2017-03-16 / Voices

Irish and Lakota Storytellers – and Their Mediums

Freelance Writer & Radio Producer
Making a Noise in this World

I watched a movie with my grandmother a few nights back. The fact that she passed some 30 years ago was irrelevant. I could feel her there with me – just as I did when she‘d take me to the local theatre on a Sunday afternoon.

This particular film was a classic with Burt Lancaster – and surprisingly appropriate today. “The Train” tells the true story of a group of World War Two French Resistance fighters trying to stop the German army from transporting a train filled with their country’s stolen art treasures to Berlin.

Pretty serious viewing for a 9-year old. But I loved history, I loved films and I loved my grandmother. Her name was Mary, but we called her “Nan”.

She was first-generation Irish. Her mother stepped off an enormous ship in New York harbor at 16 in search of a new life. Courageous doesn’t begin to describe what it must have taken for Great- Grandma Sarah to leave her quiet homeland and journey to a metropolis of a million people – on her own.

That might be where the wanderlust evident since my youth originated. But I didn’t tap it until nearly 20 - and then within my own country. I can’t imagine following Sarah’s path from Ireland at her age.

Yet, it was the same path many had taken from The Emerald Isle – for better opportunities and to escape the continued oppression of British rule. And though there were more freedoms in America, there were many of the same biases. “Irish Need Not Apply” at work places. “No Irish” in boarding houses.

I was reminded of those offensive signs during one of my first conversations with a Lakota elder when she mentioned similar “No Indian” notices once on display in South Dakota – and not that long ago.

The Irish and Lakota also share a history of fighting off invaders.

Yet there are positive parallels. Their wry sense of humor – where “Banter” is a second language for each culture.

And, like the Lakota, the Irish are wonderful storytellers.

Not so Nan. Yes, she’d answer questions I had about the past. “What did my grandfather do?” He was a NYC trolley driver for a while. Then a Brooklyn dock worker – in the days before machinery moved those heavy loads that arrived at and left our ports. “He was skinny like you…but he was strong.”

She’d also share some tidbits about life when she was young…though not much.

You see, Nan wasn’t educated. I think that made her self-conscious about speaking - even though I’d hear her talk a blue streak among adults.

And, again like the Lakota, she’d been brought up to distance herself from her Irish heritage (remember those “NO Irish” signs she must have seen as a girl).

As a result, I didn’t learn much about Ireland or that side of my heritage. The traditional Irish storyteller did not reside in Nan.

Or, so I thought. Until we were sitting together again those few nights ago watching Burt Lancaster battle the Nazi mindset. Somewhere across the plain between life and death, in a quiet moment when there was no dialogue a realization came to me: Nan was a storyteller, and a great one. She just used a different medium

Instead of sitting me at her knee in a cozy parlor like a traditional Irish grandmother, or around a wood stove on a cold winter’s night like a traditional Lakota unci, Nan used the tool she knew would have the most impact on me and where she would be most comfortable - in the role of intermediary.

At the movies she could bring information and entertainment to me while answering any questions I had and adding a few choice facts of her own without being pressured into the position of elder teacher.

And though not every film was as serious, historical and educational as “The Train”, they were always quality productions – Nan wouldn’t tolerate less.

I’ve compiled a list of some two dozen movies we shared over those few years when we spent occasional Sundays together. I know there are more I may never recall.

So in honor of Nan and St. Patrick’s Day - and my Irish-Lakota friends (you know who you are) I’ll sit down tomorrow to “Yankee Doodle Dandy” – another historical gem we shared (but on TV) about Irish song and dance man George M. Cohan.

I bet I’ll hear Nan singing “For It Was Mary” o’er the miles – and when she does, I’ll sing along.

Jim Kent is a freelance writer and radio producer who lives in Hot Springs. He is a contributing columnist to the Lakota Country Times and former editor of The New Lakota Times. He can be heard on South Dakota Public Radio, National Public Radio and National Native News Radio. Jim can be reached at

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