“I was raised on story. I wrote my first story when I was four and a half years old,” Dr. Lee Francis IV told me as we sat down to coffee during a break in his very packed schedule. The story was called “The Purple Cow.” Francis's writing has come a long way since that time, but his personal history and that of his family and culture still remains powerfully central to his life.
Francis is the national director of Wordcraft, an organization that promotes the work of Indigenous writers and storytellers through a tremendous number of programs—from digital archives of oral stories to youth literacy projects to assisting people in their paths to becoming story keepers for their communities. “Wordcraft is all about this idea of validating the literary and story work that Native and Indigenous people are doing, as well as promoting [their work] to the wider community,” Francis said about the organization's many endeavors. “The foundations of many of our traditions really are story. Wordcraft makes sure those stories are told and that they're heard. It's one thing to tell them, but if you're shouting to the wind …” He trails off before enumerating the myriad more core values that Wordcraft holds true to—not just stories themselves, but community, authenticity, quality and generosity.
Wordcraft started with Francis's father, Dr. Lee Francis III, in 1992 during a national meeting of Native storytellers and writers called Returning the Gift, a gathering that continues to this day, often spearheaded by Wordcraft. Francis's father instilled in him the genuine desire to write and tell stories as well as the importance of doing so, not just for the sake of individual expression, but in order to preserve traditions and long-told stories. “I have the artistic side, I have the cultural; those have continued to weave together throughout my life,” he explained.
Traditionally in Native communities, stories function in one of two basic formats—“one is explanatory stories and one is value stories,” Francis said—these communicate information as well as inform how one should behave, “the essence of identity. As you mature, those things tend to re-emerge, sometimes more powerfully.” Francis explained that just as you grow up, so do the nuance of the stories. They communicate tremendous range across a lifetime of listening to and reading them. Yet, preserving and reiterating these traditional tales in their many manifestations isn't the only effort of Wordcraft. “We're looking for the most authentic way to represent Indigenous experience.” That means that the group hosts poetry slams, distributes comic books and champions native writers no matter what topics they're broaching in their work.
The foundations of many of our traditions really are story. Wordcraft makes sure those stories are told and that they're heard. It's one thing to tell them, but if you're shouting to the wind…
Dr. Lee Francis IV
“For me what's fundamental is how we bring in the cultural aspects, how we bring in the artistic aspects and how we make sure we tell the story and explain the dynamics of the exchange between human beings—how we transmit knowledge, which is the fundamental work of stories,” Francis said. Yet, he notes that “there's so much context and meaning that we have lost in English” and in moving from oral stories to written ones. “What's the intention when you transition away from that?” Francis asked. “Is it a capturing? Or is it an aesthetic experience?” He suggests that it is an opportunity to explore themes and manifestations of experiences in new and equally compelling ways.
“A community needs to be able to survive and thrive,” Francis said. “We are working with intention to move the community of writers and storytellers forward. These stories will not be forgotten or devalued or diminished.” With the strength of that conviction, Wordcraft provides mentorship for burgeoning storytellers in order to ensure greater sustainability for Indigenous stories, promotes education through varied workshops and engages in and fosters activism by creating awareness of the impact and contributions of Indigenous stories and storytellers.
Also foundational to the work of Wordcraft is generosity, a value that Francis explains as essential to Indigenous theory and ways of being. “The gift of writing and storytelling has been given to you and must be returned—we're generous with our time, we're generous with our words, we're generous with our stories.”
Whether or not you identify as Indigenous, as a writer or as a storyteller, you can support the work of Wordcraft and Native and Indigenous storytellers with a simple action. “Show up,” said Francis—support these creators by reading their work, listening to their stories and supporting Wordcraft's efforts. There are a multitude of opportunities to engage with the organization—for example, a small $5 contribution delivers Native-focused literature into the hands of Native youth in the form of a comic book delivered to a student. Volunteering your time is also useful, as is engaging with Indigenous literary works. You can connect with the organization and stay tuned to upcoming Wordcraft events and initiatives, like anticipated immersive installations, readings and workshops by visiting their website at wordcraftcircle.org.