One night, as a child on a Navajo reservation near Gallup, N.M., Sunny Dooley’s grandmother woke her from sleep on a sheepskin blanket on the floor to greet the flocks of geese flying south overhead.
The family sent prayers and messages to the birds, which would be passed on to dead relatives when the flock passed by the Milky Way along their migration.
Years later, she would send the same prayers to her father.
“It smells good, doesn’t it?” her father asked, gesturing to an invisible plate of food before him. Unable to eat properly for years, he had requested that Dooley drive him to his doctor’s office, fearing that he was near death.
A traditional Native American storyteller, Dooley told her stories to about 20 students and community members in a classroom in the university’s new Computer Science Building Monday night.
Blending traditional Navajo stories with personal anecdotes, Dooley spent two hours painting a world inhabited by talking animals, grandparents, uncles and monster slayers.
Their adventures, which ranged from the epic, to the comical, to the mundane, were set in locales that were interchangeably dreamlike and banal — from high desert mesas to the drab hospital waiting room where Dooley’s father spoke his last words.
“The food. They’re bringing me food.”
Wearing a purple sash and elaborate jade jewelry, Dooley spoke with varied inflections and genuine mirth, making elaborate gestures and occasionally bursting into laughter.
From a young age, Dooley would spend nights in her community’s Hogan, a traditional Navajo home, while storytellers recounted her people’s legends.
Long after her friends and family had fallen asleep, she would remain up, feeding sticks into the fire and listening intently to the stories intended to lull her to sleep.
“They always said that the stories were there to revive you, they were there to feed you, they were your relatives,” Dooley said. “My aim is to put you all to sleep.”
Far from sleeping, those in the audience listened intently as her monster-slaying protagonist battled sickness, fatigue and poverty, issues made manifest in comically grotesque monsters. Quiet laughter filled the room as the Navajo coyote, a traditional fool character, unwittingly replaced his eyeballs with yellowed balls of tree sap.
“She can engage the audience in the story and make you feel like you’re there,” said LaRae Plataro, a junior biological sciences major and member of CSU’s American Indian Science and Engineering Society.
Plataro suggested that the society invite Dooley for Native American Awareness month, which will kickoff officially at a POW WOW ceremony Saturday.
After the stories concluded, audience members remained silent, refraining from clapping in favor of blowing into their hands and pressing their palms to their chests, a traditional sign of appreciation.
Linda Aguilar, a local artist, wove a miniature horsehair basket, which she presented to Dooley as a gift.
Receiving the basket, which contained a white California shell, Dooley was momentarily silent.
“I dreamt of California baskets. And of meeting someone who makes them.”
Senior Reporter Matt Minich can be reached at email@example.com.