Sparta, Georgia

by Storyteller Gene Tagaban

 

Story Summary:

 Gene travelled by van across the country to see the land of his people. Along his journey, he had the experience of meeting a southern white couple on a backcountry dirt road and an old black man in Sparta, Georgia who fought with First Nation men during the Korean War.

For a print friendly version of the transcript, click here: Sparta-GA

Discussion Questions:

  1.  How do we break up the biases we have about other people?
  2. Can travel be a way to open or confirm our ideas about other people?
  3.  Where would you like to travel? How would you keep an open mind about the people you meet along the way?

Resources:

  •  On the Road by Jack Kerouac
  • The Smooth Traveler: Avoiding Cross-Cultural Mistakes at Home and Abroad by Susan O’Halloran

Themes:

  •  African American/Black History
  • Crossing Cultures
  • Education and Life Lessons
  • European American/Whites
  • First Nations/Native Americans
  • Living and Traveling Abroad
  • Stereotypes and Discrimination
  • Taking A Stand and Peacemaking
  • War

Full Transcript:

Gunalchéesh! My name is Gene Tagaban.

My name is Guy Yaaw.  I’m of the Takdeintaan clan, the Raven, Freshwater Salmon clan from Hoonah, Alaska. I’m the child of a Wooshketann, Eagle, Shark clan Káawu huna in Juneau, Alaska.

I am Cherokee, Tlingit and Filipino. I’m a Cherotlingipino. I’d like to tell the story about an adventure of mine when I was a young man. I bought a van and I was going to drive across the country. And see what that land where I came from, my Indian people, was like.

Many people were exploring Europe and going over there but there’s so much richness here just in our backyard. So I was driving through Louisiana, me and my girlfriend. And so we stopped one night on a side road, dirt road and it was dark out. We were gonna camp there for the night. As we are just gettin’ ready to camp, a truck pulls up. Pulls in front of us. Turned around. And the headlights are shining right into our van. I’m thinking to myself, “Oh! What the heck’s going on here?”

And the only thing that could run through my mind was just these things I hear that’s going on in the south in the back country in Deliverance. We were kind of freaked out and they pulled up right next to us. I rolled down my window. And they said, “How y’all doin’?”

“Oh, we’re doin’ good.”

“Now where are y’all from?”

I told ’em, “I’m originally from Alaska.”

“Who are you people?”

And I said,” Guy Yaaw (then speaks about his people in his native language).

And they looked at me and said, “Now what kind of foreign language is that?”

“Oh, that’s my Tlingit language. I’m a Native American from this country. That language I just spoke to you was from Alaska.

“Alaska! You guys from Alaska?”

I said, “Yes, I am!”

“Now what y’all doin’ way down here. Did you guys get lost?”

I said, “No, we’re just driving around seeing this country.” And we started to strike up a conversation.

And he asked me, “How do y’all say… fire?”

“Fire.”

He said, “Now did you hear that… fire. Now right here you say… fire to say… fire. You know, you’re some interesting folks! Now we don’t get many people like you around here much often. You know what? We’re having a… a gathering here that’s coming up here in a couple of days. You sure are welcome to come if you’d like to come. You can meet my kin, my folks that’s back there in the swamps a little bit. You’ll be more than welcome!”

I said, “Ah, thank you for the invitation but I think we’re gonna move on and keep traveling. I think we’re gonna make our way up… around Georgia. See, I’m part Cherokee and my people come from that area.”

“Well, all I want to tell you is that stay away from Sparta, Georgia there. I’ve been to Sparta. A lot of black folk there, you know. You good people. I don’t want you to get in trouble now. Ah, it’s good to meet you.”

“It sounds good to me too. I’ll tell you what! A couple of days later, we are in Sparta, Georgia and we were hungry. So we went to go get a couple of sandwiches and across the street was a basketball court and playin’ basketball there – a bunch of youngsters playing ball and they’re all black. And we sat there to go watch them play basketball. So we’re sitting there eatin’ our sandwiches and they’re arguing back and forth because they need an extra player.

And so they looked at me. They came up to me and said, “Heh! You right there! You play ball?”

I go, “Who? Me?’

“Yeah, we’re talking to you. You play ball?”

I said, “Do I play ball?” Now, I tell you what! Indians love basketball! So I said, “Yeah, I play ball!”

And so we went out there. They brought me out there. We started playing hoops back and forth. And we were playing basketball all afternoon and then they asked me, “Excuse me. Where are you from?”

I said, “From Alaska.”

