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Gayle Ross, Cherokee Storyteller

Compiled by Tina L. Hanlon
January 2004

Biographical Note: Gayle Ross (1951- ) describes herself as an enrolled member of the Cherokee nation, the second largest Indian group in the country after the Dine or Navajo. The daughter of a half-Cherokee father, she calls her mother "an Alabama Southern belle," and describes her family as a long line of mixed blood Cherokee people. She is a great-great-great-granddaughter of John Ross, who was born in 1790 and was Principal Chief through the Trail of Tears (when most of the Cherokee in the Appalachian mountains were forced to walk to western lands) until his death in1866. He was 1/8 Cherokee and he married a full-blooded Cherokee woman who died on the Trail of Tears. Many of their people are Scots-Cherokee; Gayle Ross says she and her practical women friends think part of the attraction was the pots and pans that the Scots had to trade. She also feels that immigrants from Scotland understood the seven clans of the Cherokee and the strong warrior tradition. Gayle's father married in Dallas while on the GI bill and she grew up in Texas. Her grandmother lived with their family, telling Cherokee stories and singing songs handed down from one generation to the next. Although Ross is not from Appalachia, she tells traditional tales that the Cherokee took with them when they were forced to move west from the southeastern mountains that had been their home for hundreds of years.

Books and Recordings by Gayle Ross

Bruchac, Joseph and Gayle Ross. The Girl Who Married the Moon: Tales from Native North America. Illus. S. S. Burrus [Sam Sam Burrus]. Mahwah, NJ: Troll Medallion, 1994. 127 pp. Available as eBook. Each of four regional sections in the book contains four tales about Native American female characters, with introductions to their tribal origins and themes. Ross's Introduction and Afterword stress the strong positions held by women in Native American societies and the reverence for traditional stories in Native American culture. She was taught "that stories are living spirits and that the role of the storyteller is to care for the tales in our keeping" (p. 134). Information on origins is also given in Afterword, Source notes and bibliography. The Southeastern section contains the Cherokee tale "Stonecoat," which was sent to Ross by an elderly Cherokee woman living in Canada. Stonecoat is a giant cannibal monster covered with solid rock. When he threatens a settlement, the adda wehi, the medicine man, knows that only the seven women who are in their monthly "moontime" have the power to stop the monster (because women showing signs of the ability to give life were considered to have the greatest power, greater than the power to kill). When defeated, he teaches the people his secrets as an adda wehi about medicines for all kinds of sickness.

Bruchac, Joseph and Gayle Ross. The Story of the Milky Way: A Cherokee Tale. Illus. Virginia A. Stroud. New York: Dial  Books for Young Readers, 1995. A fearful giant spirit dog is chased into the sky, spilling white cornmeal and forming the Gil'liutsun stanun'yi, or Milky Way, after he is caught stealing cornmeal from the people.  The authors adapted a tale told by their Cherokee ancestors and friends, emphasizing the elderly Beloved Woman who held a powerful place in Cherokee traditions. They added the character of a brave grandson "to represent the love children everywhere feel for their grandparents." Bruchac (who is Abenaki and not Cherokee), notes that this tale was recorded by Mooney and used in the writings of Cherokees Robert Conley and Jean Starr. Stroud, a Cherokee-Creek illustrator from Oklahoma, provides notes on details from Cherokee life in the early 1800s included in her acrylic paintings. Review at Native American Books, Native American Indian Resources, web site by Paula Giese, 1996. Also published in large print.

Ross, Gayle. Dat-so-la-lee, Artisan. Illus. S. S. Burrus. Morristown, NJ: Modern Curriculum Press, 1995. 26 pp. Biography of a Washo Indian woman, a famous basket maker (ca. 1835-1925). Also published in Spanish as Dat-so-la-lee, Artesana. The publisher included this bio in Beginning Biographies: Native Americans, 1995, a source kit for teachers with posters and student books. This set also contains biographies by other writers of Cherokee chief Wilma Mankiller and Native American leaders Tecumseh, Sacajawea, Jim Thorpe, and Ben Nighthorse Campbell.

