UCCS Kraemer Family Library Inaugurates First Storytelling Professorship

Dr. N.S. ‘Ilaheva Tua’one, assistant professor of Native American and Indigenous studies in the Women’s and Ethnic Studies Program at the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs (UCCS), has been named the inaugural Storytelling Professor at the Kraemer Family Library. The three-year rotating endowed professorship will give Tua’one the opportunity to celebrate and diffuse storytelling into the culture of Colorado Springs through an interdisciplinary lens. LJ spoke with Tua’one and Seth Porter, dean of the Kraemer Family Library and lead of online education for academic affairs, to hear more about what the new professorship will involve, why storytelling is important in an academic setting, and how to catch an octopus with a rat.

'Ilaheva Tua'one (top), Seth Porter
N.S. 'Ilaheva Tua'one (top), Seth Porter

Dr. N.S. ‘Ilaheva Tua’one, assistant professor of Native American and Indigenous studies in the Women’s and Ethnic Studies Program at the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs (UCCS), has been named the inaugural Storytelling Professor at the Kraemer Family Library. The three-year rotating endowed professorship will give Tua’one the opportunity to celebrate and diffuse storytelling into the culture of Colorado Springs through an interdisciplinary lens.

LJ spoke with Tua’one and Seth Porter, dean of the Kraemer Family Library and lead of online education for academic affairs, to hear more about what the new professorship will involve, why storytelling is important in an academic setting, and how to catch an octopus with a rat.

LJ: How and why did UCCS establish this position?

Seth Porter: We have an endowment at the Kraemer Family Library, and one of our biggest donors has always had a passion for intergenerational studies as well as storytelling. We were able to work with the donor and the university and come up with a novel way to start decolonizing our collection, as well as diversifying it, through our programming.

For us in Kraemer Family Library, there’s this real opportunity to partner with ‘Ilaheva and move forward with [the questions]: What are we doing with our collections? What are we doing with our programs? What are we valuing? What are we celebrating? And what labor are we compensating? Because what I see at universities constantly is there can be so much service without compensation. So it’s saying we are endowing this position, we’re endowing the values that ‘Ilaheva is creating and presenting, and we’re going to preserve it, we’re going to help celebrate it. We’re going to hire a digital archivist and scholarship librarian to partner with her on these events, on this programming, and create these digital exhibitions, so the students she’s working with, this content, is preserved as long as possible with our current technologies, and shared with the world.

‘Ilaheva, why did you decide to take on the role?

‘Ilaheva Tua’one: When I first heard about this, I knew this position was for me. One, I love to tell stories. And two, I’m also the assistant professor of Native American and Indigenous studies here. Specifically, I study and try to decolonize 18th-century travel narratives about the Pacific Islands. I’m a Pacific Island scholar, and in that way I really value oral histories, oral stories, and memorizing texts in order to have them embodied within you.

lure made of stone, rope, wood, and spotted shells
Octopus lure from the Tongan story “Feke and the Rat”

I often tell a story to my class: This is a lure that is shaped like a rat—you catch octopuses with it. In Tonga, they’re called feke. You dangle it in the reef, and the octopus will wrap itself around this rat and it won’t let go. They tell an old story about this rat that was drowning, and an octopus came to save it. Before it got to the shore, the rat defecated on the octopus’s head and left the spots on the octopus’s head. And from that day forward, the octopus swore that every single one of his kind would kill every single one of [the rat’s] kind. It’s a very simple story, but it’s a story about survival. And it’s a story about how to catch an octopus with a rat. European knowledge cannot explain this phenomenon—only this story can. And I tell this story to you so that one day, if you’re ever stuck on an island and you need to survive, you can catch an octopus yourself. That story is going to stay with you. This is what I mean about oral stories, and how they’re able to pass knowledge far beyond a text.

I’m an archivist. I love archives, but I also know that archives are fallible—texts can be ruined by sun, fire, and water. We need to value these other kinds of knowledge creating and knowledge passing.

Do you come from a storytelling tradition?

IT: I do, on my mother and my father’s side. My father is from Tonga—a small island, right in between Hawaii and New Zealand, with a long storytelling culture. They used knots on ropes to help memorize. They had master storytellers who would memorize poems for thousands of lines that could last for two days or more. And then on my mother’s side I come from pioneer stock who carried their wares in handcarts that they pulled from the east. I get a lot of stories on that side, too.

In my family we played the dozens [trading insults] pretty hard, and you’ve got to be quick and not take any offense, because the best jokes are always going to be at your expense. All words are chosen carefully, and nothing’s spoken that doesn’t mean something. No small talk in my family. And that is the way that our culture works. We joke a lot. We tell a lot of stories.

Did you always intend to incorporate that into your teaching?

IT: I studied literature; I got my PhD in English Lit. I like telling stories in my classroom—I feel like it’s the best way to impart the information because I also teach classes like Intro to Social Justice, and the best way for [students] to understand are personal stories.

