By Olivia Eiken | Staff Writer
The Mayborn Museum continues its celebration of Native American Heritage Month with a storytelling session hosting Robert Lewis, an award-winning author and artist of Cherokee, Apache and Navajo descent. The event will take place from 3 to 4:30 p.m. on Wednesday.
Dr. Julie Sweet, professor of history and director of military studies, said via email that storytelling is “a fundamental aspect of all Native cultures.”
“Native peoples come from an oral tradition that highly values the spoken word in all its forms,” Sweet said. “Stories are a way to record history and keep that history alive for future generations. Stories are also a way to teach lessons to younger generations; for instance, some are allegorical and use symbols or characters to put forth a moral — sort of like a fable — without giving away the lesson or purpose outright. Storytelling isn’t just for fun; it’s a serious tradition that has much significance in Native culture.”
Lewis said storytelling became significant to him when he was a child and heard his father telling a story for the first time.
“At the age of 7, I heard my first traditional story, and it happened to come from my father, Yazzie, on family vacation,” Lewis said. “We had stopped at a rest area, and he brought all of our attention to the night sky and just started telling us about the creation of the Milky Way and why the stars are scattered across the sky in the way they are.”
For over 20 years, Lewis has been keeping and advocating for Cherokee traditions by speaking at schools and communities across the country. He also hosts outreach classes and services in the arts.
Sweet said having Lewis come to Waco to share his stories is a gift that should not be taken for granted.
“Having Robert Lewis come to Baylor and be willing to share some of his people’s stories with us is a wonderful opportunity to get to know more about Native culture,” Sweet said. “It is incredibly generous of him to be willing to share some of his stories with us, and all who attend should be grateful for the chance to partake of this meaningful gift.”
At Baylor, Sweet offers a course titled “History of Indigenous Peoples of America.” She said she teaches this course with the hope of continuing the recognition of Indigenous peoples but understands the difficulty with doing so.
“One challenge that all institutions face when it comes to Native American Studies programs is finding faculty,” Sweet said. “Those faculty should come from a Native background in order to fully appreciate and understand all aspects of that culture and what it values so that the subject can be taught properly and respectfully. There is a lot of responsibility involved when teaching a course that deals with Native peoples. Otherwise, you do a large disservice to them if they are misrepresented.”