Across her 35-year career, there’s only one thing Sunny Dooley recalls as unexpected.
“I’m surprised I’m still telling stories,” she says with a warm laugh.
Having come from a tradition of storytellers on both sides of her family’s clan, Dooley was born to be one herself. So why the surprise? In the beginning she met a lot of doubt.
“Growing up, I experienced a culture that I was told was disappearing, that wasn’t relevant, that wasn’t necessarily to be valued,” Dooley remembers. “[I] was being told, ‘You can’t be Navajo, you have to be like this, and this, and this in order to be successful.’”
Fortunately, Dooley let this discouragement go in one ear and out the other, and ever since she was young she was fascinated with storytelling.
“By the time I was 11 years old I was completely saturated in Navajo stories,” she says, owing the exposure to her family. “I came from a family that spoke only Navajo. I went into public school, learned stories of English tradition and would bring them home and interpret them into Navajo.”
Through sharing English stories, Dooley opened an avenue for her elders to share their own. After translating a story from school, Dooley says, “Either my mother or my great-grandmother would relay a similar story or a story that was like an antidote.”
In some ways, the comparison of her school stories with these Navajo stories helped sculpt Dooley’s current belief that “stories are strength…a very vital part of our psyche and our understanding of landscape and the environment, everything.”
She provides example with the classic Cinderella.
“What I took away from that story is that there is going to be some man that is going to come to you and rescue you. I told my great-grandmother, ‘That sounds like something to aspire to,’” Dooley snickers with hindsight.
Then, her great-grandmother gave young Dooley an “antidote” by telling her a Navajo story.
“You come from a culture where the wealth passes through you,” Dooley says, paraphrasing her great-grandmother. “You don’t need to be rescued from anyone because you have sheep…because you have sheep, you have food, you have shelter, you have clothing, you have means to express yourself artistically… because you have sheep you have land… because you have land, you need to go take care of that land…You are not a poor woman…you don’t need to be rescued by anybody.”
Stories like these uplifted young Dooley. One day she realized how privileged she was to have been immersed in Navajo storytelling.
“I encountered nine Navajo students in the fifth grade who had never heard a Navajo story in their entire lives,” she laments.
Deeply saddened, for Dooley this encounter shed light on the fact that “we were losing so much of our wisdom, our culture, our language and expressions that evolved in reference to story because mainstream culture was beginning to dominate every arena of Navajo society.”
Impelled by this realization, Dooley took it upon herself to make a change.
“I gained permission from my elders to [tell stories] in the public arena,” she says. “It took a while for my elders to agree because they considered that, ‘This is family strength. This is something that our family holds dear. Why should you want to share it out there?’”
Such notions of privacy didn’t resonate with Dooley.
“I guess I’m a bit of an altruistic person,” she suggests. “I said, ‘I really think we need to revitalize this for all of the Navajo people to hear because we’re losing it.’ That’s how I started storytelling and sharing stories with the public,” she says. “In 2018 there’s just a lot of competition for attention from so many places, and I see that in the kids, the kids don’t understand Navajo at all. I’m not one to advocate that we’re losing our language, I don’t see it disappearing from the face of the earth, but I see its application being not widespread anymore.”
As with earlier discouragements, Dooley is undaunted.
“These stories have been with my people for thousands of years,” she says. “Why should I doubt it? They’ve survived every catastrophe that you can think of.”
She draws further resilience from remembering her role in the grand scheme.
“I find it a very humbling experience because the tenacity my ancestors had to persevere has allowed me to share these stories,” she states. “I’m just a vessel. I get this wonderful opportunity to share, and I find that to be a real blessing.”
Dooley will share that blessing with the public this Saturday at the Museum of Northern Arizona. The event will begin with a workshop which will allow participants to hone their own storytelling skills.
“Even if you’re just in a creative slump, I think this workshop could really help activate some of those creative juices,” she assures.
Followed by a community showcase, the day promises to engage and entertain. Aside from her expertise, Dooley will bring her unshakable charm.
“It delights me that I am still telling stories,” she says. “There is such joy and profoundness in it…I can’t imagine doing anything else.”
Sunny Dooley’s workshop will commence the MNA’s Winter Stories series, beginning Sat., Dec. 15, at the Museum of Northern Arizona, 3101 N. Fort Valley Rd. Workshop at 2 p.m., public showcase at 3:45 p.m. To take part in the storytelling workshop, sign up in advance at www.musnaz.campbrainregistration.com or call 774-5211 x222.