Dinè Storyteller

A Conversation with Sunny Dooley

By Edward Karshner

I met Sunny Dooley toward the end of my time working in the Pine Springs Community, on the Navajo Nation. I had spent nearly ten years learning about the inner workings of Dinè folk-metaphysics and culture. With Sunny, however, I learned about the power of story. And it was her passion for her own stories that eventually sent me back to my own mountains and my own stories.

EK: Let’s start this interview properly. Could you introduce yourself in the traditional Dinè way—in your own language?

 SD:  am Tódik’ozhi (Water is Salty Clan), Tábaahí baa shichiin (By the Edge clan is my father’s clan), Kinyaa’áanii dashichei (Towering House Clan is my Matrilineal Grandfather’s Clan), Tsénahabiłnii (Rock Fortress Clan is my Paternal Nalii Clan). I am a Nihókáá Diiyiin Diné/Earth Surface Divine Person residing in Ní’dishchíí’biłyildiz Dédeez’á’ Bigháá – Pinetree Glen on the High Ridge. I am a Diné Hozhojii Hané Teller, poet, and an organizer of positive possibilities for true change to root.

EK: What does it mean to be a Dinè Hozhojii Hanè? How is that different from how we, in the Anglo world, might understand a “storyteller”?

SD: Diné is my tribal affiliation. Navajo is the word given to my tribe by the Spanish and Anglo people. The word Diné indicates a five-fingered human.

Hozhojii is whole/wholistic/good/positive. Hané is to speak into the situation a set of wisdom.

EK: In Appalachia, when we meet someone, we ask “who’s your people?” The answer always comes with names of relatives, locations, stories. I see that in the Dinè way, too. How does a person’s clan place them among people, places and stories?

SD: Diné people introduce themselves by clan and home place origin to establish relationships with each other. We then acknowledge one another by relationship and the “roles” those relationships hold. From the day I was born, I was already a grandmother, mother, Nalii (paternal grandmother), older/younger sister, aunt, bizhi (paternal aunt), first cousin sister, cousin, biki’s (paternal first cousin). These relationships define how I interact with my relatives. These relatives are defined by my family tree as well as my Diné clan relationships. 

Acknowledging where your mother’s land is indicates your place of origin, your “home place.”  It also designates where my umbilical cord has literally been grounded and planted in the Earth Mother. This is the piece of my umbilical cord that dried up and fell off as a baby. My parents planted me where my ancestral roots are. 

I am related to a total of 11 additional clans.

EK: So, family means something broader to the Dinè. In this way, relatives are equally “blood relations” and clan relations. Is that what is meant by Dinè k’eji? I’ve heard that idea glossed in English as “all my relations.”

SD: Ke’e is the foundation of Diné individual world view. We are interconnected with the Universe by our wholistic relationship with every life form on and in this universe. Maybe even beyond this universe.

However, I am not related to every five fingered human. I mentioned all the clan groups I’m related to. These groups also define who I cannot marry and how I can interact with other clans and in essence, other nationalities.

I gave you the Diné designation of ShiTsili, My Little Brother, as we were to be traveling around the Navajo Nation. To avoid ANY misconceptions of our affiliation to my Diné relatives, to be respectful and polite. Your identification as my little brother puts everyone at ease. This designation gives you a place in my community. You are not “this strange, tall, white guy who drives me around on Navajoland.” All assumptions are crushed.

EK: When I started doing Dinè Studies, one of the first books I read was Land of Room Enough and Time Enough by Richard Klinck. The title appealed to me because in my part of German settled Appalachia, we have a magical formula of “Zeit und Raum is Alles,” time and space is everything. I wonder how you see your traditional stories situating a people in time and place?

SD: As I was growing up, I was aware that when I spoke, I spoke in “plural.” I spoke as “we.” I never spoke as a single person. This practice acknowledged the past, the present and future. We acknowledged the ancestors, our present reality, and the fact that we would, at some time and place also become ancestors. We are here by their grace. We should live harmoniously within our being and with my community. I’m establishing a good place where my great grandchildren live. This is our sense of time and place/space. It’s eternal.

EK: Let’s talk about story. Charles Upton, who was writing about Appalachian stories, says that traditional stories express a “folk-metaphysics” where stories express not a knowledge we poses but a knowledge we are made of. I think the Dinè way is similar. There isn’t such a thing as “just a story.” How are Dinè stories not just a possession but something essential to who you are?

SD: I am the stories of my Ancestors. There is absolutely no doubt. If it were not for my ancestors establishing a Hozho (blessed with abundant well-being) sense for me, I wouldn’t be here. I am a walking manifestation of their prayers/songs/stories. Just as I am currently establishing that same kind of place for my great grandchildren and their great grandchildren.

EK: While this is common knowledge among Dinè who do Dinè Studies, the concept that Dinè stories have both a male version and female version is sadly not discussed in the Anglo study of Dinè culture. Why is it important to have a male and female version of a story?

