Writer Amanda Christmann Larson
As narrators have done throughout time, the Storyteller begins his tale. His dark brow furrows in concentration, and he recalls a story passed down by his people from grandparents to grandchildren as years turned into decades and decades became centuries. It is a story of survival; ironic because now it is the stories themselves that may soon be lost.
He begins his tale slowly, his brown hands clasped in front of him. “In the beginning,” he says, “the Apaches were the only ones who lived in the mountains.” It is the White Mountains of eastern Arizona he is speaking of, its rich ponderosa pine forest now a vast monument to the thousands of ancestors who lived and died there. “In time, other people started coming, and with them, they brought tools, weapons and diseases.”
His dark brown eyes remain steady.
“In other villages, people started getting sores, all over their faces and arms and bodies, and they began to die. The white people called this disease ‘smallpox,’ and some of them would hand out blankets to our people that were contaminated with smallpox.”
Like a child, I interrupt. “On purpose?” I ask.
“On purpose,” he says. “They wanted to get rid of us and take the land.”
He continues. “Luckily the Apache didn’t live in large settlements. Each clan had only a few people living in one place, but one by one, they all began to die. The medicine men did everything they could, but they couldn’t cure it. The people went to the oldest and wisest medicine man, and he, too, couldn’t cure it.
“The people asked him four times to try,” he continues, then remembering my inexperience, he explains, “It is our tradition that, if someone asks four times, you have to try again.
“He climbed to the top of Mount Baldy, and for four days, he waited for a sign. On the fifth day, the people gathered in front of his house to see what he would say. The old medicine man smiled and said, ‘I have an answer. Everyone who has faith in prayer, follow me.’ He led them through the forest to the base of the mountain, where they came to a stream. It was early in the morning, and the stream was very cold. ‘Stand in the forest stream!’ he told the people. They were hesitant because it was so cold, but they did as they were told.
“As they stood in the stream, he told them to splash the cold water on their bodies, and they began to splash. They began praying to the Creator and spreading yellow cattail pollen in the water.
“Pretty soon, someone noticed that something had brushed up against his leg. Soon after, someone else felt something too. ‘It’s a fish!’ someone said. But the medicine man said it could not be a fish because fish didn’t swim this far upstream. They looked in the water and saw not just one fish, but whole schools of fish swimming among them.
“As they swam all around the people, they noticed that, every time they passed by an Apache who was infected with smallpox, a new spot would appear on the fish. The spots on the people began to disappear, and more and more began to appear on the fish.
“Someone also noticed that a rainbow appeared on the fishes’ sides. After a rain, the Creator said he had washed all creation and a rainbow would appear. The people, too, were being washed in the river.
“Someone also noticed that the fishes’ bodies were turning yellow like the sacred pollen. Pretty soon, there were no more sores on the people. The fish had healed them and taken all of their spots away for them. The people made a vow to never eat the flesh of the Apache trout because of their sacrifice, and to this day, no Apache will ever fish for them.
“In all of the oceans, streams and rivers, there is no one who sees these fish anywhere; only in the streams of the Land of the Apache. It was because of these fish that our people survived smallpox.”
This is the story of the Arizona state fish, the Apache trout. I was aware that they are endangered and protected, but I did not know the legend even though I once lived on land that had been occupied by the Apache people for generations.
Whether the legend is true or not, through my own travels I have long since stopped questioning the folklore of indigenous peoples; I am resigned to the understanding that many things happened before logic and reasoning stifled our belief in miracles. For San Carlos Apache Storyteller, Ken Duncan, the story is just as much a part of history as his people’s brave fight for their land, and then punishment of being resettled by the U.S. government to a desert wasteland east of Globe.
Raised by his grandparents, 55-year-old Ken had a more traditional upbringing than many of his contemporaries, spending countless hours learning the language and the stories of his ancestors. Although he wasn’t always enthusiastic about it at the time, he now embraces the gift his grandparents instilled. “I am one of the few people who know the true names of the mountains and the stories of the ancestors,” he says. “Apache is my first language, and I speak it the traditional way. There are not many of us who know the old language.”
