Tim Tingle is an award-winning author, much sought-after storyteller, and an enrolled member of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma. His great-great grandfather, John Carnes, walked the Trail of Tears in 1835 and passed-down memories of this family epic that fueled Tim’s early interest in writing and storytelling.
Nikki: How did you originally become interested in the Choctaw culture?
Tim Tingle: Well, I’m Choctaw. My grandmother was full-blooded Choctaw, and growing up, it seemed like we spent every weekend at her house. My uncle would pass down stories. My grandmother would warn us not to tell our friends, our Sunday school teacher, our scoutmaster, or anybody that we were Indian because she was afraid of what might happen to us.
My grandmother wanted us to blend in. She was afraid because of what happened to her when she was 12 years old, around the 1890’s. A couple of men in a horse-drawn wagon pulled up to her house, and her dad answered. The man said, “Your daughter has to go to boarding school, and we have a document here that you have to sign otherwise you’ll come under legal attack.” So, he signed it. They didn’t say she had to go to boarding school, but it was her admission to boarding school.
The fellow said, “She’s going to boarding school, and she’ll be able to come home maybe a weekend a month, but certainly for all holidays, and all summer long. We’ll tell you where she is so you can visit.” The dad said, “When will you come back to pick her up?” And he said, “Well, we’re here now; you’ve got 30 minutes.”
They put all of her things in bags, hurried off, and gave her a hug. She was crying, and they lifted her onto the wagon, and that’s the last time she ever saw her parents. What they had done was illegal; the men deceived her parents, because they were paid for every student they brought to the boarding school, and they weren’t going to tell them where she was because her parents might come to take her home, and it would cost them money. And they didn’t let her go home for a visit because they knew she’d never come back.
So I grew up hearing my grandmother’s fear about anyone knowing we were Indian. I had one really good friend whose mom was Chickasaw. My mom was Chickasaw and my dad was Choctaw. We all knew that we were Indian, but no one else did. Because of the books I’ve written and what I’ve been up to for the past 20 years, I was inducted into our high school hall of fame. After the ceremony, a lot of my high school classmates said, “What is this stuff about you being Choctaw? We never knew that.” I was on student council, I played basketball, and everyone knew me, but they didn’t know my heritage.
My uncles knew that we weren’t going to go around bragging about being Indian, but they wanted us to know who we were. In those days, most information about Indians came from Hollywood movies. The Indians never had names; they were the savages that kidnapped women and killed anybody they could. My uncles simply wanted us to know that we weren’t like that.
N: Was it a big step becoming a storyteller, having been told to keep your heritage under wraps?
Tim: It just came naturally, because I did a lot of public speaking. Doc Moore and I started a company: we made homestyle jams, preserves, and jellies. Our company grew bigger and bigger, and we were using produce grown primarily in Texas, which we became pretty well-known for. Eventually we had a factory with 200 people working in it. Governor Ann Richards came out to visit, and then she hired me to give programs and speeches at county gatherings and state agriculture meetings to show people how they could start and build a business.
I started doing a lot of public speaking and workshops. I noticed that I could pass out sheets with stats, and I could talk about profit margins and business ventures, but whenever I started to tell just a brief three to five-minute narrative, people would put down their pencils and stop chattering among themselves and zero-in on my presentation. That’s when I really learned, “Okay, there’s a power in storytelling.”
I had been volunteering at my son’s school and telling one or two old Choctaw tales. I was kind of frustrated because they weren’t teaching anything about Indians in American history. Then the teachers would refer me to their other teacher friends. Before I knew it, I had this small storytelling career going. Since I already had my company, I would take one or two days off a week and volunteer to do storytelling at schools.
Then I went to a storytelling festival in Denton, Texas, and that’s when I became part of the storytelling community, and that’s when I met August House.
I started writing down the stories I had been telling over the years. My first degree from the University of Texas in the 70’s was English Literature, and I always wanted to be a writer, so storytelling gave me an opportunity. I got my graduate degree from the University of Oklahoma, and although I was getting enough hours for a degree in Native American Studies, my degree was technically in English Literature.
N: Tell us how you and Greg Rodgers started the Choctaw Storytelling Festival?