SD: The importance of having a female and male version of a story is its adherence to balance. In any situation, in any culture, in any country on Earth, where stories come from the female and male voice, you find a sense of diversity—a rich abundance of respect for all life forms, intelligence and tremendous wisdom and common sense. How many stories, cultures and countries were vastly altered because the female voice was subdued, burned or demolished?

EK: What are the thematic or structural differences between a female and male story? What is each variant trying to accomplish?

SD: This question is too intrusive. To answer this question requires proper payment and ceremony. And a lifetime apprenticeship to be a Medicine Person. However, each aspect of these stories are always establishing balance.

EK: My intention wasn’t to be intrusive. What I was thinking, for example, is this week I’ve been working at Berea College with the Leonard Roberts collection of Appalachian folklore and what I’ve noticed, working with these stories, is that there does seem to be what I would consider a male and female version of Appalachian folktales. For example, in a male story there is usually some sort of violation of a norm. Followed by a punishment, usually the death of the person who violates the norm, and then the story just ends. In a female story, there is also a violation and there may be a death and violence; however, rather than punishment, there is some sort of restoration, and the story ends with a sense of a new beginning. I was wondering if Navajo stories and their male and female versions have that characteristic?

SD: I don’t know. Let me think about that… In our way men tell men’s stories. Women tell women stories. A man won’t tell a woman’s story and a woman won’t tell a man’s story. These male and female stories don’t cross. They are brought together in a way that is beyond our ability to do so. So, I don’t know anything about men’s stories. I think what we’re talking about here are two different ways of telling stories. Navajo stories are Navajo stories. Appalachian stories are Appalachian stories. So there really isn’t a way to talk about one in terms of the other.

I noticed this when I first started telling stories professionally and went to Anglo storytelling competitions. Someone would finish a story with “And the moral of the story is” or say “what do you think happened next?” Our [Dinè] stories don’t end that way. They just don’t. It’s up to you to decide what a story means to you.

EK: The elder I worked with in Pine Springs used to finish every story with a shrug and say “Now it’s up to you.”

SD: Yes, that’s right. It’s up to you.

EK: In the Appalachian storytelling tradition, and I think this is common in most oral traditions, stories are not something possessed but something you participate in. I’ve seen you tell. When you get going, the atmosphere changes. What is your relationship to the story at that moment? How does that translate into a moment of transformation for the people gathered to hear the story?

SD: Stories transport you to a place of transformation. Stories are powerful healings. I’m very careful about what I do as Teller. I must remember I am my Ancestors’ prayer. I am establishing my great grandchildren’s reality.

EK: Of all the things I learned in my time in the Dinètah (among the People), this is my favorite. That stories can heal. How are stories healing?

SD: A story takes you out of your “ordinary.” It takes you out of yourself, allows you to be transferred and then, transformed. It may transfix you, while you are translating the many depths and aspects of your being.  Stories are also not geared in judgment or hierarchy or morality. Stories allow you to grow out – not up. That’s a powerful aspect of healing through story.

EK: That brings me to this question, I think about our adventures together. The places we’ve been: the sacred mountains, the cave with no wind. The things we’ve done, introduced ourselves to the land, the fantastic food. In those moments, I always felt like we were characters in a bigger story. Do you know what I mean? How do we, as a traditional people in a non-traditional world continue to live the stories that make life meaningful?

SD: We must always do our best. We must know when to let go and move on. We must know how to forgive and actually “forgive.”  And know without doubt that everything on Earth is alive, has a story and we must learn to listen. Not just always be “out there telling.” Watch your words. You are building your great grandchildren’s world with the words in your stories.

EK: One more question. What should we all be doing when we aren’t “out there telling”?

SD: Like I said, do your best. We must always be striving to do our best. This means knowing when to let go. Learning when it’s time to forgive and move on. Working to be a good human being.

EK: A’he’hee, Shádí. Thank you, big sister.

Sunny Dooley

Sunny Dooley is Nihókáá Diiyiin Diné/Earth Surface Divine Person residing in Ní’dishchíí’biłyildiz Dédeez’á’ Bigháá – Pinetree Glen on the High Ridge.  She has been a DinéHozhojii Hané Teller, poet, and organizer of positive possibilities for true change to root.

author Edward Karshner

Edward Karshner

Edward Karshner was born in Ross County, Ohio and grew up in the Salt Creek Valley of Southeast Appalachia Ohio which draws together Ross, Hocking, and Pickaway Counties. After earning a Ph.D. in Rhetoric and Philosophy from Bowling Green State University, he began to explore cultural rhetoric as expressed in folklore. His primary interest was how landscape influences folk-ideologies. In the early part of his career, he travelled extensively in China, Slovakia, Austria, and the Czech Republic before spending over a decade working with the Dinè (Navajo). Now, as an Associate Professor of English at Robert Morris University, he has returned to researching, teaching and writing about Appalachian folklore, magic, and mysticism. He lives in Oberlin, Ohio with his wife, two children, and a mixed breed dog named Carlos.