It is difficult to fathom the concept of an entire culture being lost, but for Apaches and many other Natives, the possibility is very real. Much of it is tucked away in the minds of the elders in a language that may soon cease to exist. The ceremonies and stories, once only held in their own languages, are now often translated into English, a tongue that does not have words for some of the most meaningful messages. Written history has often been recorded from a white perspective, which often made heroes and villains out of people who deserved neither title.
The responsibility of passing the torch weighs heavily on Ken, but it is not without its perks. For much of his adult life, he and his family have been sharing their culture not only with generations of children, but also worldwide. He and his children – and now grandchildren, too – are known as the Yellow Bird Indian Dancers, and have been named “Culture Keepers of Arizona.”
Together, they have presented some of the most acclaimed Native dancing shows in the United States and in the world, representing the United States in cultural exchanges in such countries as El Salvador, Lebanon, Colombia, Kosovo and many, many more places. They performed before First Lady Laura Bush, President Carter, President Ford, the Queen of Denmark and the Queen of Tonga. They were featured at the 2012 London Olympics and at the Smithsonian Institute, the Kennedy Center and the National Museum of the American Indian.
Son Tony was named 2011 World Champion Hoop Dancer and came in second place this year, and 6-year-old grandson RJ is the current world champion hoop dancer among his age group, the 6 to 12 bracket. He was also the youngest competitor for the title. Son Kevin came in third place in the same division.
With seven children, Ken Jr., 33; Christy (Lopez), 31; Tony, 29; Karl, 28; Kevin, 23; Sky, 16; and Talon, 14; and seven grandchildren – some of them still babies – the Duncans are their own small village of emissaries.
At times, because of their heritage, they have been able to slide in below the radar of anti-American protests and serve as ambassadors through their message of peace and respect. “For a long time, our government outlawed our traditions,” explains Ken’s wife Doreen. “Now the same government that didn’t let us do what was important to us says, ‘Go to these other countries.’ Because we are indigenous people, we’re more likely to get through those doors.”
Some of those “doors” are in war-torn countries, where Ken describes his own fascination at being accompanied through bullet-ridden buildings, only to turn corners and see the colorful banners and bright smiles from festivals and celebrations. It is in these places that the hoop dances representing all life forms and Creation hold special meaning.
Doreen usually lets Ken do the talking, and describes herself as the quiet one. She is a member of the North Dakota Hidatsa Arikara tribe. She and Ken met when they were in high school boarding school, where many Natives were educated because of the isolation and lack of resources on reservations. They were married when they were 21 years old, and although the traditions of her tribe are different than those of the Apache people, she fully understands the importance of keeping them alive. When her mother passed away, she had been one of only five people on earth who spoke her own ancestors’ language.
In spite of history, patriotism runs deep in Native blood. Compared to their total overall population, there are more Natives per capita enlisting in the military than any other race in America, according to the Heritage Foundation. The Duncans are similarly patriotic, representing the United States with pride, in spite of politics or other divisive factors.
“There are good people all over the world,” Doreen explains. “People who don’t even know us want to help us. I think many people in the world are good, and they want to get along. We have more in common than we have differences.”
Ken agrees. “In spite of all we hear about violence and things not going right with Mother Earth, people themselves still have hope in their eyes and hope in their hearts. They love to celebrate beauty through music, art, dance and stories. It gives me hope that the human race can still find a means for peace and survival through the performing arts.”
The Storyteller pauses, then continues, his eyes never shifting. “If I can sing songs and teach my children and grandchildren the dances, hopefully when I’m gone, they will teach others the dances and stories and continue to give people hope.”
Ken Duncan is one of the featured speakers at Cartwright’s Arizona History Dinners. He will be sharing stories and music July 31 at Cartwright’s Sonoran Ranch House, 6710 E. Cave Creek Rd., Cave Creek. Cocktails begin at 5 p.m.; dinner is served at 6 p.m. sharp. The presentation begins at 7 p.m. Cost is $55 per person for presentation, live music and three-course dinner, plus sales tax and 18 percent gratuity. Reservations are required.