Storyteller, painter and musician challenges traditional narratives
FARMINGTON — When he describes the presentation he plans on delivering this week at San Juan College as part of Native American Heritage Month, Ed Kabotie is careful to draw an important distinction.
“It’s an ‘AlterNative History of America,’ not the ‘AlterNative History of America,’” said Kabotie, an Arizona resident of Hopi and Tewa heritage.
Kabotie points out there were approximately 500 indigenous tribes in what is now the United States when European colonization began 500 years ago, and each of them has its own story about how it was affected. So the idea that the entire indigenous perspective on that event can be conveyed in a single Native voice is no more valid than the notion that the history of this country can be told strictly from the perspective of those European colonizers, he said.
“In America, I feel like there is often an approach to glamorizing our story, to romanticizing our story,” said Kabotie, who said his lecture is designed to fill in some of the blanks that are missing from the versions of their history that many Americans grew up hearing.
The history of America did not begin simply when those European colonizers arrived, Kabotie said, noting that those 500 indigenous nations all had rich, thriving cultures of their own. He said much of his presentation is focused on the Southwest and the Colorado Plateau where he grew up, since those are the stories he knows best.
While Kabotie acknowledged he does challenge many traditional American narratives in his presentation, he said he knows better than to portray any group of people in absolute good or evil terms.
“From the histories of my people, our own stories about ourselves are often not flattering,” he said. “Our stories have dark sides, times when we have fallen into traps about abuse and prejudice. The difference is, we don’t sweep these things under the rug. It’s important in the culture where I was raised to learn from the past.”
Kabotie believes that kind of upbringing equipped him with critical thinking and self-examination skills that many people lack. For the past several years, he has put those skills to work as what he calls an “edu-tainer” — someone who travels around the country using his artistic and entertainment skills to broaden and enrich the perspectives of other Americans.
Kabotie is a storyteller, painter and musician, and he will put all those skills to work this week during his stay on the San Juan College campus. In addition to Kabotie’s lecture, he also will perform a concert with his band, Tha Yoties, this weekend. Kaboie describes the group’s music as “Irie-zona reggae, rock and ska.”
“A lot of what we talk about is personal,” he said. “I’ve experienced the underside of the law. So a lot of this is very much from my heart and my experience.”
Kabotie, who is a third-generation artist, said he uses his family’s art to help tell those stories. Many others are conveyed through music, which he said he finds an especially effective way of communicating.
“Sometimes a song can say things much more eloquently than a narrative, and sometimes music can speak to the heart in a way words can’t,” he said.
Kabotie said he has never been tempted to just focus on one of those creative pursuits and set the others aside.
“Heck, no,” he said. “You hear about creative blocks that artists run into. I avoid that by switching between creative mediums.”
Regardless of which creative pursuit he happens to be following at the moment, Kabotie said he always tries to remember the advice his father gave him.
“He said, ‘Art is not a career, art is a journey,’” Kabotie said. “It is profound, and it has many applications.”
Kabotie said he has learned not to place limits or rules on that journey, explaining that he tries to follow his art in whatever direction it takes him.
“You follow the current of the river,” he said.
Nor does he spend much time worrying about whether he is changing a lot of hearts and minds through his lectures, paintings or music, though he said it is apparent to him when his message is being well received.
“I don’t feel like that’s my job,” he said. “That’s a spiritual thing. So much of that depends on people being willing to hear this message.”
Kabotie has lectured and performed all over the country, most recently returning from a stay of several days in the Philadelphia area, where he spoke and performed at Swarthmore College. That experience had him in a thoughtful frame of mind as he considered how some of the highest ideals expressed in the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution have not always been upheld in this country.
“This story of ‘liberty and justice for all’ and ‘All men are created equal’ — these are wonderful and lofty truths,” he said. “But when we look at our history, it’s not really our story. Our story falls short of those ideals.”
Kabotie’s “AlterNative History of America” will be delivered at 6 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 17 in the Connie Gotsch Theatre on the college campus, 4601 College Blvd. in Farmington. Admission is free.
At 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 19, he will perform with his band in the same location. Admission is free for students with a San Juan College ID and $10 for general admission.
For more information about either performance, call 505-566-3430.