Tim: The primary purpose of the festival was not so much performance as it was to bring as many elders together as we could from the Choctaw community to record their stories. We would serve breakfast at a cultural center. Then we’d let them know that we would like for them to stay a few hours after breakfast to share stories. We had tables set up so that one table might be about people that have family Trail of Tears memories, another might be about boarding schools or maybe stories about how we used to cook, etc. We had someone assigned to each table with specific instructions to just listen and let the elders talk.
The moderator would toss out a general question; once the elders started talking, they knew that the atmosphere was providing the story. The person assigned to each table was supposed to keep two tape recorders going and keep the coffee cups filled. It was all about collecting and sharing stories. Afterwards, we would have performances, but it wasn’t like other storytelling festival that most people are accustomed to today.
N: What sources did you draw from in order to create Spirits Dark and Light?
Tim: In that book, and everything I’ve written since, one of the key concepts that was drawn from the Choctaw Storytelling Festival was cultural items like foods, dress, attitude, where we lived and what the house was made of, etc. These details made the stories more authentic. The story, “No Name,” was from one of those old Choctaw people. I’ve performed that story numerous times at the Smithsonian and once at the Kennedy Center. It’s been performed in Ireland, all over Germany, Canada, and in at least 40 states in America. It’s one of my most requested stories.
The story is the literary basis for a series that I’m working on right now. The name of the series is "No Name," but it’s set in modern time. It’s about a high school boy who lives in Oklahoma in 2017, and his dad is an alcoholic. He’s a great basketball player, and his coach wants him to start on the basketball team. No Choctaw in this very racial community has ever played any sports on the high school teams. Most of them were so discouraged from going to school and ignored that they dropped out early. But this kid is very athletic and starts on the high school team, so his coach has to convince the kid that there’s still a chance with his dad, and he does that by telling him the story, “No Name.” It’s a traditional Choctaw son-dad story.
Most of the stories are Choctaw in that book, I’ve performed them at different festivals and schools. I’ve given hundreds of other people permission to perform the Choctaw stories at events, but I don’t give anyone permission to tell the Cherokee, the Creek or the Seminole stories. I have permission to write them, because I was given the stories by my Cherokee friends back in grad school at OU.
Most people think that Indians don’t want anyone else telling Indian stories, but that’s not always true. My mentor was Charlie Jones; he was our official tribal storyteller for a half a century. One of the things he emphasized with me early on was, “We want people to know we’re Choctaw. People don’t even know about us and we want people to know our stories.” If a person is going to be respectful, we give them permission to tell these stories, even though they’re not Choctaw
So just because someone isn’t Choctaw doesn’t mean they can’t tell our stories. If we keep saying that, we’re always preaching to the choir. Now that shouldn’t be taken as the general Indian attitude or even the Choctaw attitude. That was Charlie Jones’ feeling about sharing our stories, and since I was his student, I carry that core belief with me. Charlie told me, “Make sure they know this is a Choctaw story, and make sure they know enough about who we are so that they’ll get it right.”
When I do presentations at schools, my main goal is that when the students leave at the end of my presentation, they’ll realize that Indians are regular, modern people. We don’t live in tee-pees or run around with headdresses. Whenever I say that Indians use laptops or have iPhones, everybody laughs like I’m making a joke.
N: Have you ever performed When Turtle Grew Feathers at schools?
Tim: A lot! Kids love that story. I’ll do voices for the rabbit, even the little ants. It’s a traditional Choctaw story that goes back centuries and has obvious similarities with “The Turtle and the Hare.” It’s also important to distinguish the differences between the two stories. The original language of “The Turtle and the Hare” was not English, it was originally told in Choctaw.
N: Would you describe your research and writing process?
Tim: The first place I go is memory. I actually travel to our original homeland in Mississippi at least once a year, and I learn, I talk, and I visit. I pick up books and talk to people who tell me tales and stories that their grandparents told. Write what you know; I really encourage this simple rule. It’s the best thing to do. I’m writing a series about an alcoholic dad, because I know that from experience. If my dad had changed, then I wouldn’t be writing about it. I like to give people hope.
