Book Review: Aunt Mary Tell Me a Story

Title: Aunt Mary Tell Me a Story


Author: Mary Ulmer Chiltoskey


Date: 1990


Publisher: Cherokee Communications


ISBN: 0-962863009


Length: 82 pages


Illustrations: drawings by Goingback Chiltoskey and others; some black and white photos


Quote: “When I tell a legend to you and then you re-tell it, or I tell it again to someone else, the story will always be a little different, but the truths will be the same.”


Mary Ulmer Chiltoskey did not become a member of the Cherokee Nation merely by marrying Goingback Chiltoskey. She was granted honorary citizenship only after fifty years of service to the community. She was, however, authorized to share a limited number of stories, recipes, and words through a series of small paperback books that are sold at the North Carolina reservation.


Aunt Mary Tell Me a Story contains 77 stories. Most are obviously fables made up to instruct small children; some are probably true, but told as if to small children. The historical fact that some Cherokee families adopted foreign children, who were then considered as “full blood” Cherokees, here appears as a continuation of the Goldilocks story.


Some stories show multicultural influences. A dog warns humans to build a raft in time to escape a great flood…was this an addition to the flood story in the Bible, or is it a different event? Skin colors are explained in, allowing for cultural pride, exactly the same way they are explained in an African-American story; who thought of the explanation first, or did it occur to several storytellers independently of the others? Since this book is meant to read exactly like the words of an aunt or grandmother telling stories to three-year-olds, no documentation is mentioned, and we’ll never know.


The possum’s tail tale in this book is linked to another story about the rabbit’s tail, and although it preserves the general idea that the possum’s tail was shaved by other animals to teach him not to be vain, it’s different from other versions. (That’s not a bad thing; no two versions are alike.)


The Spearfinger story in this book differs more significantly from the way this story cycle was historically used. Because the stories were part of an oral tradition, were not memorized or considered sacred, and could be substantially changed by any teller, this “safe” or comforting version is part of the tradition but does not reflect the whole tradition. Spearfinger and a water monster were described as present dangers to scare the very young into obedience. Until children were old enough to understand danger in more realistic ways, telling stories about the monsters that stalked disobedient children was considered more humanitarian than threatening them with spankings or other displays of parental anger. The parenting philosophy of Mrs. Chiltoskey’s generation opposed this strategy, so in this book Spearfinger appears just to be killed. (Earlier storytellers killed her/him/it off, too, after children were considered old enough to be prepared to confront real dangers instead of being scared by fictitious ones.) This is a book of nice, friendly stories that won’t scare children…but scaring children used to be the point.


The moral/religious aspect of some of these stories is another change. The teachings of the religion or religions Cherokee people followed before contact with English immigrants will never be known. They weren’t written down and probably evolved to meet the needs of each local religious leader and his or her audience. There is thought to have been general agreement about the idea of a Supreme Being, believed to be Good, and an Evil Principle. This worldview was recognized as basically compatible with Judaism or Christianity, but at first contact with the English, the Cherokees were neither Jews nor Christians.


Many lesser spirits of different shapes and powers were also imagined. The importance of these lesser spirits varies depending on the storyteller. The Chiltoskeys, being Christians, minimize them down to cartoon-like characters in fables. For non-Christians they could be seen as more like Greek “gods,” and a few of them may have been worshipped; more often they seem to have been merely subjects of stories. What may be peculiar to the Cherokee Nation is that, according to James Mooney et al., different religious practices were expected of different people; if myths were ever believed to embody religious truth, their truth seems to have been considered relevant only to some persons.

So, did the Cherokee Nation have the idea that the spirit world was divided approximately into thirds—bad, good, and flawed—before they had been exposed to the old English notion of angels, devils, and fairies? If they did, was that the result of early undocumented contact with English people, or was it an independent, simultaneous idea? We’ll never know. Moral conflict, and the spirits called “Little People,” appear in other collections of Cherokee stories but not all storytellers try to fit their stories into a Christian frame as hard as Mrs. Chiltoskey did.


However, although Mrs. Chiltoskey’s stories differ from some other tellers’ and collectors’ stories, they are not to be considered “less” authentic or, for that matter, necessarily more recent than the divergent versions. According to older documents Mrs. Chiltoskey’s image of Grandmother Corn as an ancestor figure may be “more” authentic, in the sense of having been told earlier and/or more often, than Marilou Awiakta’s image of Grandmother Corn as a goddess like Demeter. These stories are recognized as authentic by the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Nation.

The Chiltoskeys no longer need a dollar. I mentioned on the Blogspot in 2011 that I planned to display the copy of this book I had for sale at a craft market; it sold on the first day. Still, why waste a review that’s been sitting in a computer file for all these years? It’s still possible to buy this book online; to buy it here, send $5 per copy + $5 per package to either address in the lower right-hand corner. Aunt Mary Tell Me a Story is not a Fair Trade Book but I will send $1 per copy to a Native American charity.

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3 thoughts on “Book Review: Aunt Mary Tell Me a Story”

  1. We have a place that the Indians have a festival each year and I love to watch them dance a story out . This year there was story telling and it was exactly like you described . As a teaching tool . This book sounds interesting to me.

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