Ross, Gayle. How Rabbit Tricked Otter and Other Cherokee Trickster Stories. Illus. Murv Jacobs. The Parabola Storytime Series. New York: HarperCollins, 1994. Fifteen tales of Rabbit, the Cherokee trickster hero, from a time when animals and people spoke the same language. Foreword by Chief Wilma Mankiller. With a full-page acrylic painting for each tale by an illustrator of Cherokee-Kentucky descent. Also recorded as a Caedmon Audio Cassette with the same title. The Parabola Storytime Series, 1996. Short review at The book received an Anne Izard Storytellers' Choice Award in 1997.

Ross, Gayle. How Turtle's Back Was Cracked: A Traditional Cherokee Tale. Illus. Murv Jacobs. New York: Dial Books for Young Readers, 1995. Turtle is a braggart who thinks he has killed the wolf that chokes on the persimmons he and Possum are eating. He tricks angry wolves into throwing him in the river, where his shell is cracked. Ross developed her storytelling version from childhood memories and a written source. Source notes and background on the Cherokee nation are included. Short favorable review at Native American Books, Native American Indian Resources, web site by Paula Giese, 1996. Also produced as cassette tape. Louisville, KY: American Printing House for the Blind, 1996. See also notes on Kennedy Center Performance, below.

Ross, Gayle. Live at the National Storytelling Festival. Audiocassette. Fredericksburg, TX: Gayle Ross, 1990s. Contents: Rabbit and Wolf go Hunting (Cherokee) -- The Little Turkey Girl (Pueblo) -- Witsahesak & Grizzly Bear (Chippewa-Cree) -- Brass the Gambler (Cherokee) -- Rabbit Visits Old Flint (Cherokee) -- The Immortals (Cherokee) -- Rabbit Tricks Buzzard (Cherokee) -- The Girl who Married the Moon (Aleutiq). All stories are traditional legends from Native tribes except "The Immortals," based on a story by Robert Conley which appears in his collection The Witch of Goingsnake and Other Stories (1988). Recorded at Loma Ranch Studio (WorldCat).

Ross, Gayle. To this Day: Native American Stories. Audiocassette. Fredericksburg, TX: Gayle Ross, 1986. Recorded at Loma Ranch Studios. Listed in WorldCat as stories written and told by Gayle Ross: Mosquitoes (Northern) -- Strawberries (Cherokee) -- Witsahesak & Hornets (Cree) -- The First Fire (Cherokee) -- Spearfinger (Cherokee) -- Witsahesak & Frog (Cree) -- Daughter of the Sun (Cherokee).

Ross, Gayle and Elizabeth Ellis. Twelve Moons. Audiocassette. Dallas: The Twelve Moons Storytellers, 1982. 42 min., 45 sec. Contents: Sandy Raccoon -- He was a Stranger -- White Horse Girl and the Blue Wind Boy -- Tale of the Three Moustaches -- Origin of the North Star -- When the Whale Sang among Us. Stories told by Gayle Ross and Elizabeth Ellis. Mixed and recorded at Loma Studios (WorldCat).

Ross, Gayle and Grace Lichtenstein. Legend of the Windigo: A Tale from Native North America. Illus. Murv Jacob. New York: Penguin Putnam Books for Young Readers, 1996. A giant stone, shape-shifting cannibal with hypnotizing eyes preys on the people of a Northwoods village, whose weapons are useless against him. A boy who tends the fire in the elder's sacred lodge helps the wise ones develop an idea for breaking the monster's heart with fire.

Individual Tales in Books, Recordings and Web Sites

How Turtle's Back was Cracked, as told by Gayle Ross with art by Arnold Aron Jacobs. In Stonees Web Lodge, a private web site that reprints Native American tales and "lores," with art by different artists. Many of the tales are Cherokee. Very little source information given.

"Mosquitoes," told by Gayle Ross in How the Whale Got his Throat. Videocassette. American Storytelling Series. Vol. 1 in a series of 8 vols. Dir. David Brownstein. New York: H. W. Wilson, 1986. 30 min. With viewer's guide. The Wilson Video Resource Collection. Introduced by David Holt. Also includes the title whale story by Kipling, told by Jackson Gillman, and "Why the Dog has a Cold, Wet Nose," told by Maggi Peirce. "Mosquitoes" is a Northern tale also in To this Day by Ross.

