Navajo storytelling event held at Spurlock

Photo by David Saveanu | The Prospectus  Alex Mares, speaker at the Winter Tales workshop and concert.

Photo by David Saveanu | Alex Mares, speaker at the Winter Tales workshop and concert.

David Saveanu

Staff Writer

The University of Illinois’ Spurlock Museum held a workshop and concert revolving around the importance of storytelling on Saturday, Feb. 18.

The Navajo—or Diné—consider storytelling an essential part of life. The Spurlock Museum event was to highlight the importance of storytelling in everyday life, by displaying it in the Navajo culture.

The speaker, Alex Mares, shared advice on storytelling, along with insight he has due to his cultures’ deep history with storytelling.

The first event was the workshop, which was held at 9 a.m.–noon. It was filled with a multitude of interactive stories, encouraging the audience to make a connection with Mares.

He told the participants more about himself, his time as a park ranger in New Mexico, and his work with interpreting stories and giving frequent tours. He informed the audience of his background in anthropology, always having lived a native lifestyle, and being taught about the Navajo culture first hand.

Mares began to get to know his audience, asking everyone where they were from, and exchanging stories. After, he passed around a pouch and asked each participant to “describe it using one word.”

Mares moved on to describing the impact storytelling can have on an audience, in terms of neurobiological activity. He emphasized how incorporating stories can change the audience’s emotional involvement with the subject, and the retention of information from each story.

He then shared a story about the pouch he had passed around earlier. He explained its origin, its contents, and the work that went into making it.

Mares asked the audience to go around again, and think of a new word to describe the pouch. The room shared similar answers, having originally referred to the pouch simply as “sandy” and “grainy,” most changed their answers to things like “sacred” and reminiscent of “family” after the emotional story was used to connect the audience to the object.

He does this activity to show the audience the significant change that occurs in the way an audience takes in information from a story when an emotion is sparked.

The workshop then went on to looking at different patterns in language, and socio-cultural trends. Through multiple interactive activities, Mares taught the participants the depths of storytelling.

The workshop paused for a question-and-answer session, for anything specific the participants wanted to talk about. Mares discussed each topic more informally covering topics like different uses for storytelling, like in therapy and in sermons, after which he discussed social media and its contribution to connecting people through stories.

The workshop soon resumed with a portion devoted to different aspects of storytelling that make it more captivating. Mares used all five senses to bring the audience to West Texas, and through his words he helped the audience experience the location fully. In this way he emphasized the importance of using sensory language in the telling of stories.

Lastly, he went on to share the relationship among the elderly and the youth of the Navajo. It is expected that the younger generation seek out the stories of the elders to carry them on and keep the history alive.

After the workshop, from 2–3:30 p.m. Mares spoke at the Diné Winter Tales Concert.

He began the concert by explaining that during the winter months, the Diné spend a lot more time indoors, sitting around a fire, and listening to elders tell stories. The concert and workshop are named “The Winter Tales” because the stories Mares shared were stories often told during the winter at gatherings.

He shared multiple origin stories told by the Diné and about how everything came to be; stories passed down from generation to generation to preserve a culture.

The auditorium the concert was held in remained captivated by Mares’ storytelling as he shared children’s stories that were comical, and serious tales of monsters and heroes.

As the audience reacted to Mares’ stories, there was a connection in the way everyone reacted similarly, a topic Mares covered in the workshop; the loud laughter, and the silences, were all emotions the listeners shared, which is why stories connect people, because they allow the audience to relate, altogether.

To learn more about the Spurlock Museum, go to