Interview: Christopher Teuton on Cherokee Storytelling and the Turtle Island Liars’ Club

Cherokee Stories of the Turtle Island Liars’ Club, by Christopher Teuton
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Christopher B. Teuton, author of Cherokee Stories of the Turtle Island Liars’ Club, explores the teachings about Western Cherokee life and the art of Cherokee storytelling in the first collection of traditional and contemporary Western Cherokee stories published in over forty years.

In the following interview, Teuton discusses his relationship with the Turtle Island Liars’ Club and the stories he chose to share.


Q: You are both a citizen of the Cherokee Nation and a professor of Native American literary and cultural studies. What is your connection to the Turtle Island Liars’ Club?

A: I’d long been aware of the members of the Liars’ Club when I began studying the Cherokee language with two of them, Sequoyah Guess and Sammy Still, in the early 2000s. Our decision to collaborate on a book grew organically out of our talks about Cherokee lifeways and our conviction to see Cherokee ways of knowing remembered and shared with others.

Q: As you state in the book, sharing knowledge is a part of traditional Cherokee culture, but you also mention that some stories have never been shared publicly in published form. In fact, this is the first work of recorded Western Cherokee oral traditional stories published in over forty years. What made the Liars’ Club decide to write this book, and do some of the stories appear in print for the first time?

A: It was time. Hastings Shade and the other members of the club decided they wanted to pass on some of what their elders had taught them. As we discuss in the book, so many folks are eager to hear these stories and teachings, but for many different reasons they do not have access to Cherokee stories and teachings. We decided to write a book together as a means of sharing Cherokee stories, teachings, and knowledge with other Cherokees and the wider world. Many stories are published for the first time. We’re proud to see them in print.

Q: Hastings Shade says in the book that some information is on a “need to know basis,” meaning that some teachings are considered sacred knowledge and should not be shared with those outside the Cherokee tradition. How did you negotiate that tension between telling and not telling in relating Cherokee knowledge and teachings?

A: The members of the Liars’ Club have been sharing stories publicly for over twenty years. They know what’s appropriate to share with the public, as well as what’s not appropriate. I took my lead from them and in each step of the writing and publishing process we discussed the content of the book. We’re very excited about sharing the stories and teachings in the book.

Q: The Cherokee word for storytelling is “gagoga,” which means “lying.” Why is that significant? What is distinct about Cherokee storytelling?

A: The Cherokee language is full of puns. The use of the word “liar” to describe those who share Cherokee knowledge captures the playfulness and fluidity of Cherokee thought. Stories require listeners and readers to consider their truths and reflect on their meaning. Is it a lie, or is it truth? You decide. Cherokee storytelling is self-reflexive; so many of the stories in the book are about storytelling itself, and about how we create and understand our world through stories.

Q: Some of the stories are transcribed in the Cherokee syllabary with phonetic and literal translation. What is the Cherokee syllabary, and why was it important for you to include this?

A: The Cherokee syllabary was developed by Sequoyah, the famed Cherokee linguist, in the early nineteenth century. The Sequoyan script is composed of 85 symbols that represent syllables of the Cherokee language and has been used as a system of writing since its invention. Sequoyan is a beautiful and meaningful way of writing in the Cherokee language. Its perpetuation as a means of communication is something the Liars’ Club and I deeply value. We were delighted to be able to publish four stories in the book in the Sequoyan script.

Q: The stories in the book are identified as “written by” you and “told by” several others—a unique organizational style. What is the distinction between the two, and why is it necessary?

A: Our collaboration in creating this book enabled us to draw on our talents and strengths. While I was designated as the writer of the book—the one with the time, experience, and interest in composing the work, the members of the Liars’ Club were the traditional storytellers—the teachers who have learned their knowledge through stories and traditional practices. Together, we brought together the oral and the written to pass on Cherokee teachings and knowledge to future generations. This is how a community draws on its strengths for its mutual benefit.

Q: You spent a lot of time with the Liars’ Club. How did being a Cherokee shape your experience in recording these stories and writing this book?

A: I was learning from my elders. This book is shaped by the questions I asked and by what the Liars’ Club wanted to teach me. My methodology in recording and writing the book was guided by a Cherokee way of sharing knowledge, which is that the one with something to learn should watch, listen, and ask questions when it’s appropriate. I think for me and the Liars’ Club the book represents a Cherokee way of doing research in the community and sharing knowledge with the wider community. We hope it provides a model that will inspire others.

Q: What do you think readers can learn from the book and the stories in it about Cherokee history or about contemporary Cherokee culture?

A: Readers will find many perspectives on Cherokee history and the Cherokee world today. The book in no way aims to represent what Cherokees as a whole think—we all have unique experiences, perspectives, and opinions. But they’ll find discussion of Cherokee lifeways and history from the ancient times through the twentieth century and up to today.

Q: Each chapter of the book is accompanied by illustrations by Cherokee Nation visual artist America Meredith. Please tell us about your collaboration.

A: I met America Meredith when I was working on the book at the School for Advanced Research on the Human Experience in Santa Fe, New Mexico. She’s a tremendously talented artist and very knowledgeable about Cherokee history and culture, as well as art. We became friends and she read parts of the manuscript during the course of my time in Santa Fe. America’s illustrations add a beautiful counterpoint to the stories. I’m so grateful to have contemporary Cherokee visual art represented in the book.

Q: What does the future hold for the Liars’ Club and the tradition of sharing Cherokee stories and teachings?

A: Culture and traditions change, but if there is one thing I’m certain of it is that Cherokees will continue to pass on our knowledge from generation to generation. We’re a tremendously adaptive people. As Woody Hansen and others say in the book, there are many younger members of the Liars’ Club who have been listening to their elders for many years now. They and many other Cherokees are well-positioned to pass on the stories, teachings, and Cherokee language. It’s a process—one I see continuing.

Christopher B. Teuton (Cherokee Nation) is associate professor of American studies at the University of North Carolina and author of Cherokee Stories of the Turtle Island Liars’ Club and Deep Waters: The Textual Continuum in American Indian Literature. Follow him on Twitter @Noya_Teuton.