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California festival invites telling tales, music and dance

FREMONT, Calif. - Mary Bishop stands with arms folded and head down while loudly exhaling to relieve stress.

"I've got butterflies in my ol' tummy!" she exclaims.

When her name is called, the 61-year-old Salinan elder comes to the microphone at the front of the stage and starts speaking to an audience of more than 100. Wavering for a moment, Bishop's voice firms and becomes confident as she tells the story of a gold mine and a greedy white man who is outwitted by the old Salinan elder who faithfully kept its secret.

Afterward, Bishop is flushed with excitement. "I'm gonna keep on doing this!" she exults. Another California Indian Storyteller is born. Bishop, who holds much of the tribe's traditional knowledge, says the experience awakened something inside. "It has made me realized what I have been missing by not seeking out my people, not just my own, but all Indians."

After 200 years of cultural upheaval, slavery and neglect, California's Indians reclaim their heritage as dances and ceremonies once believed extinct reappear. Students line up for instruction in the ancient arts of basketweaving, shell jewelry and California's unique musical instruments. More than 150 tribes and languages of the Golden State emerged from hiding to reclaim their rightful place in society.

This phenomenon can be experienced at the California Indian Storytelling Festival beginning Sept. 30 at Ohlone College in Fremont. Native storytellers, artisans, musicians and just plain folks will come together for a dazzling display of California Indian cultural tradition.

"It was the traditional Native way for eight to 12 different tribes to gather at designated 'Big Times' to exchange information, knowledge and activities, including trading and social activities like dancing and storytelling," the association's rotating chairperson Lanny Pinola, Pomo/Miwok, explained. "Tribes would bring their best storytellers, dancers and craftspeople. Stories were told, crafts demonstrated, new songs learned, leaders would meet for political negotiation, children played games and made friends, and the elders watched everything."

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The festival provides California Native oral heritage with a modern venue to survive and flourish. In its short life, the festival blossomed from a tiny one-day affair in a remote canyon into three days of seminars, dance, art and, above all, story.

Board President Lauren Texeira, a non-Indian librarian from Fremont, melded her passion for Native culture with her uncanny organizational skills to gather a small group of Indian storytellers for the first festival in 1995 at Indian Canyon in San Benito County. With the sponsorship of Ann Marie Sayers, chairwoman of the Indian Canyon Band of Mutsun Ohlone, and the assistance of Achomawi artist Kathy Martinez, Texeira assembled five Native scholars who presented stories to an audience of 110.

Over the next five years, the event outgrew remote Indian Canyon and eventually moved to Ohlone College. The 1999 Festival featured 18 scholars and culture bearers from all corners of the state, who spoke, performed and sang to an audience of more than 500.

Traditional songs and dances from throughout California also play a role at the festival. A typical performance may feature Chumash Singers Sue Diaz, John Moreno, and Georgiana Sanchez from Ventura County; Shaker Singers George Blake, Yurok/Hupa and Tony Silvia, Yurok, from the far northwest corner of California; and the Robinson Rancheria Pomo Youth Dancers, from Sonoma County, north of San Francisco.

California singers and dancers use traditional split-stick rattles, gourds, a variety of flutes and small hand drums in place of the better-known pow wow drums.

The 2000 California Indian Storytelling Festival promises to outshine previous fests with 25 storytellers and scholars, an Honored Elders program, more dancers and singers, and an ever-expanding educational resource program.

For more information on the festival, check out, call (510) 794-7253, or write California Indian Storytelling Association, P.O. Box 267, Fremont, Calif. 94537-0267.