Then (if at all possible) I visit the place I want to write about. At least to feel the air, see the trees, and get to know the terrain. When I was writing Spirits Dark and Light, I spent time on every Indian Nation included in the book. I went to the Eastern Band of Cherokee and spent a week out there, and I talked to people to make sure that I wasn’t sharing any stories that I didn’t have specific permission to share. Occasionally, you’ll run across a story that is so culturally tight-lipped that people don’t want it shared outside of their culture, even though, in general, they have a sharing, open attitude about their stories.
So I had permission from someone in that Indian Nation to tell every story that’s not Choctaw in that book. Like I said earlier, I have a lot of friends who are Chickasaw, Seminole, and Cherokee. I visit with them and sometimes they would tell me a story or sometimes they’d connect me to an older friend who would tell me one.
One great primary source is American Indian Tales, published around the 1890s by the Bureau of American Ethnography, which used to be a federal program. Long before that, the attitude in Washington D.C. was that these groups would someday be gone from the face of the earth, so they wanted to collect as much information as possible. The people assigned to the project actually learned to speak the native language. They came out with a whole series about American Indians. It took me a long time, but I’ve managed to assemble the whole collection. They focused on different tribal nations, and I do everything I can to really document the origins of the stories.
N: What elements do you look for when you choose to adapt a story or create a new book?
Tim: I’ve recorded about 200 to 300 hours on tapes, and a lot of those tales aren’t beginning-middle-end folktales, but so much of that can be woven into really powerful narratives. It’s not so much that I’m looking for story elements, but I look for a story that just won’t leave me alone. The key thing that all successful stories have is trouble. The more serious the trouble or conflict, the more serious the story. The more relatable the trouble is, the more marketable the story.
N: Why do you think it’s important for young readers to learn about the Choctaw culture?
Tim: Basically so they know that we exist. In our society, so many things have been whitewashed that people think if you’re not white or weren’t raised speaking English, you’re not 100% American. That’s the big picture, but my first impulse was I just wanted people to know who Choctaws were. By the way, we’re the third largest Indian Nation in America today.
The Texas State Board of Education, mandates that schools teach seven tribes in American History classes. All seven of those tribes are now extinct, and they let it be known that if there’s any word on the state’s standardized test related to American Indians that the kids better know, it’s the word “extinct.” Although they’re not literally saying to kids, “All Indians are extinct,” the underlying implication is strong.
As a result, when I go to a school and introduce myself as an American Indian, one kid will raise his hand and ask, “Teacher, explain to him that Indians are extinct.” That’s been going on now for 15 years, and not once has a teacher corrected a student, because they don’t want to confuse the students and have them miss a vocabulary test word.
Most Americans don’t realize that we are a nation. We have our own constitution. Every four years we elect our own Chief Executive. Last year, I voted in two Presidential elections. We have our own supreme court. We have our own flag, our own land boundaries, our own police force, our own national budget, and our own health care system. We’re a nation. We have citizenship laws. We carry around ID’s indicating our citizenship, and those ID’s will work at any airport in the world. We are respected as a nation, even in Washington D.C.
No one brought that up during all of that stuff about the pipeline. They kept bringing up “sacred Indian territory,” but nobody’s going to take that seriously. Government officials didn’t say, “This belongs to the Lakota Nation; they’re trespassing on the land that belongs to another national entity.” For example, there are 42 distinct Indian Nation capitals in Oklahoma alone, and another dozen or more in New Mexico.
Every Indian Nation is different from the others, in the same way German laws are different from British laws. At the beginning of every chapter in Spirits Dark and Light, Greg Rodgers wrote introductions, which touch on the history and the culture of that specific Indian tribe, so the reader will know that each Indian Nation is unique and the book is not just a collection of Southeast Indian stories.
N: What were some of your favorite books growing up?
Tim: I was a big Edgar Allen Poe fan, along with Huckleberry Finn, Tom Sawyer, and The Hardy Boys. When I was in the 6th grade, I read Animal Farm by George Orwell, and it just threw me for a loop. Sometime in junior high I read 1984. My mom would read bedtime stories to us growing up.
