The auditorium at Native American Magnet School 19 was still as could be Wednesday as Dovie Thomason worked her storytelling magic on an audience of children in prekindergarten through third grade.
The acclaimed Native American author and speaker hushed the little ones by recalling a time when she misbehaved in school in Texas, and was marched off to see her grandmother. Instead of scolding her, Thomason remembered, Grandma Dove told a story about an overly talkative turtle.
"We didn't have Native American magnet schools, and didn't study Native American history," Thomason said. "We learned at home, from stories, and Grandma Dove was my first teacher. She told stories particularly when I made bad choices, and in those stories we'd see animals making choices, too."
Repeating a legend handed down through generations, her grandmother told how the turtle was crawling through crunchy autumn leaves when he heard birds preparing to fly south for the winter. When the turtle insisted on joining them, two birds brought over a stick and, as he clamped down for dear life, lifted him into the air.
"Suddenly, his mind was full of questions he couldn't ask," Thomason told her rapt listeners. But the birds ignored the turtle as they flew along, even when he signaled he was hungry.
Frustrated, he started to yell out.
"As soon as he opened his mouth, he knew he was in trouble," she said.
The turtle landed on his shell, which cracked, and he had to dig up lots of mud to repair the damage.
Now we know why turtles don't talk and why their shells are grooved, Thomason concluded. After a pause, she sized up the School 19 youngsters.
"What do you think I did wrong at school?" she asked. Talked out of turn, several of them guessed. "Yes, I talked without raising my hand. I interrupted an assembly."
Then: "Do you think I interrupted my grandma?" Opinion was divided. "She told me that story 17 times," Thomason said, "which means I interrupted her 16 times."
Thomason, who uses folklore about animals and nature to convey the values and beliefs of her Kiowa Apache and Lakota ancestors, was making her first Buffalo appearance, sponsored by Delaware North Cos. and Canisius College.
History professor Keith R. Burich invited her after hearing her speak at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C.
After the youngest children left the auditorium of the West Delavan Avenue magnet school, the upper grades filed in to hear her spin stories suited to their age group.