Kyle Mitchell, Navajo, shares stories on PBS special, “Stories from the Stage”
When Kyle Mitchell is on stage, he doesn’t juggle, he doesn’t dance, he doesn’t sing or play videos.
Mitchell entertains audiences with his words alone — and in this day and age, it’s a dying art in a world where Americans are adjusted to being entertained with all kinds of stimulus at the touch of a button.
Growing up in Kiiłtsoi bitó’ “the bushes where the yellow flowers are” on Navajo between Birdsprings and Dilkon, Arizona, Mitchell had his Cheii and grandmother to thank for hundreds of stories that helped guide him growing up. They guided him as an infantryman in the military as a young adult, and to the present as a husband and father in Tempe, where he works as a program manager at South Mountain Community College.
South Mountain has one of the only storytelling programs in the country, and Mitchell fell in love with the craft after taking an artist storytelling class with Storytelling Institute director Liz Warren in 2013.
“When I was younger, you know, I was very shy. In the military, I learned how to have a voice, right, how to advocate for myself. And then storytelling kind of brought everything together,” Mitchell said.
Although Mitchell grew up with no shortage of great storytellers on the reservation, he learned a different kind of storytelling in the class.
“With the Navajo culture, storytelling is very seasonal,” Mitchell said. “In addition to that it’s mostly matriarchs or patriarchs. And so I learned storytelling in a different lens to an audience outside my culture.”
When Mitchell presented at Sinagua Middle School’s Stewfest & Story night in Flagstaff Nov. 7, kids weren’t playing with their phones or talking over him. They ate, they drank and they listened.
“I remember my first storytelling event was maybe like 100 people and then the largest one I’ve ever done was like 2,000,” Mitchell said. “It’s not me being cocky and being you know, all, ‘yes, I’m just a great speaker.’ It’s really just getting in tune with the art form, being in tune with the story, understanding your audience and then just going from there.”
At Sinagua, Mitchell told stories about The Three Sisters, about his Cheii’s experience using the North Star as a guide when he was in the military, about Mitchell’s own experience using the North Star to guide his Army troop out of a dangerous area in Afghanistan in the early 2000’s, and a funny tale about a misunderstanding while camping in the woods.
“I still have to balance a fine line of having to share a traditional story that’s relevant to people who are non-native people,” Mitchell said. “And so storytelling really has helped me kind of critique that and so that way, I’m honoring the story itself and still honoring the culture and tradition by not oversharing. But I’m also making it understandable enough for the audience to take something away from that story.”
Finding his voice
Multiple polls show adult Americans are more afraid of public speaking than death itself, but Mitchell said he quenched those nerves by relying on the consistent structure of his craft.
“Storytelling really gives you that structure — beginning, middle and end — you build the characterization of the characters, the context and you start showing how to move past that,” he said. “Just relying on the art form of storytelling — that’s really just made me comfortable with public speaking.”
Mitchell loves sharing his tales at events to entertain, but is now using it as a tool to help empower.
“My main intent and like my real passion is using storytelling and doing storytelling workshops for Native youth. I love it.” he said. “It’s so important because your narrative (is everything) and the way you articulate that, and the way you share that can help empower people around you. I’ve worked on a lot of Native American veteran initiatives through storytelling through healing trauma, addressing different issues, re-integrating into society, things like that. The future is bright...I’m just excited to have these opportunities and see where they go.”
Stories from the Stage
Over the summer, Mitchell went to a storytelling event in Tempe, which was recorded for WORLD, in collaboration with PBS.
Mitchell’s story, about feeling disconnect from the reservation when he was blocked out during the pandemic, will air on the Nov. 20 episode of Stories from the Stage, “All Connected.”
“I am so grateful and thankful for Stories from the Stage,” Mitchell said. “I feel like it’s a really good initiative that they put forward for a worldwide audience. You know, how many people on the East Coast are going to be able to hear a Navajo man talk about longing for home, or having somebody move from another country and integrate into American football? It’s a really good platform to bring awareness, and not just bring awareness but have representation. Overall, I hope in some way, shape or form, no matter how grand or how small, that we’re able to reconnect as humans, you know, and kind of just experience that human experience together.”
Mitchell is one of seven Native American storytellers who are featured in season 7 of Stories from the Stage, from three different states and all different tribes.
Episodes can be found on worldchannel.org, the WORLD YouTube Channel or the PBS app.