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Telling Stories Isn't Just Kid Stuff

Tales can build understanding and even help resolve conflicts

TELL a story, and tell it well, and it may open wide the eyes of a child, open lines of communication in a business, or even open hearts to understand another culture or race.

``What I see happening more and more is that people of all ages are discovering the old folk stories and the messages in them,'' says Denver-based storyteller Norma Livo, who taught for many years at the University of Colorado and has just completed a book about how storytelling helps children deal with childish fears.

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Most professional American storytellers draw their tales from a wide variety of sources, cultures, and eras. So stories, once again, have become a significant tool in child-rearing and education. Stories, they say, help children empathize with others whose societies may be very different from their own, and can help adults build tolerance and appreciation for other races, religions, peoples, nations, and customs.

Most local stories are based on a larger theme or a ``high story,'' says African-American storyteller Opalanga Pugh. ``Cinderella,'' for example, appears in various forms in almost every culture of the world. In the Asian version, a magic fish does what the fairy godmother does in the European tale.

Poet Jack Collom points out that the ``high story'' of Cinderella is about a good child protected from harm by her goodness, an abused child saved from abuse, an orphan and an underdog cared for and delivered to riches, honor, and marriage by love.

Working in schools, Pugh helps children appreciate their own cultures and the universal significance that stories contain. She works in prisons and battered women's shelters, too, helping people get to the heart of who they are, demonstrating through stories that her audience can write, direct, and act in their own lives. If they don't like the story they are living, they can rewrite the story.

Lately, she has worked with corporations to help open up lines of communication between administrators and workers. ``For every advance in technology,'' she says, ``there is a need for greater communication.'' Storytelling can ease the airing of grievances on either side of the management-worker fence, she says.

Ms. Pugh spent her senior year in college as an exchange student in Nigeria, where she learned how tightly woven storytelling was in the fabric of that society. The benefits of storytelling are universal, she says.

``I learned how to teach without preaching by watching how they used metaphor and story as transmitters of culture,'' she says. ``What I do is focus on issues of ethnicity that folks can translate into their own daily world of affairs. We are all storytellers. We all have a story to tell.''

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One story begins with our names. ``Name'' means ``the nature of,'' says Pugh. Her first name in Nigerian means ``tall and thin.'' All our names mean something.

Storytelling is on the rise, says storyteller Lindy Curry: Storytellers are being paid better, there are more of them, and there is more work for everyone.

Stories, she says, can teach children values, wisdom, and the right way to treat each other. ``We are so lucky,'' she says. ``All of us except native Americans really come from somewhere else, so we have riches of stories. All the stories I tell have positive messages.''

MUSIC is a big part of many storytellers' repertoires. It's the main focus of Pat Mendoza's stories. Mendoza's heritage includes Cuban, Irish, and native American traditions. He recently completed and performed a folk opera about the massacre of Cheyenne women and children at Sand Creek, Colo., at the hands of Col. John Chivington.

But ``Song of Sorrow'' was as much about the hope for reconciliation as it was about a shameful episode in American history. It included sympathetic portraits of mountain men and pioneer women as well as Cheyenne, while it denounced the hypocrisy and treachery of Chivington.

It was not an indictment of white culture, but of the arrogant evil of some whites who acted out of greed, ethnocentric bias, or the pursuit of glory. Mendoza, too, emphasizes storytelling as a multicultural art.

He doesn't just tell history, he says: ``I tell `herstory,' and `theirstory,' and `ourstory.' I want to tell everybody's story who was here in America. If we learn each other's stories, we understand each other better, and that's what tolerance is all about....

``There is good and bad in all cultures. If you can entertain people and educate them at the same time, it's a lot less confrontational. I like to tell little-known facts of well-known events or people because that makes them think. Ignorance is not bliss.''

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