What kinds of activities will you offer as part of this professorship?

IT: What I’ve been doing with this is continuing the storytelling events that we have [at the library], and I’ve also started thinking about how to gather not only the story time that’s going on with the students through the storytelling contests, but also the storytelling that’s going on in classrooms on campus. Some professors have students do oral histories, and then they put them on YouTube. What I’m trying to do is make sure that all of those stories are gathered together in this new archive and finding spaces to exhibit them for the whole campus to see, because what I’m afraid of is these stories being told in one semester and then not being told again.

The third arm of this professorship is to gather local storytellers here and give them a platform to tell the stories that are happening here in Colorado Springs, or happened in the past, because Colorado Springs has a rich history and also a rich literature, as well as Indigenous history. We are hosting Indigenous local storytellers at UCCS for them to tell stories, and also giving them a place to work on their craft for a few days in this really beautiful spot that we have on campus that is surrounded by nature, the Heller Humanities Center.

Will this be presented in classroom format?

‘IT: Not a class, more of a collective energized effort to bring storytelling to the fore on campus, and to make it part of the students’ research and also service to the community.

What activities will students participate in?

IT: We have a few events planned for the year. The first is storytelling hour, modeled after The Moth. It’s also a contest—the first-, second-, and third-place storytellers win a prize. There are judges in the audience; it’s in a black box theater with just a spotlight. There’s also a workshop beforehand that I lead to show how to make a story poignant and short in six minutes, and the theme is liberation. Then there’s the fireside Indigenous storytelling that we’ll have in the spring. And the third is where the digital archivist comes in and helps us to build exhibitions around story maps, so that the students can have an interactive experience—touch screens or things like that. And I get invited to things like National Coming Out Day, [talking about] how to tell a story or how to keep a story sacred.

One of the ideas that I have in the hopper is to have a storytelling contest where I give the students a theme, and then they have to go and find the story in the stacks in the library that surrounds that theme—they read that story, and then we choose the best story possible.

SP: That hits the library in so many ways, and really celebrates the collection and information literacy, focusing on a different approach to how we should be thinking about information gathering.

Can you talk a bit more about the fireside storytelling chats?

IT: One of the best things about the Heller Center is that there are three adobe structures, and one of these has a guest house. Since Seth and I are both on the board of the Heller, we thought, Why not bring in local Indigenous storytellers, have them stay at the guest house, and then use this beautiful classroom outdoor space at the Heller center to give an evening of stories around a fire. It’s a real way to connect UCCS to the community, as well as making the community feel like they have space and recognition at the university. I’m hoping to have someone picked out by the end of this semester.

I have other ideas for the second and third year, which include bringing in performers that have storytelling troupes that I know of, a few in Denver that could come down to Colorado Springs, and other ideas that I can’t all fit in one year.

SP: We’re going to sponsor their time at the Heller center—we’ll make sure they have a stipend.

What tribes will be represented?

IT: We want the Mountain Ute to be represented. That’s the most important culture around Colorado Springs, the Mountain Ute that were forced out of the Springs in in 1879. But we also have Shoshone around here, Navajo, Kiowa, as well as Apache, and then we have Pueblo tribes down south.

You mentioned possibly creating exhibits. Do you have an idea of what those might look like?

IT: The very first exhibit involves Professor Kimbra Smith, who makes these digital storytelling maps in one of her anthropology classes. I want them to be interactive. Each of the story maps has to tell us a local story, some kind of local history. One could be about a prison in Canyon City, which isn’t too far from here—the prison itself has an excellent archive. The students themselves would have to go to this archive in the prison. The best thing about these is that they don’t know what story is going to come out of this research—they have to go and do the archival research, and then figure out the story that’s behind it. That’s exactly what I do in my own work. And then they make these really intricate, beautiful digital story maps that are that are interactive.

But unless you know about the story maps, they just sit on their digital platform. The library is in the University Student Center here on campus, so I think that this is the best place [to host them].

This sounds like it could be replicable at institutions in a lot of communities—everybody’s got some kind of storytelling tradition.

SP: It’s another avenue for academic research libraries to think about—how we do programming and how we think about our collections. Because from my perspective, it’s all mostly European-centric. We need to recenter a different way of thinking about this knowledge, about the forms and the values. Library deans, unless they’re experts in the field, unless they have that lived experience and narrative, should not be the ones doing it. We shouldn’t be trying to create the frameworks.

It seems to me like a novel thing, but now that we’re doing it—everyone should do it. Every academic research library should focus on improving their collections, improving their programming, and trying to have more of an emphasis on recentering. It’s long overdue, and I’m just glad to be along for the ride.

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Lisa Peet

lpeet@mediasourceinc.com

Lisa Peet is Senior News Editor for Library Journal.

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