And they asked me, “Are you an Indian?”

I said, “Yeah, I am!”

“Can we touch you?”

“You want to touch me?” I said, “Sure.”

So they felt my skin and they felt my hair and they told me… they said, “Hey, wait here, wait here!” And so they ran off but they brought back all their family, their relatives – aunties, uncles, cousins. They wanted to meet us Native American people because they’ve only heard about us in movies, books, magazines, museums. They never met a real live native person before. They said, “We gotta take you…we got Uncle Leroy who’d love to meet you.”

And so we went to Uncle’s Leroy’s house and Uncle Leroy, when we walked in, he was like this skinny black man. I mean he was so black, he was like purple. Long white hair, long white beard and he had square glasses tinted blue. Yes, and he was skinny, about as skinny as a broom pole when he came shuffling up to us, looked at me, “My Indian brothers!” You see, Uncle Leroy was in the Korean War and in the Korean War, Uncle Leroy was this young black man and he was scared and there were bombs and guns goin’ off. And so he was runnin’ around. But at the same time he was runnin’ around, there are a couple of Indians in a foxhole and they’re smokin’ their tobacco, saying their prayer. “Oh, Creator, take care of us. I swear here on this here foreign land, watch over us and we promise we’ll live a good life. Send us a sign that you hear what we’re talkin’ about. You hear our prayers!” And they’re smoking their tobacco! And just as they’re praying, suddenly Uncle Leroy jumps into their foxhole and those two Indians look at this black man and they go, “Ah, the creator! Thank you for sending us this good luck charm of a black man. We promise we’ll take care of this young man here in a good way.” And so they did.

They kept that promise and they took care of Uncle Leroy. And they taught Uncle Leroy about spirit, honor, culture, tradition, prayer, brotherhood. And they took care of Uncle Leroy and Uncle Leroy felt that. He owed those Indian brothers of his. So I went to his house. He told us the stories of brotherhood, took care of us while we were in his home. So the next morning we jumped in the van and we headed off. And as we were driving off, I heard Uncle Leroy, “My Indian brothers!”

Navajo Code Talker

by Storyteller Gene Tagaban

 

Story Summary:

 During WWII the Navajo Code Talkers created a code that was never broken. The Navaho were forced off their reservations into boarding schools where they were told not to speak their language or practice their culture. But when WWII started, the United States military reached out to the Navajo to help them create a code using their previously forbidden language.

For a print friendly version of the transcript, click here: Navajo-Code-Talker

Discussion Questions:

  1.  Why did the U.S. switch its policy toward the Navajo’s native language?
  2. The Navajo were not allowed to speak of their role in WWII until 1968. What effect do you think it had that those fighting alongside American Indians during the War were unaware of their critical contribution?

Resources:

  •  The First and Only Memoir by One of the Original Navajo Code Talkers by Chester Nez and Judith Schiess Avila
  • Code Talk: A Novel About the Navajo Marine of World War Two by Joseph Bruchac

Themes:

  •  Crossing Cultures
  • European American/Whites
  • First Nations/Native Americans
  • Identity
  • Stereotypes and Discrimination
  • Taking A Stand and Peacemaking
  • War

Full Transcript:

Gunalchéesh! My name is Gene Tagaban. My Tlingit name is Guy Yaaw. I’m of the Takdeintaan clan. The Raven, Fresh Water Sockeye clan from Hoonah, Alaska. I’m a child of a Wooshkeetaan, Eagle, Shark clan Káawu huna in Juneau, Alaska and I’m a Tlingit, Cherokee and Filipino. And I tell people I’m a Cherotlingipino. It’s good to be here.

Ah, you know our elders are precious. In fact, we often refer to them as our, our precious objects. I mean… but they’re more than that, our elders, and we hold them in reverence and honor. I had the opportunity to travel around the country with a man; his name is Andrew Osano from Cochiti Pueblo, USA.

Now Andrew was a medicine man or, you might say, Andrew was a holy man. But when you’re from the Pueblo or the reservation, things just move slower. And I was telling Andrew, “We’re going to New York.” I said, “Andrew, when we get to New York, everyone’s going to be moving really fast. And so you need to just move just a little bit faster than you’re used to.”

He goes, “Oh! OK, OK, OK!” And so when we’re flying into New York, he’s looking out the window and his perspective on it was, “Oh, look at that! New York City! All the buildings looked like headstones. Interesting, eh!”

