By Nicole Saylor, Archivist,
Center for the Study of Upper Midwestern Cultures
Kathrin Pöge-Alder speaks on how immigrant storytellers
treat traditional German folktales.
Stories of contact with other cultures are at the heart of the immigrant experience. These narratives can cultivate a sense of cultural identity, but they can also be a means of control or exclusion. They are a lens into the teller’s values and biases, and may reveal the “truth” but not necessarily the facts. Stories can help sustain a dying language, and provide a critical perspective on U.S. immigration’s impact not only on those who encountered the newcomers but on those who stayed behind.
Storytellers, linguists, folklorists, historians, and community members convened Nov. 11–13, 2004 to explore these threads and much more during a three-day conference, “Tales of Contact and Change: Traditional Stories of Immigration,” at the Pyle Center on the University of Wisconsin–Madison campus. The event—a blend of panels, scholarly presentations, and evening story concerts—was co-sponsored by the Max Kade Institute and the Center for the Study of Upper Midwestern Cultures. More than sixty people signed in at the event, coming from Madison; the Wisconsin communities of Mequon, Onalaska, Summit Lake, and Sussex; and as far away as California and Germany.
The event kicked off Thursday night with a conference reception prior to a provocative keynote address by Jack Zipes. A professor at the University of Minnesota, an internationally recognized scholar on children’s literature, and an active storyteller in public schools, Zipes’ keynote address was titled “To Be or Not To Be Eaten: The Survival of Traditional Storytelling.” He began by noting how folklore is filled with tales of those who eat or beat their children, including fathers, giants, trolls, sorcerers, mothers, witches, and enchantresses. Why do the halls of traditional storytelling reverberate with the tread of the flesh-eating ogre? Why are adults characterized as being so cruel to children, many times their very own flesh and blood? Could it have a relationship to how, in these days of war and brutality, when our national story is clouded by hysteria and our societal fabric is shredded by political and religious forces, we find ourselves once again destroying our young?
Zipes insists that traditional storytelling has been cultivated to bring about a cultural identity and foster a sense of community, but it has also been used to blind people to the realities of social and political conditions and to maintain conservative religions and the status quo in communities and nation-states. He calls for a critical analysis of all traditional tales, for us to be wary of tales that perpetuate racism, war, and other evils. Stories should be documented and preserved, but not transmitted purely for the sake of tradition if that tradition has not been critically examined, he said.
Friday morning sessions focused on the use of storytelling in language and dialect preservation. Most non-English languages spoken in the U.S. are showing signs of erosion. Stories provide the much-needed cultural context that helps sustain language use. MKI Co-Director Mark Louden, the panel moderator, said that renewed interest in ethnic stories, as expressed in such forms as Klezmer music or Yiddish literature, provide a gateway to language interest. Yet only recently have linguists begun to see the importance of cultural context in language preservation, said Rand Valentine, associate professor of Linguistics and American Indian Studies at UW–Madison.
Other speakers explored the immigrant voice in literature. Holger Kersten, professor of American Literature and Culture at the University of Magdeburg, spoke on the popular yet little-researched phenomenon of German-American literary dialect that appeared in a range of publications and on the stage through the nineteenth century. Typically written by Americans with no German background, Kersten sought to reframe this “dialect writing”—formerly equated with racism and negative stereotyping—as creative and imaginative word play. Helmut Schmahl, associate professor of history at the University of Mainz, examined German-language literature of Pomeranian immigrants for what it reveals about cultural contact and change. He spoke on Albert Friedrich Grimm (pen name Alfred Ira), one of the most prolific authors in Wisconsin in the late 1800s. Grimm´s novels, most of which were never translated into English, have been mostly overlooked by scholars. Schmahl’s examination revealed that Ira’s books offer a portrayal of the immigrant experience as seen through his oftentimes unflattering depictions of members of other ethnic groups, including Yankees, Irish, and Jews.
Not all stories focused on cultural contact from the immigrants’ point of view. At least two scholars offered lesser-known perspectives on U.S. immigration stories. Teresa Schenck, professor of American Indian Studies and Life Sciences Communication at UW–Madison, gave a revealing and at times humorous account of Ojibwe, Ho Chunk, and Cree Indian stories of their first contact with Europeans. In contrast to Eurocentric accounts, Native Americans were intrigued by European tools, but not in awe of the newcomers. In fact, a fair amount of suspicion accompanied these exchanges, some recorded as early as 1633. Ships were described as moving islands with clouds (sails), and large trees (masts), and the people were scurrying around like bears. The Europeans' gift of bread was considered stale while the wine was reminiscent of blood. Christoph Schmitt, a researcher at the Institut für Volkskunde (Wossidlo-Archiv) in Rostock (Mecklenburg, Germany), explored the story within the story of Jürnjakob Swehn, der Amerikafahrer, published in 1917. Author Johannes Gillhoff (1861–1930) provides the most prominent example of a novel compiled from letters written by Mecklenburg emigrants. The author used Swehn’s life to interpret the effects of emigration for a German readership composed of people who never emigrated.
Saturday’s sessions focused on stories as a vehicle to teach children skills and help them build content knowledge. Madison elementary school teacher Mark Wagler, moderator for the morning panel on children learning from stories, said he centers his curriculum around stories, whether it’s teaching students how to tell fairytales or having the children become ethnographers at home or on “cultural tours” across the state. John Berquist, who works with Chicago youth in the After School Matters Program, shared compelling examples of students' written work, current slang, and a video of inner-city children acting out Little Red Riding In the ’Hood.
The two evening story concerts offered conference-goers a chance to hear stories from both professional tellers as well as amateurs. Storytellers on Friday night offered personal anecdotes about cultural contact. Included were Jeffrey Lewis, a UW–Madison professor of Human Development and Family Studies, who talked about the mixed messages parents send when trying to prepare an African-American child for the realities of a racially divided world, and Madison resident Mai Zong Vue, who used stories about her Hmong grandmother’s U.S. culture shock as a measure of how far the family had come from the refugee camps in Thailand to life in Wisconsin.
Larry Johnson's stories included a wide range of props.
The second evening focused on humor in stories. Among the storytellers were Berquist, who regaled the audience with Minnesota Iron Range stories and accordion music, and Elfriede Haese, the daughter and granddaughter of Milwaukee tavern owners, who told of her grandmother (with biceps like grapefruits) who ran neighborhood bars in downtown Milwaukee.
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list of storytellers and scholars | Story concerts
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