Rio when he pointed out wonderful "dream catchers" ruffling along the beach and we laughed and laughed about the dream catchers, which were actually barely bikinis mounted on circles of cardboard attached by long strings and beads that spiraled in the sea wind. That night in my journal, I wrote about those dream catchers.

There was a time in the Andes (Machu Picchu) where the Inca Trail went up and then curved around the mountain when we sat down to smoke sweet, sacred tobacco (though he would never use the word "sacred") wrapped in corn husks, as a contemplative offering to Pacha Mama. All the while, a circle of people began to accumulate around us. Then, there were the exhilarating times in the Amazon jungle when the singing contests went back and forth between our group and the people of the jungle. We heard these people mimic our voices and language flawlessly without them knowing any of those words or what we said. It was a time to think about language and its human purpose. We had no interpreter but a young Portuguese man to guide us around. We were warned about the people we were visiting because they had no contact with the outside world before twenty years ago. We went anyway. On the first day, the people in the village met us calmly and thoughtfully and told us, "We heard all of you had died."

I answered, "We heard you had all died."

We looked across time and distance, staring deep inside each other and marveled that we were doing that. As we left that village, my group saw Rex Lee Jim take off his shoes and toss them from the canoe to the bank where his host stood, having no shoes. His host smiled really big and quickly ran out to retrieve them along the shore line. Rex returned barefooted. Hours later, my husband and I went with Rex (still barefooted) to buy sandals in the tiny town where we stayed that had no use for money. (Such a place exists.)

In another village, along the Amazon, one beautiful extended night (which also still exists), we heard a young woman sing of 500 years that had passed and what they meant for her people. She wore a crown of macaw feathers. We sat in the structure that had an opening to the sky and stars were the only lights. (The only lights anywhere that matter.) I understood the woman's song and so did my fellow travelers though we did not know her words. Then, a few years back Rex and I did readings of our work at United Nations center for an indigenous peoples program. Few people came, but we read anyway. As we left the grounds, we noticed a Buddhist monk sitting on the walk outside of the building and we paused there for a moment and then moved on.

Through the years, my connection to Rex Lee Jim has been through words and worlds of tribal languages at their core. Paradoxically and ironically, English and its conventions have played a part in this deep connection as well. Still, there is a secret about this phenomenon that is implicit to me and probably to other tribal indigenous storytellers of the Americas, too. Some twenty years have passed and hearing Rex Lee Jim's continuing stories reminds me that it is how we celebrate coming through specific times and things. We are a parade of stories, sometimes hilarious, sometimes bittersweet, but how grand they are!

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