Arts & Culture
Local Author’s New Novel ‘House of Purple Cedar’ Speaks Choctaw Truth
Published: February 26, 2014
One wouldn’t think it to talk to the man, see him on stage or read one of his numerous award-winning books, but much of author and Choctaw storyteller Tim Tingle’s life was once about hiding.
Though Tingle’s grandmother’s home was a center of Choctaw pride—a gathering place where kinfolk shared food, stories and cultural traditions—no one outside of the family knew of Tingle’s heritage. This is how his Mawmaw wanted it. She had heard stories of the persecution and cruelty endured by her grandfather, who had survived the Trail of Tears in 1835, and by her great grandmother, who had not. She had also experienced violent intolerance at Indian boarding schools, where students were beaten if they spoke a word of their native Choctaw language. Tingle recalls her warning him, “Tell no one that you are Choctaw because you never know what will fall upon our family.”
Tingle harbored a second secret as well—he wanted to be a writer. Though this secret is arguably not as risky as the first, the world outside of Tingle’s family had shown him that it had no place for his stories.
It sounds like a scene in a Roald Dahl story of fantastic children being mistreated by ignorant, oafish adults. When Tingle was in the second grade, his teacher said that the class was to have 30 minutes of free time and then told them to take out their crayons and color. Understanding these to be contradictory instructions, Tingle chose option one: free time. After writing two pages of a screenplay, Tingle noticed his teacher standing over his desk. The scene unfolded something like this:
“What are you doing?” she asked.
“Writing a screenplay about Zorro.”
“A screenplay? May I read it?”
With pride, Tingle consented and watched his teacher take his writing to the front of the classroom. There, she commanded the class’ attention, read his writing aloud in a mocking tone and then tore it up and threw it in the trash.
“From that day on,” Tingle explained, 57 years later at Local Coffee, “I kept my writing to myself.”
But the force that compels a person to write can be just as powerful and difficult to suppress as one’s identity. Fortunately for readers and audiences nationwide, Tingle eventually decided to break the silence. When his grandmother died in 1970, Tingle said, “the fog of fear and secrecy gradually lifted, and we cousins took on a pride about who we were and what our family members had become.” Tingle determined he would speak out, and he had two stories he absolutely had to tell. His great-great-grandfather’s experience found public expression in his short story “Trail of Tears,” published in Tingle’s collection Walking the Choctaw Road, chosen by both Oklahoma and Alaska for the One Book, One State program in 2005. In the illustrated children’s book Saltypie (2010), Tingle touches on his grandmother’s experience at an Indian boarding school while describing moments from his own childhood. Both books, along with Crossing Bok Chitto and Texas Ghost Stories: 50 Favorites for the Telling, have received multiple awards and earned national recognition for Tingle, who travels all over the country sharing stories and songs while calling an idyllic Canyon Lake residence home.