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Collecting Cherokee Stories: An Interview With Christopher B. Teuton

Indian Country Today Media Network chatted with Christopher B. Teuton, author of Cherokee Stories of the Turtle Island Liars’ Club, to find out more about how the book came together. Read ICTMN's review and a chat with Sequoyah Guess, one of the featured storytellers.

How did the idea for this book begin? How did you get in touch with the Turtle Island Liars’ Club?

My family is from up near Grove [Oklahoma] and I’ve been coming home to Cherokee country since I was a teenager. One afternoon in Tahlequah [Oklahoma] around 2001 I came across a copy of Sequoyah Guess’s self-published novel, Kholvn. I read the book, loved it, and thought it would be great to interview Sequoyah for an upcoming issue of Mississippi Quarterly dedicated to Indigenous literatures of the South. I didn’t know Sequoyah, so I e-mailed a message to the email address on the book introducing myself. Sequoyah answered it, I interviewed him, and the interview was published. Over time, Sequoyah and I became friends and when I wanted to study the language, he and Sammy Still worked with me on it.

Through them I met Hastings Shade and Woody Hansen. The idea for the book grew over several years. We all felt there was a need for a book of Cherokee stories and teachings. When we started, it was as simple as pressing record on my digital recorder. We didn’t have any plan for what would be discussed or how it would get expressed. Over time, Hastings and the other members of the Liars’ Club and I shaped a purpose for the book as the conversations and stories charted a path.

What was it like conversing with and learning from the storytellers?

As Sammy points out in the book, Cherokees like to laugh and have a good time. So, we had a good time together! We laughed a lot and shared a lot. It was a tremendous honor to be writing a book with the Liars’ Club. Sammy, Sequoyah, Woody and Hastings ??? [tsigesv, denoting he has passed] are generous, kind, respectful people who lift each other up with their knowledge and humor. They lifted me up as well.

What do you hope the audience will take away from this book?

Stories are living things, and as we interact with them they transform us through the ideas they express and the emotions they invoke within us. I hope that by reading Cherokee Stories of the Turtle Island Liars Club a reader will feel he/she has been changed for the better. I hope readers of the book will have a deeper appreciation for the complexity of Cherokee history, the integrity of Cherokee community, and the continuing richness of Cherokee lifeways. I hope the book makes people laugh, think, and remember the power of stories in all of our lives; it’s what makes us human.

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What did you take away from it?

Let me answer this one with a story. I had a fellowship at the School For Advanced Research on the Human Experience in Santa Fe, New Mexico from August 2009 to May 2010. The fellowship gave me the time to transcribe the many hours of recordings I had of conversations and storytellings with the Liars’ Club. It also gave me time to edit those conversations and stories and to begin piecing together those elements of story and conversation that became the book. On Christmas eve 2009, the house in Santa Fe I was living in was burglarized. I had left that morning to visit friends down the street, and while my kids and I were having a snowball fight the house was broken into. I had left my laptop computer with all my work on the book—recordings, videos, writings--on the kitchen table. When my kids and I came home, we found the front door wide open, broken glass everywhere, and the house in disarray. The first thing I did was look at the kitchen table. The laptop was gone.

I was devastated. It wasn’t so much the loss of my writings and transcriptions that worried me, it was the loss of those recordings and videos with the Liars’ Club. They documented events—moments in time and place—and they couldn’t simply be recovered or recorded again.

I thought I had lost all my years of work with the Liars’ Club, and I began to doubt whether or not the book project should go forward. “Maybe it wasn’t meant to be,” I thought to myself. But in the coming days, I began to piece the recordings, transcriptions, and writings back together. I didn’t have backups of all the material, but I found old emails I’d sent to people with recordings embedded. I found backups I’d forgotten I made. I had given old drafts of the manuscript to my son so he could draw his comics on the backs of the pages. I collected those from him and scanned the material into a program that turned the words back into a .doc file. It was painstaking work.

The lesson I learned was that when things seem their worst, when loss seems inevitable, if one adapts and changes what seems like loss is just a transition into a new reality. If that computer had not been stolen, the book would not be what it is today. It was part of the process.

Cherokee Stories of the Turtle Island Liars Club has taught me a great deal. While I am part of it and had a hand in creating it, it really has a life of its own. I hope Cherokee people see it as their book.

Are there plans for a sequel?

We’re talking about a sequel. We surely have enough recorded material for another book. We’ll cross that bridge once Cherokee Stories has found its place in the world.