September 20, 2018 | Arts and Culture
listen to the coyote
audiobooks and the navajo tradition
My grandmother loved to reminisce on her days herding sheep. She’d share old farm tales, when animals roamed and angry geese poked at their backsides. We’d all gather around her cast-iron stove, breathing in the heavenly scent of burning cedar, intrigued by these stories of her past and of our history. These were the nights I looked forward to. During the day, I scrambled around in the dirt, collected rocks, and ran through the cornfield with my band of cousins and siblings on the Navajo reservation. But as soon as the sun set, we all clambered inside and bundled up in our favorite worn blankets, hanging on my grandmother’s every word. These stories—each reflecting on various aspects of the Navajo (Diné) culture—stick with me to this day.
When I mention storytelling, many of us might imagine our beloved grandmothers pulling out a book full of beautiful illustrations with script along the margins. This was not the case in my grandmother’s home, a hogan—the customary dwelling of the Navajo people. My grandparents relied on traditional Navajo storytelling, which was passed down orally. In fact, the Navajo language didn’t have a formal written component until missionaries and settlers arrived in the Southwest. In the early 20th century, the first Navajo alphabet set was finally published, but it was rarely used by native speakers. Despite the contemporary obstacles, our culture of oral storytelling remains intact to this day.
We listen. We reflect. We respond. Our practice is a social activity. In those moments, we’re all present.
During the winter season, my grandmother told stories of Coyote and the animals. I remember how she looked each of my siblings in the eye and said, “You can’t tell these stories after the first thunder.” She explained how these tales were only for winter because that’s when the animals are hibernating and can’t hear us recount their history. Though most of these stories can now be found in books, growing up, I experienced them by ear.
Each of my grandmother’s words took on a lyrical sound, rhythm drawing me in and out with each recollection. “Coyote was a trickster.” I nudged my brother’s side, snickering. He nudged me back, indignant. “The Holy People came together to organize the stars.” I leaned forward; this was my favorite story. “They created the constellations, placing Náhookos Bika’ii (The Big Dipper) and Náhookos Biko’ (Polaris) in the north.” I watched my grandmother’s hands, enchanted. “Once the constellations were finished, they had stars left over. One wanted to arrange them into a circle. Another wanted a diamond.” I bit my lips, listening. “But Coyote was nearby, spying from the bushes. He was angry the Holy People didn’t invite him to the meeting.” I smiled, waiting. “The Holy People had the stars laid out on a buckskin blanket. While they consulted and argued, Coyote jumped out of the bushes, took the blanket in his hands, and tossed the stars into the night sky.” I felt her words rush over me, like I too was on that blanket, hurled into the sky. My brother sat up, “And then what? Did he get in trouble?” I remember my grandmother smiling, “Hush, shiyazh (a term of endearment). Listen.” This was storytelling in its finest form.
Entering preschool, I learned the public school system favored a different medium. To soften the transition, my father curled up with me on our frayed couch and read aloud, my stubby index finger tracing the text. With no other printed texts readily available, we’d often read tattered car manuals. On my own, I attempted to recreate those moments of revelation with my grandmother. But the text always fell flat. Reading with my father became a daily activity—at least he did voices. As a young Native girl entering elementary school, I assimilated myself into print culture. I read school library books and forced myself to take notes. The common argument for print books among my teachers was the ability to interact directly with the text via Post-it notes, highlighters, etc. Naively, I took their words as gospel and forced silent reading.
But storytelling was never silent at home. Near the start of middle school, I began reading books aloud to myself. I played with the language. I acted out the voices, felt the rhythm. Sure, I might’ve looked a little crazy, sitting alone in a corner reading the dialogue aloud, but it felt familiar. Visits to my grandmother’s hogan became less and less frequent as the years went by. This separation intensified my relationship with print books. I threw all caution to the wind and read viciously, trying to reclaim that same rhythm. It wasn’t until my final year of middle school that I managed to complete an entire series. I always lost interest around the second book, if I could get through the first. I felt extremely out of place, watching my peers judge me for being below grade level.
Suddenly a solution hit me: audiobooks. Though I couldn’t access them outside of YouTube and the occasional library rental, they became my preferred source of literature. After school, I could plug in my headphones and walk home in reflective peace. I felt connected with the text. Memories of my grandmother and her stories returned. Tales of Changing Women and the Holy People, of Father Sky and Mother Earth, and of the Four Worlds. Audiobooks brought me back to my roots.
But I soon learned audiobooks were also the bane of public schools. Almost by default, I was deemed academically inadequate by teachers and peers alike. Audiobooks are not branded with the prestigious reputation of print. Many discredit their undeniable value: “Oh that’s not real reading,” or, “You’re not really learning anything.” Dozens of studies, such as “Using Audiobooks to Meet the Needs of Adolescent Readers” by Gene Wolfson, prove audiobooks are just as intellectually enriching as printed books. The belief that audiobooks carry no real significance enforces another dangerous idea—that specific forms of knowledge are inherently superior to others. To say audiobooks are not as challenging as print books is to imply that the oral history of other cultures is not as enriching as the dominating medium.
The Diné culture carries tradition proudly. My grandparents are respected elders within my family. Whenever they share their stories—full of lived experiences, childish mistakes, and learned wisdom—the room goes quiet. But outside of this circle, their words are ignored. It’s ironic that Native American cultures are generally known for their oral storytelling, and yet our voices remain unheard. Welcoming diverse experiences, rather than labeling them insignificant, opens various pockets of understanding. Audiobooks, just like the traditions of my grandparents and those before them, should be respected as a valued source of knowledge. All knowledge, no matter its origin or form, can enrich your perspective of the world.
It’s been eight years, and whenever I look up at the night sky, I still remember the story of Coyote and the Holy People. During these soft moments of reflection, no matter where they occur, my grandmother’s words come back to me: “Hush, shiyazh. Listen.”