Friday, July 29, 2011

Learning Little Hawk's Way of Storytelling: Interview with Frank Cipriani

Frank Cipriani is a writer, an amateur ethnobotanist, primitive survival enthusiast and a professional educator. I met him at the library where I work. He mentioned he was working on a book proposal about one of my favorite things, storytelling. Frank had to opportunity to learn about storytelling from Kenneth Little Hawk, the renowned Mi’Kmaw First Nation storyteller and was collaborating with Little Hawk and his wife, Beverly Miller.
His book Learning Little Hawks Way of Storytelling by Kenneth Little Hawk and Beverly Miller as taught to Frank Domenico Cipriani was released this summer.  

By the way, this book was blurbed by one of my childhood idols, folk singer, Pete Seeger.  Here’s what Pete Seeger said. “What Little Hawk has to teach is exactly what America has to learn.”

Frank stopped by Ramble Street for an interview so let’s meet him.

Welcome Frank. So how’d this book come about? How’d you meet Kenneth Little Hawk and Beverly Miller?
At my local library, I was teaching a survival camp for kids. My friend, Barbara, suggested that we teach storytelling as well. She had seen Little Hawk and suggested I go see him. I did. He's unforgettable. I had seen other storytellers before, but he was astounding.
Little Hawk is a Mi'kmaw/Mohawk storyteller. His Mi’kmaw people still live in Nova Scotia, although his great-grandmother left the tribe to settle in Mohawk country. He was educated in the traditions of both his people by his grandparents, and he was named by them. Little Hawk has traveled the world telling stories in Europe, Africa, Australia and, of course, North America. He’s performed at the White House, Lincoln Center and the Museum of Natural History and was featured in the Ken Burns’ documentaries, The West and Lewis and Clark.

How is this book different than other books on storytelling?

It’s a book that teaches storytelling by telling stories. I haven't seen another book that does this. Many books tell specific stories, even Native American ones, but I don't know of another how-to book on storytelling that is actually a story in itself.

This book has a very interesting byline. It’s by Kenneth Little Hawk and Beverly Miller as taught to Frank Domenico Cipriani.  Why “as taught to” instead of the usual “as told to”?
‘As told to’ doesn’t make sense for this book. It implies dictation. Look over the book. Much of that sort of language is missing.

Traditionally, native people would not ‘tell’ people to do things. They would “invite” them. So, we needed a word for my role in the collaboration that reflected that invitation to share. My job was to take the lessons I learned from Beverly and Little Hawk over the years and create a story arc consistent with their teaching. The book is my interpretation and research, but all of it is based on their instruction.   

So what was the process like?

Little Hawk and Beverly have this wonderful air about them. You feel transported when you're with them. I would try something, storytelling-wise, and they would tell me stories back. Through that I would learn. I did follow the trail, the life of this story. Little Hawk and Beverly's wonderful place, the stews that Beverly would cook, Little Hawk's home, it all has this feel of being in the world that should be, a world which is harmonious with the ancestors, with nature, with our own true selves.

Sure, we used cars to get to the hut, sure, we had some modern conveniences, but both at our hut site in the woods and at Little Hawk's home, that feeling of respect and reverence was always prevalent. I thought of writing in a more conventional sense, but the story really flowed "through Spirit", as Little Hawk would say.

Wait.  You learned how to tell stories from a world-renowned Native American storyteller in a hut in New Jersey?  Where?

We built a wonderful hut in a park in our town. We made a deal with the town, that if we created programs for kids on the land, they would not sell the land to developers. Over the years, it’s been a site for many interesting native gatherings, storytellings, and even religious services. One day, we had the Chief of the Mountain Band Tsalagi, the Keeper of the Flame for the Lenape, and numerous other dignitaries there. After they spoke, the kids at the hut served them meals prepared at the fire. The Keeper of the Flame told me that ‘For the first time in my life, I feel like I am really home.’ It was a great honor. 

 What an unusual opportunity. Sorry for interruption, Frank. Please tell us more about the experience.

 Grandfather Little Hawk has the ability to carry people with him to that perfect place, where nature is balanced and humans have lived the same way for ten thousand years, in harmony with their surroundings.

So I learned from him, lived a whole life, and wrote down what I observed. I think that it's true that he took me on a spiritual journey to that place. Then Little Hawk and Beverly suggested corrections to the language I used to "translate" the experience. For instance, in an early version of the book, I say that "Dancing Rain told the little children to sit in their older siblings' laps". That may be what I saw, but the truth is that Dancing Rain invited the children to sit. It was simply not a part of the culture to tell people what to do.

Because it is not traditional to tell people what to do, the only way to instruct is by example and storytelling. Instruction is in the first person, or the third person, never in the second. So for instance, Beverly never said to me, "Use props to illustrate this point". Instead, she’d say, "Once, when Little Hawk's audience was a little too quiet, I handed him a conch shell to blow." This is the traditional way to teach, by offering a story of a time when something was learned, or a problem was solved. It implies that the listener has a choice. 

So now that you learned the art of storytelling, have you tried it?

At my first book signing, I was very nervous. Before that, I never told a story in public. It went very well, we sold many books and I got invited back. So, I guess the book really does work.

I’m still in the process of reading this book. I’m learning a lot. Thanks so much for visiting Ramble Street, Frank. Come back again soon.

 By the way, Frank Cipriani is an interesting guy. Here's what I found out about him that he was too modest to mention.  
  • He has two published two books in Spanish. 
  • Became involved in Primitive Survival, started a nonprofit organization that took children on 200-plus mile walkabouts, planted over 3,000 trees
  • Is the official Spanish translator for Little Hawk's stories
  • Homeschooled his children for eighteen years Lives near the Jersey shore with his family of ten. 
  • Writes a weekly column for a paper in Bangladesh
  • Was recognized by the State of New Jersey as the county's volunteer of the year in 2009
  • Has won several awards for Childrens' Empowerment.
 Book related websites:
Learning Little Hawk's Way of Storytelling Facebook page 
Kenneth Little Hawk's website