Storytelling Gets A Boost as Nebraska Celebrates 150 Years

Nebraska storytelling conference at Ponca State Park. (Photo by Jack Williams, NET News)
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September 14, 2017 - 6:45am

Ponca State Park, with rolling hills along the Missouri River in far northeast Nebraska, is a perfect place to tell a story. Bird calls and the sound of water flowing by are about the only interruptions here, a place where you can see two other states, Iowa and South Dakota, from the bluffs above the river.


For Nebraska State Poet Twyla Hansen, it’s a great place to talk about the art of storytelling.

“There’s a straight history, but the stories are what are interesting. Something that personally happened to someone,” Hansen said.    

Hansen is here to save storytelling in Nebraska. Whether it’s through poetry, fiction and non-fiction literature, music or verbal storytelling, the kind we heard as kids around the campfire, it doesn’t matter. She believes everyone has an interesting story to tell, sing or write. 

“It’s important to write your story, to preserve that history and culture. It’s a moment in time that no one else quite had that same experience,” Hansen said.

Nebraska State Poet Twyla Hansen.(Photo by Jack Williams, NET News)

As she reads from her book of poetry, Potato Soup, visitors who have signed up for a long weekend of storytelling at Ponca State Park, listen quietly. They’re here to soak it in and celebrate 150 years of storytelling in Nebraska as part of the state’s sesquicentennial celebration. Hansen thinks storytelling, in its many different forms, is an important part of the social fabric of Nebraska.

“People tell stories in small towns. My dad was a storyteller and I grew up hearing stories about other people and it told me who I was and my place in the community,” she said. “It helps cohesiveness to know other people. You understand your community, your surroundings, the world and yourself a little better if you hear stories of other people and what they’ve been through.”  

Ron Hull is a longtime Nebraska broadcaster and storyteller and is a senior advisor at NET. He’s a keynote speaker at the storytelling conference.

“We told stories before we did anything else,” he said. “People want to know who they are, where they came from, where they’re going. It’s the driving force that built America,” Hull said.   

He got some good advice a long time ago from a well-known Nebraska storyteller who wrote about pioneer life and Native Americans.   

Nebraska broadcaster and NET senior advisor Ron Hull. (Photo by Jack Williams, NET News) 

“I knew Mari Sandoz very well and she always said every human being has a great story to tell,” he said. “It takes two major elements. One, more hard work than you have any idea, and two, you’ve got to be honest. You’ve got to tell it like it was. If you’re writing about family, hometown people etc., you can’t soften things. You’ve got to tell it straight out,” he said.   

Tim Anderson is a Nebraska storyteller and has written a biography on John G. Neihardt, also a Nebraska author and poet.    

“Stories are what give us common knowledge so we can all read the same stories or hear the same stories,” Anderson said. “It gives us kind of a shared interest in the state and the state’s past and the people that made this state what it is. So people like Mari Sandoz, Willa Cather, John Neihardt and Loren Eiseley, people who lived before us, but now are telling us through their stories what life was like here, what people thought about, what was important to them.”    

Storytelling has a history as long as civilization, but the way stories are told and consumed is changing. With the internet, smartphones and a lot of other distractions, young people aren’t getting stories the same way anymore. But that’s okay.

“They definitely have a different approach to it and I think the technology appeals to them more so that they are more interested in looking at something on a handheld device,” Anderson said. “But I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. I think that will continue. I think they’ll find ways to keep the stories going.”   

Back at the main lodge at Ponca State Park, poet Twyla Hansen is still soaking in the natural beauty of northeast Nebraska.

“It’s wooded, hilly, ravines. It’s just gorgeous. And the river is awesome,” she said.

It’s a place she hopes has many more stories to tell in the future.

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