Kennedy Center Millennium Stage performance. Mar. 5, 2003. Video available on page about Gayle Ross at Kennedy Center web site (accessed 1/18/04).

Multicultural Storytelling Festival 2000. 8 videocassettes. 2000 (870 min.). Storytelling performances from Texas A&M University's first Multicultural Storytelling Festival. Includes Texas folk stories and tall tales by Doc Moore, Native American myths and legends by Tim Tingle and Gayle Ross, African-American folktales by Otis Roper Jr., Spanish and Latin American stories by Elida Guardia Bonet, children's stories by Waynetta Ausmus, and stories performed by Texas A&M University's College of Education students. Also contains lectures and workshops on the value of storytelling as a teaching method, and as an art form (WorldCat).

"Rabbit and Possum Hunt for a Wife." In David Holt and Bill Mooney, eds. Ready-to-Tell Tales: Surefire Stories from America's Favorite Storytellers. Little Rock: August House, 1994. 224 pp. Multicultural tales from over forty storytellers. Includes a number of other Appalachian tales and Jack tales; see Appalachian Folktales in General Collections. Gives a photo, background on the storyteller, notes on the story and tips on telling. This is a tale recorded in Mooney's Myths of the Cherokee. It explains why possums pretend they are dead, because Rabbit tricked Possum into being attacked as an enemy by others when Possum thought he was entering a council house to get a wife. Ross asks tellers to respect, not caricature, the animal characters who are like humans and the tale's Cherokee culture.

"Rabbit Escapes from the Wolves" (from How Rabbit Tricked Otter and Other Cherokee Trickster Stories). In Judith V. Lechner. Allyn & Bacon Anthology of Traditional Literature. New York: Pearson/Allyn & Bacon, 2004. This textbook on all types of traditional literature for children reprints a number of other Appalachian tales, especially Cherokee tales; see Appalachian Folktales in General Collections.

"The Skeleton Woman," told by Gayle Ross. Graveyard Tales. Audio cassette. Jonesborough, TN: National Association for the Preservation and Perpetuation of Storytelling, 1984. 45 min. Little Rock: August House, 1992. Live from the National Storytelling Festival. Five ghost stories and one poem. Recommended in review by P. Hoffman in Wilson Library Bulletin, vol. 66 (May 1992): p. 74. (Information from MediaRevDigest). Other tales are "The Ghoul" by the Folktellers: Barbara Freeman and Connie Regan-Blake, "The Hole that will not Stay Filled" by Kathryn Windham, "Dead Aaron" by Mary Carter Smith, "The Woodcutter" by Laura Simms with Steve Gorn, "The Monkey's Paw" by Jackie Torrence.

"Strawberries" by Gayle Ross. In Catherine Peck, ed. QPB Treasury of North American Folktales. Illus. Charles Blake. Introduction by Charles Johnson. New York: Quality Paperback Book Club, 1998.  Reprints a number of Appalachian folktales and tall tales. (Also published as A Treasury of North American Folktales, Norton, 1999.)

"Perceiving the Godhead," told by Gayle Ross (4 min., 11 sec.). Storytelling the National Festival. 2 LPs (c. 95 min.). Jonesborough, TN: National Association for the Preservation and Perpetuation of Storytelling, 1983. Also in 2 audiocassettes (116 min.).

Background References

Gayle Ross. About the Artist, Millennium Stage, Kennedy Center web site. Overview of Ross's career in connection with Mar. 5, 2003 appearance. Video of this performance accessed on this web page 1/18/04. See above for details of performance.

Kyne-Norris, Aine. "Ross, Gayle." The Continuum Encyclopedia of Children's Literature. Eds. Bernice E. Cullinan and Diane G. Person. New York: Continuum International, 2001. p. 677. Brief profile.

