I learned recently the winter solstice marks the beginning of storytelling season in Indian Country. From then until early spring, elders from native cultures used storytelling to pass cultural values and traditions through the generations. Oftentimes, one story held multiple elements of a tribe’s specific culture. In particular, the Hopi told stories of the Katsinam—spirit messengers who bring rain, bountiful harvests, and good fortune in the coming year. They bring gifts, and teach the Hopi people how to represent their name—the Peaceful Ones. As I read, I began to believe I was bearing witness to a reverence for humanity that I don’t hear often enough anymore. The words of Hopi poet Ramson Lomatewama stuck with me. “Winter is a time to gain the reverence of the spirits,” he wrote. “It is also a quiet time; the time for telling stories, and learning from them.” This is storytelling in the raw. It’s a way to re-center our reverence for humanity.
During the first day of Sen. Jeff Sessions’ (R-AL) hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) told a story of Sessions’ involvement in Michael Donald’s murder case. Cruz’s narrative championed Sessions’ willingness to corroborate in the investigation and how the Klansmen suffered the death penalty because of it. As I listened, I was struck by the way the Republican senators told similar stories in attempt to reinvent Jeff Sessions. Rhetorical stories such as Donald’s were coupled with leading questions for Sessions to nod his head to. Their tactic was to decentralize the allegations of bigotry against Sessions from the conversation. As a whole, the Republicans’ testimony in its entirety read like William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying—every one offered a different perspective on the same narrative. Apparently storytelling season is the same as confirmation season in politics.
I was reminded of the Hopi story of The Blue Corn Maiden. The Maiden is the prettiest of all the Blue Corn sisters, and brings a year-round harvest and peace to the Hopi people. One day, Winter Katsina takes the Blue Corn Maiden to live in his home. She is terribly unhappy living there, and finds blades of yucca to make a fire once Winter leave the house. As the fire burns, the door to Winter’s house melts and Summer Katsina comes to rescue her. Winter returns and fights Summer over the Maiden. The story ends with the Katsina agreeing to share time with the Maiden equally. Half of the year, she will provide corn to the people, and in the other half she lives with Winter.
To me, the story is a lesson about both value and choice. Every choice is made with a greater good in mind. Winter chooses to let the Maiden go because of how much her corn means to the Hopi. The Maiden sustains life for the Hopi by providing corn, and in turn teaches the Hopi the value of each harvest. Here, we can see how choice is a prerequisite of value. Winter chooses to release the Maiden at his dismay, implying the Katsina value sustaining the Hopi community over their own pleasures. The story shows that choices made which help sustain life are inherently good.
Conversely, the GOP’s storytelling presents a false choice between Sessions’ political past and the story being built around him today. These two are not mutually exclusive. It’s because of Sessions’ checkered past that stories like these are necessary. They present how valueless storytelling is when more than one story is needed to prove a point. As Ronal Regan once said, “If you’re explaining, you’re losing”. The GOP have a clear path through confirmations since they have the majority in both houses of congress so the term ‘losing’ applies loosely. The numerous explanations offered for their actions will ultimately erode the trust and good-faith in politicians which Donald Trump claimed his administration would restore.
We can never control a story’s ability to bestow values on future generations. Everyone reads them in different lights. As the hearing ended, Sessions quipped: “Last time, I was unprepared. There was a calculated effort to characterize me as something I am not. This time, I had a good team around me.” Essentially, Sessions’ mistake in 1986 was not preparing his story well before the hearing. This time around he brought backup.
Robert Davis is a freelance writer currently living in Colorado with his girlfriend Victoria. He writes about sports, politics, culture, technology, art, and their intersections.