Ed Edmo learned his craft from his father's tales of early life

by: TIMES PHOTO: CAITLIN FELDMAN - Ed Edmos favorite thing about storytelling is connecting with the audience and making them laugh. He learned the traditional Native American stories from his father, and recites them from memory.When Ed Edmo speaks, it’s difficult to tell where one thought stops and another begins. He’s a bundle of memories and a lifetime of stories, and says things like “I met J.R.R. Tolkein at Max’s (Tavern) once” or “I went to a reading with Ursula Le Guin” or “Ken Kesey wrote me a letter of recommendation.”

It seems that for years, the traditional Native American storyteller, poet, actor and writer has crossed paths with the best in the business. He’s even had a stint on “Portlandia,” portraying the “coyote spirit” in season three. The 68-year-old is constantly on the road for one gig or another (he likes to “get out of town”), and last Thursday he performed his traditional stories at the Tualatin Heritage Center.

A member of the Shoshone-Bannock tribe, Edmo was born in Owhyee, Nevada, on the Duck Valley Indian Reservation. At six months old, his family moved to Celilo Falls on the Oregon/Washington border, where he lived until age 11. Without electricity or running water, they lived in a house made of railroad ties that his dad acquired through his work on the rail. When The Dalles Dam was being built in the 1950s, Edmo’s family was told that the area would be flooded and that they had to move. From Celilo Falls, they went to Wishram, Wash., where he would stay throughout high school.

“’Cause we had no electric, no running water, no TV, my father told me Indian stories at night, before I’d go to sleep,” he said. “I had a knack of remembering them.”

It wasn’t until his sophomore year of high school that Edmo started stringing artful words together of his own. He experimented with poetry and devoured the words of writers he admired. A few years later, he attempted English degrees at Portland State University and the University of Oregon, among others, but it wasn’t long before his drinking got in the way. As he said, “I don’t have a degree, but I’ve been storytelling since 1974.”

Edmo didn’t even realize he knew all of the stories his father used to tell him until one day at downtown Portland’s Urban Indian Center. He would go there to talk with students about what it’s like to grow up as a Native American, and ran out of things to say for that day’s session.

“I had some time left over, so I told an Indian legend,” he said. “I forgot I had remembered all those stories that my father told me.”

The story struck a chord within him, and Edmo’s been storytelling ever since. 40 years later, most of his oral tales are still the traditional stories of his father, which Edmo thinks were passed down for generations even before that. Most of them are humorous and contain one or multiple lessons.

“Sometimes they have double meanings to them, but they’re not strange,” said his wife, Carol Edmo.

As Ed Edmo stands in his kitchen with a walking stick as tall as he is and a pack with Native American dolls on his back, he tells the story of a “monster woman.” Eager to incorporate his audience, even if it’s just an audience of one, he implores his spectators to motion with him as he describes her “long hair, claws for fingers, snaggly tooth, snot down to there and bad breath haaa.” His cadence is deliberate and contemplative, a pattern that’s hard to come by except naturally.

“It just comes out by feeling,” he said.

When he writes poetry, that comes out by feeling, too. He pulls from his own experiences and observations, telling the story of what it was like to grow up as a Native American in the mid-20th century. Many of his short stories incorporate the same themes, and his work has been featured in numerous collections across the world.

The beginning of a story titled “After Celilo,” sums up the crux of Edmo’s journey:

“I’m not sure what it was that caused my going. Maybe youthful exuberance. I’d like to think it was the quest for knowledge and creativity.”

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