Our Spirits Don't Speak English: Indian Boarding School. DVD. Dallas, Texas: Rich-Heape Films, 2008. Director's cut 80 min. Also in Trail of Tears: A Native American Documentary Collection. Narrated by Gayle Ross. Written by Dan Agent. Director Chip Richie. United States: Mill Creek Entertainment, 2009. On Disc 1 with Black Indians: An American Story and Native American Healing in the 21st Century. "Imagine you are a child, taken from your home, your family, taken from everything you know. In 1869, the U.S. government enacted a policy of educating Native American children in the ways of western society. By the late 1960's, more than 100,000 had been forced to attend Indian Boarding School" (WorldCat summary).

Oxendine, Jill. "Daughter of Tahlequah." Now and Then, vol. 3 (Autumn 1986). Profile of Gayle Ross in issue on Cherokee Indians in Appalachia, with poetry, articles, fiction, book reviews, and photos. Edited by Pat Arnow, and Mary Chiltoskey. East Tennessee State Univ: Center for Appalachian Studies and Services. Also includes writings by and about Marilou Awiakta. The one-page article with photo discusses Ross's family history and views on Cherokee heritage more than specifics about her storytelling.

Pago, David. "Famous Storyteller Will Cut Back Travel." Article on Ross's reactions to 9/11/01 attacks and also violence in Native American history.

Ross, Gayle. "The Art of Traditional Storytelling." In Lee Francis and James Bruchac, eds. Reclaiming the Vision: Past, Present, and Future Native Voices for the Eighth Generation. Greenfield Center, NY: Greenfield Review Press,1996. 170 pp. ERIC Abstract: "This book describes the 'Returning the Gift' project, designed to create new opportunities for North American Native writers to share their work with Native youth, the overall Native community, and the general public. The project included a festival that brought together over 200 current and emerging Native American writers (Norman, Oklahoma, July 8-11, 1992); creation of several organizations; publication of a directory of North American Native writers; and outreach writing workshops in schools. The plenary session themes were (1) "Writing for Our Children, Writing for Ourselves" (Native writing and Native identity, poetry writing, storytelling, writing in Native languages), (2) "Emerging Native Images" (weaving together our community voice, Natives in the media, Native writing and autobiography, teaching Native literature), (3) "Entering the Canons" (our place in world literature), and (4) "Earth and the Circle of Life" (Native writers and the environment). Storytelling discussions are by A. C. Ross, Vi Hilbert, Gayle Ross, Sherman Alexie, and Carol Lee Sanchez—"The Performing Poet As an 'Almost Storyteller.'" Eight lesson plans from the workshops are included. "The Wordcraft Circle Vision" (Lee Francis) describes a project that links writing mentors and apprentices, and mentors provide practical tips in the book. "An anthology presents poems and short stories by student participants in the festival, workshops, and mentoring circles. Also includes contributor profiles and pieces by project mentors."

Singer, Eliot A. "Fakelore, Multiculturalism, and the Ethics of Children's Literature." Essay published online at Michigan State University gives many examples of children's books that distort and misrepresent tales from the oral tradition, especially Native American tales. Singer is critical of Terri Cohlene, of Susan Roth, and of Joseph Bruchac (for over-emphasizing the didactic nature of tales). But he says Gayle Ross," an active storyteller inside and outside the Cherokee community, is a thoroughly modern Indian, yet she, too, respects tradition. Instead of the usual authorial procedure of taking an old version as a starting point on which to 'improve,' she goes back to Mooney's (1900) classic collection to check the extent to which the stories as she has learned and tells them have maintained their integrity." Singer advocates using folktale collections with children that have more authentic versions of tales than most picture books.

To this Day: Native American Stories. Kennedy Center program in Oct. 2002. Kennedy Center web site contains downloadable pdf Cuesheet with several pages of introduction to Gayle Ross and Native American storytelling, especially the tale "The Bird with Big Feet."

Other Sources of Background

A search in Lexis-Nexis or in an Internet Search Engine (such as leads to many articles and web pages on appearances by Ross, many with photos. For example, she performed at the Library of Congress National Book Festival 2003.

Entries in Biography Index. A Cumulative Index to Biographical Material in Books and Magazines. Vol. 24: September, 1998-August, 1999; Vol. 26: September, 2000-August, 2001. New York: H. W. Wilson Co., 2001.

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