While a lot of people do that, my mom would call the youngest of us and read a bedtime story. Anybody that wanted to listen could, but the story was specifically selected for the youngest child. Then she would call the next to youngest, and she would pull out a different book, and so on and so forth. There were five of us, so she read five different books to us every single night. As you can see, I was raised with a lot of exposure to stories. I didn’t hear a different book every night; I would hear four or five different books every night.
I was raised respecting books. My dad came back from World War II and joined the John Steinbeck book club. He got a hardback book about every three months, and each book cost him 50 cents. I got interested in Steinbeck around the 5th grade. I remember my dad would get all of the kids together when he’d take my mom out to eat on Saturday.
Before they went out, he would say, “You kids know where I keep those Steinbeck books. They’re in the closet stuffed behind the towels on the way to the bathroom, because you are not to read them! Those books are not for children! They have words and things that children are not to know about! Stay away from them!” Then he would turn the TV on, step outside the door with my mom, and then peek his head back in and say, “And we’ll be back around 11 o’ clock tonight!”
At the time, we didn’t realize what he was doing! He was encouraging us to read Steinbeck! We would send my little brother to the window and say, “Is he gone yet?” We wanted to put a bookmark in the book so we would know where to start the next time, and we’d say “No! We can’t do that because then he’ll see the bookmark!” Then one time, my little brother came in with a red crayon and said, “This will be cool; let’s underline the bad words with the crayon so we don’t have to read the whole book to find the bad words.”
So, I’m in the 7th grade, it’s summertime, and it’s a Saturday. My dad and I are cutting the weeds in our garden, and Dad took his hat off, wiped his brow, leaned back on his hoe and said, “What are we gonna do now, Lenny?” I looked at him and said, “I don’t know, what are we gonna do now, George?” That’s a key phrase that’s repeated over and over in Of Mice and Men. I thought, “Oh no! He’s gonna know!” My dad didn’t say a word, he just kind of laughed and we went on working in the garden.
He knew we were reading his books! I’m sure he would do things like stack them in a certain order to make sure we were reading them. That was his goal, to get us to read great books. I believe that’s the best thing you can do for your kids, make sure they love to read.
N: What advice do you have for young writers?
Tim: If you want to be a writer, it’s important to learn about writing. But the most important thing you could ever do to become a successful writer is to simply write. People will say, “You can’t write!” Keep writing. People will say, “You’re still trying to do this?” Keep writing. Then when you get a book published, and they never have, then they say, “Oh you’re just lucky!” It doesn’t matter what they say; you’re a writer so just keep writing.
If you want to be a successful writer and get published, you have to learn to love revising your work. Don’t look at revising as a task that you dread. Here’s one way to look at it: If you’re writing fiction, you have to realize that you’re creating a world, in which everything that happens within that world is up to you. A character can’t just pop into a room and say something you don’t want them to say. Nothing can happen that you don’t approve of. You’re literally creating a universe, and in many ways, you’re the sovereign deity. As a result, revision is going back to that universe and making it even better. As a writer, your job is to describe that world well enough that people outside of it will read your work and see the world you created.
N: I think a common problem among writers is a lack of confidence in their own work. Does that ever happen to you? If so, how do you combat it?
Tim: Oh it happens all the time. I think the best artists in the world are the least confident people in the world, because they see the world as no one else see’s it. You don’t get over that; you just keep working in spite of it. I still feel that way.
Some times when a book is published and I read it, I’ll just bawl like a baby because I’m so moved by it. Then you think, “This is the best thing I’ve ever written. I can’t do that again.” Lack of confidence is something that everyone who has achieved a high level of creative excellence shares in common. They know they can write on some level, but at the same time they feel it’s not the best, and that’s especially true in the art world.
N: Do you have someone that you trust to read your work before anyone else?
Tim: Always. That’s another thing that’s very important. Find a writing buddy who will tell you gently, or sometimes ferociously, or ferociously kindly, that your work needs to be redone, that you need to go back and rewrite it.
Another tip to keep in mind is that the last people you’d ever want to show your writing to are family members. Most family members will never take your writing career seriously. In fact, I don’t take it that way, myself. I’m pleased with my books, I’m pleased with the reviews, I’m pleased with the sales - it’s that next book that I don’t have any confidence in!