Gayle Ross pulls a chair up to an empty table in an undecorated office and starts to speak.
The bareness surrounding her is quickly forgotten and is effortlessly decorated with the stories she shares in a conversation about her Native American heritage and her passion for giving them life.
"I grew up in a family where there was a deep appreciation for family history, and for us, our history is Cherokee," said Ross, the Denison Visiting Professor of Native American Studies at Central Michigan University. "I love it because every time I tell a story, I get to hear it again."
Ross is one of the best-loved and most-respected storytellers of her time. She is an enrolled member of the Cherokee Nation and is a direct descendant of John Ross, Principal Chief of the Cherokee during the infamous Trail of Tears.
Her grandmother told Cherokee stories and sang songs handed down from one generation to the next. It is from this rich heritage that her storytelling springs. Ross has shared her stories to open evenings for such distinguished speakers as Maya Angelou, N. Scott Momaday and Alice Walker, and she has appeared at almost every major storytelling and folk festival in the United States.
Ross will tell some of her compelling stories at CMU in a free public presentation of "Inside the Beaded Beltway: Native Delegations in the Nation's Capital" at 7 p.m. Wednesday, April 13, in the Powers Hall Ballroom.
She will share historical narratives and personal stories in this provocative performance about the history of American Indian delegations who traveled to the nation's capital to argue for fair treatment for native peoples and to negotiate just treaties. It is through her humorous, heartbreaking and inspirational stories that Ross will shed light on the federal relationship with native peoples from the founding of America to the present day.
"Two things I'd like people to understand is that first off, we're not all the same; we have differences that need to be appreciated," she said. "The other thing is that we as Native Americans will not truly succeed without America understanding that we are not an ethnic minority, we are indigenous peoples. We are tribal nations with certain collective rights, such as the right to self-governance and the right to a say in the decisions that affect our people, as well as our lands and resources."
Ross: Every college needs a Denison program
The Olga J. and G. Roland Denison Visiting Professorship of Native American Studies is so critical for CMU and universities nationwide, Ross said. The professorship was established in 2007, and it brings a noted scholar, artist or practitioner to CMU to help increase understanding of the historical experiences, cultural traditions and innovations, and political status of indigenous peoples in the United States and Canada.
"I wish every college and university in the country had something like a Denison program," said Ross, who lives in Oklahoma just north of the Cherokee Nation capital in Tahlequah. "I believe that many of the challenges that face the Native American community stem from a lack of understanding of who we are in the American mosaic. Such a professorship helps to give people a better understanding and appreciation."
As the visiting professor, one of her primary roles this semester was teaching the upper-level course The Art of Storytelling. The course provided students with the methods and practices in finding, learning and telling stories from different genres.
Natalie DeFour is a senior from Alpena pursuing a degree in English and enrolled in this course to complement her creative writing concentration. She said she is grateful to have the opportunity to learn the craft from such an established professional storyteller.
"She emphasized that finding the bones of a story is the first step to crafting a great story – it's not about memorization, but about how the story forms itself and speaks to you," said DeFour, whose final project was telling an engaging story about the historic wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald. "She continually reminded us how much stories impact our lives, which goes back to our human nature to tell stories. Storytelling is important to Native American traditions, and she told us sacred Cherokee stories that spoke to that importance."
While Ross' semester as the visiting professor is coming to a close, she said she is enthusiastic and open to someday returning to CMU to teach more about storytelling, especially to students pursuing teaching degrees.
"Stories always have been the foundation of how we teach," Ross said. "You can't tell a story of the past without understanding that it is a story of our future."