So I’m walkin’ through New York with Andrew Osano and we go to the top of the Empire State Building. And it was a time when Hale-Bopp, the comet, was going through. And so Andrew, he takes those binoculars and instead of looking at New York City, he looks up into the sky, “The comet! Oh! Ah!” And he starts to say some prayers, singing a song and everybody around him starts looking at Andrew Osano, Cochiti Pueblo, USA, medicine man, holy man.

A few years later after that, I drove to Cochiti Pueblo to see Andrew and he goes, “Oh! Oh, Raven T! Oh, it’s good to see you. I need a ride. Ah! We go see my uncle.” And so we’re driving to another pueblo, to see his uncle. And as we’re going through certain areas, Andrew stops, closes his eyes sings and says prayers. “Spirits all along this road,” he says. So we pulled up to a small house. He goes, “My uncle lives here. My uncle, he is a Navajo Code Talker.”

“Navajo Code Talker? Ah!”

“Come in, let’s visit.” We walked in and there’s a small Indian man there, wrinkled skin, dark. And I look into his eyes and they’re just deep, dark brown.

We share a little bit of coffee and I ask him, “Navajo Code Talker! What was it like?”

And he goes, “Oh! You see, I grew up out here, out here, taking care of the land, taking care of our animals, livin’ on the land. And then the government comes in and tells us we can’t speak our language, sing our songs, practice our culture. They took us to schools to teach us a new way.

And then World War II came along. And they called on our services. You see, they wanted us to fight and defend our country but they wanted us to use our language to create a code. Our language that was forbidden! Our language that they told us that we can no longer speak! They wanted us to create a code to help them win the war. Many of the Navajo people enlisted.

And they wanted us to go through basic training. You see, they didn’t think that we could make it through basic training. They thought that maybe we were too fragile. But once we got out there during basics… ah, we scored the highest on everything!”

“Well, this is simple,” we said, “because this is our life. We live out here.” So we went out there. And we developed a code through our language. Nobody broke that code! And for 20 years after the war was over, we were taught never to reveal what we did. And we kept that commitment.

I asked him, “When you came back, what did you do to heal?”

And he goes, “Ah! You know, not like nowadays. Those young men, they come back, they’re on a plane. They close the eyes. They wake up. They’re back in the city.

Back then, we had time to jump on a boat, a ship and we were together. A brotherhood to take care of each other, to talk, to hold each other, to cry. And then when I got back to our reservation, you see, amongst our people, we are not home yet. We are just spirits until we go through a ceremony and then… we become whole again. That’s what’s missin’ in this country nowadays is that ceremony.”

You see, we just sat and had coffee, ate some cookies and just shared stories. And it was an honor for me to sit there amongst a true hero of this country. For if it was not for the Navajo code, we may never have won that war. Huh…! Helps me appreciate who we are as a people. Navajo Code Talkers! Huh!

Afternoon with Rachel, Holocaust survivor

by Storyteller Gene Tagaban

 

Story Summary:

 Gene tells of an afternoon he spent with Rachel, a Holocaust survivor, in Omaha, Nebraska. Rachel, an elderly woman, asks Gene, “Tell me about your people?” Gene tells her of the 1835 Indian Removal Act and how his Cherokee ancestors were forced to leave their homes and walk for 800 miles through the winter months; many died. Rachel replies, “Your people, my people – same.” Later, Gene goes to the Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C. and while being overcome with emotion, is comforted by an African American woman

For a print friendly version of the transcript, click here: Afternoon-with-Rachel-Holocaust-Survivor

Discussion Questions:

  1. What do you think of Rachel’s statement: “My revenge: I am going to live a happy life – no one can take that from me.” What might this type of revenge give her that other types of revenge would not?
  2. How do we learn about and stay emotionally present to all the genocide in the past and in the world today? What gives us the strength to look at the worst in humankind?
  3. What can stop “ugly history” from repeating itself? How can we support those who have been through the worst imaginable horrors and those who are willing to speak about and learn from it?

Resources:

  •  Trail of Tears: The Rise and Fall of the Cherokee Nation by John Ehle
  • Holocaust Museum in Washington by Jeshajaho Weinberg

Themes:

  • Crossing Cultures
  • Education and Life Lessons
  • European American/Whites
  • First Nations/Native Americans
  • Jewish Americans/Jews
  • Stereotypes and Discrimination
  • Taking A Stand and Peacemaking
  • War

Full Transcript:

Gunalchéesh! My name is Gene Tagaban. My Tlingit name is Guy Yaaw. I’m of the Takdeintaan clan. The Raven, Fresh Water Sockeye clan from Hoonah, Alaska. I’m a child of a Wooshkeetaan, Eagle, Shark clan Káawu hoonah in Juneau, Alaska and I’m a Tlingit, Cherokee and Filopino. I’m a Cherotlingopino and it’s wonderful to be here to share stories with you. I’d like to share a story about an experience I had. Oftentimes, we have these moments in our lives that are just pivotal. They make a shift within your being, your spirit and out to your soul.

