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Storyteller shares cultural insight

Joe McIntyre/staff photographer

Mohawk Nation storyteller Kay Olan displays Native American beadwork from the Five Nations Peace Confederacy during a talk Tuesday at SUNY Cortland’s Corey Union.

Stories of a snake eating a frog, which in turn was also eating the snake, a monster bear being chased by three men into the stars and a domesticated porcupine enthralled an engaged audience Tuesday evening in the Corey Union building at SUNY Cortland.

More than 45 college students and local community members gathered in the building’s Fireplace Lounge to hear Kay Olan, a Mohawk Nation educator and storyteller, share stories from the Native American culture.

She taught elementary school for more than 33 years before retiring from the Wappinger Falls School District, and now focuses on sharing stories and speaks about the culture of the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois). And while she has a Rolodex of stories she tells with ease from memory, it was never her ambition to do so.

In the 1980s, elementary schools were required to teach about the culture of Native Americans, according to Olan. Because of her cultural background, teachers came to Olan for information. She said there was so much history and stories to give to the teachers, they had a hard time remembering it all, so she volunteered to speak with their classes.

She did so well the school decided to look for a substitute teacher for some of Olan’s classes while she spent more time teaching the students about Native American culture. Not too long after, she said she got the opportunity to tell stories from her culture to a group of Girl Scouts, which she did through a book.

Afterward, she realized that was not the appropriate way to tell the stories and learned to tell them more authentically from memory, now traveling around with a bag full of items — each reminds her of a certain story — sharing the stories, she said.

“Stories bring us together,” Olan said. “It opens the door to dialogue and communications. They remind people how to behave with each other.”

The first story she told showcased that with an overlying moral relevant to everyone.

She spoke of a boy who came across a large black snake eating a bull frog. While the boy knew that was a way of life in nature, he felt bad for the frog and said to it, ‘Why don’t you do to the snake, which it is doing to you?’ The frog thought for a second and then began to eat the snake’s tail. The two creatures continued to devour each other until there was nothing left of either.

Olan said the story has been told as a way to demonstrate how people need to stop fighting each other or there will be nothing left. “Each story has a reason to be told,” she said.

While she only had time for three stories, she said there are countless more — happy, sad, scary, old and new — as the Native American culture is still alive. That fact is something many may not actually realize — another reason she travels around, telling the stories, she said.

“I wanted to show Native Americans are still alive and what they look like,” she said. “I’m not in a museum somewhere.”

None of the stories are made up by Olan, except for any personal stories she tells. She said many come from people she knows, with their permission for her to tell them.

The stories left an impact on some in the audience such as Dawn Luba, of Marathon.

“You always grow up saying they’re a different culture, but they’re really the same,” Luba said. “We all have morals.”

She said she also learned the value and importance of retaining stories and sharing them with people.

It was that trait of Olan’s which impressed SUNY Cortland freshman, Rachael Summa, who said she liked the way Olan could tell the stories from memory, making them feel more interesting and engaging.