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Weaving Stories, Respecting Cultures

Tim Tingle brings tales of Native American culture to local schools.

The tall man in the gray hat carried with him a large, round drum of stretched whale skin, adorned with tribal symbols from the northeastern part of Washington state. Slowly, he started a steady rhythm as he began his tale.

A gymnasium filled with fifth-graders grew silent, eyes wide and fixed on the storyteller as he enveloped them with a tale told to him by a boy their age in New Mexico.

For Tim Tingle, their silence was a sign of their interest. The story, his visit to their school that day, was worth telling and he was glad to see their eyes transfixed on him.

Tingle, a member of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, visited Newington Forest, Mantua and Orange Hunt elementary schools last week, carrying on the tradition of spreading the history of his ancestors the way they did, through stories.

"I used to make up stuff to get out of trouble in school," said Tingle, a Texas resident who said he was a good student despite his active imagination. "As a kid, I was the one who had to be pushed outside because all I wanted to do was read."

In 1988, when his own son started repeating what he learned about the Choctaw's long walk on the Trail of Tears, Tingle was shocked by the large gaps in information about what life was like for the Choctaws as they were forced off their land by white settlers and marched hundreds of miles away.

"I got my start by talking in his school, and then I was getting invitations to go to other schools to tell stories," Tingle said. He began to research the Choctaw history, picking up stories along the way.

Tingle has been invited to the National Storyteller Showcase several times, including a handful of appearances later this summer in the midwest. He travels more than 300 days a year around the globe, weaving tales and spreading the history of his ancestors.

"Whenever I have free time, I'm on the trail of a book," said Tingle, who has published four books already. "People call me now with their family stories."

Tingle said he often sets aside an entire day when meeting with people to collect their family's oral history, which he records for later use. While the person being interviewed may give him an hour appointment initially, Tingle said he often spends several hours with them, allowing them to become comfortable enough to tell what are often painful stories of loss.

"I've learned how to be patient and to wait for them to be comfortable with me," he said.

STANDING IN FRONT of Orange Hunt students, Tingle explained that the Native Americans in America are "as different from each other as Germans are from the French are from the Italians are from the British." The only thing they have in common, Tingle said, is "every step we take is a step toward home. We were all moved from our homes against our will."

If the Native Americans were a more unified group, the students would have an English-speaking visitor and their primary language would be of Native American origin, he said.

"If the story of America were told by Indian tongues, what a different story it would be," he said. "The people who win the war get to tell the story."

Abby Owens, the librarian at Orange Hunt, said she first learned about Tingle when she read his book, "Crossing Bok Chitto," about the Native Americans who helped slaves cross the river to freedom.

"We're very fortunate he could come visit us," Owens said.

Tingle would change his story depending on the age of the audience, giving five different presentations at Orange Hunt on Friday, March 23.

Tingle's visit hit close to home for the husband of one of Owens' parent volunteers. A Choctaw himself, the man sat in with a group of children to hear his own history.

All of the students, from kindergarten through fifth grade, were spellbound by Tingle's stories, she said.

With each story, Tingle said he hopes to break stereotypes about Native American culture and American history.

"I want to get it across to the kids that Native Americans are modern people, we're still around," he said.

The struggle of Native Americans to keep their history alive is one that faces Congressional challenges every few years, as "someone tries to bring up the idea of disbanding the tribes," Tingle said.

To thank him for his work, Tingle said he frequently receives unexpected packages from tribal leaders, filled with T-shirts and hats which he wears as another way to incorporate his culture in his performances.

"I'm sort of an ambassador," he said.

After all, it is the stories that come with those symbols and tribes that are important.

"Every one, every family, has an amazing story," Tingle said. "The real heart of a compelling story is trouble. These troubles, if we face them clearly, is the basis for good writing."

TINGLE'S MESSAGE has stayed with the students in Rob Schonberger's fifth grade class at Orange Hunt.

"In my nine years of teaching, I've never seen anything like this," Schonberger said. "The kids and I are still twittering and talking about it. It's something I won't forget and I don't think the kids will either."

Schonberger said he was impressed by how well Tingle captured the attention of the fifth grade class, especially in the bland backdrop of a gymnasium.

"Not only were the kids spellbound, they were able to hear another side of American history they don't normally get," he said. "He got them to ask questions, which, as an educator, we strive for."

The same was true at Mantua Elementary, where Tingle spent Wednesday afternoon.

"We've never had a storyteller here before," said librarian Sheila Cronin. "Each year we have several authors of realistic non-fiction, but this was completely different."

Tingle gave two presentations at Mantua, one for students in Kindergarten through second grade and another for sixth grade students. Cronin said both groups were "enthralled" by Tingle.

"He told the older students a story that was very startling and kept the younger students involved by doing finger movements or letting them play his percussion rattles," she said. "The students and teachers both enjoyed it very much. It was a big success."