So I was traveling to an event, another storytelling event in Omaha, NE. You know, at first I didn’t want to go really to Omaha, NE. I’m from Juneau, Alaska – mountains, water! Omaha, NE? Flat, corn. But I was going there for a storytelling festival and I was being housed by a wonderful family so I got there. And the next morning, she asked me (our host), “Every Thursday we always take Rachel out to the market. Would you like to go?”

I said, “Sure, I’ll go.”

“Now I want to tell you this. Rachel is a survivor of Auschwitz, the holocaust.”

I thought to myself, “Wow!”

“Yes, I’d love to meet Rachel!” And so when we took a… pick up Rachel and Rachel is this elderly lady. She came, maybe, up to my shoulder. She had sunglasses on and she walked up to me. She didn’t say much, just looked at me. I opened the door for her and she hopped in and we sat in the back seat.

She said, “I want to go to the market to get apples. I want to make some pie. One of the only things I have left is the recipe from my momma – Apple Pie. They were bakers, you know!”

And so we went to the market to get apples and she was very meticulous about her apples. They couldn’t be too big or too small. She went through them. I carried the bag for her as she placed them in. She didn’t say a word to me. She looked at the apples, put ‘em in the bag. I closed ‘em and she just looked up at me. So on our way back out to the parking lot, we’re going to the car and next to the car was a Hummer. And as we were walking up to the car, Rachel stopped and she just started weeping. And I was going, “Are you okay?”

She goes, “Oh, no, no, no! Those cars! Those cars, they remind me of the cars, those trucks, the vehicles that they took the children to the camps away in! No, no, no! I can’t go over there! No, no, no, no, no, no, no!”

And so I waited on the sidewalk with Rachel as we pulled around and we picked her up. And we went to the house and she prepared the dough. And it was sitting there waiting to rise and Rachel came up to me. She goes, “You’re Indian, aren’t you?”

I said, “Yes.”

“Come, walk with me. Let’s go walk through the garden!” And so she grabbed me by the arm and we started strolling through the garden. And she says, “Now, tell me! Tell me about your people.”

And so I told her, I told her, “In 1835 was the Indian Removal Act and my Cherokee people were forced from their homes to walk on a trail 800 miles during winter. Women, children, elders! Many of ‘em died! Many of ‘em died! And they were put onto a land that was foreign to them. And throughout the Indian country, this was what was going on. They were taking the native people from their lands, the Indian people from their lands. And sometimes they put ‘em in cargo holds on trains and taking ‘em to other places. Many souls were lost.”

And Rachel, she just looked up and she goes, “Huhh! Your people, my people – same! Same!”

As we were walking through the garden, Rachel spotted this beautiful red tomato. And she goes, “Now get that tomato for me!” And I got that tomato and she goes, “Ah, now we need something to cut it!”

I said, “Oh, look at…! I’m going to take this tomato up to the house and I’m going to show it to one…”

And she goes, “No! This is just for you and me! You see, sometimes you have to keep something for yourself!” And so I sat there, and Rachel and I, we ate this red tomato… together… just me and her. That was the best tomato I have ever eaten in my life! She told me, she goes, “You know, me… my revenge… my revenge for what happened to my people, my family is I’m going to live a happy life! That… that cannot be taken away from me! Huh!

So couple days later I was in Washington D.C. and I went to, to the Holocaust Memorial Museum. And, and as I walked through the Holocaust Memorial Museum, I just walked through and I saw the images, the pictures, the cargo holds. But what really got me was the piles of clothes, the piles of eyeglasses and the piles of shoes, especially the children’s shoes!

And when I walked out of that museum, I stood on the sidewalk and I started to cry; I just started to weep. And there was an old black woman who stopped and she handed me a handkerchief and she grabbed my head! She just held me as I wept on the sidewalk!

I took that handkerchief, wiped off my face and when I opened my eyes and looked around, she was gone! I looked down the street, both ways. I looked behind me; she wasn’t in the museum! And I looked around. That’s when I know that we have angels around us all the time!