Tales of the old West; The fine art of storytelling

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

''Here among the cowboys and mountain men, the way to tell a tale is to pretend it happened to you - not to Paul Bunyan or someone else. . . .''

The wind and the dust blow among the pinon pines on the Santa Fe hill, outside the Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian, as storyteller Joe Hayes begins another tale. Dressed in tan pants, plaid shirt, and tan vest, he sits on a simple chair, rolls his eyes, gestures, and grimaces in awe at each turn of events as if he is hearing the folk tale for the first time himself.

The listeners - toddlers and octogenarians, tourists and natives, rich and poor - reel and laugh right along with Mr. Hayes at the evening summer program featuring cowboy stories, Indian stories, and Spanish cuentos Mr. Hayes has revitalized from the past.

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Joe Hayes admits he was a daydreamer as a child growing up in Pennsylvania and Arizona. ''I still love to daydream,'' he says. ''That's one of the things that led me to storytelling. When I heard a book or read one, I wanted to walk and perform it.''

Although he majored in English at the University of Arizona, Mr. Hayes became a surveyor in Mexico and Spain. Later, returning to Arizona to study geology, he realized he didn't want a lonely career in the field. ''It's nice to have people around me,'' he admits.

After becoming an English teacher, he started making up stories to tell his own three children. ''Wouldn't it be nice to know old folk tales?'' he remembers thinking. At the library he found the story of a toad and told it to his children. ''I liked it and they liked it,'' he recalls.

That was the beginning of a long, sometimes difficult search in libraries and among natives for old stories or story fragments of the Southwest. It was also the beginning of a new career.

By the time he quit teaching in 1980, Mr. Hayes was already becoming known as New Mexico's storyteller. ''It wasn't scary,'' he says, speaking of the day he started supporting himself by storytelling. ''I figured I couldn't afford not to do it. If you never tried, it'd haunt you.''

Hayes has been storytelling every day since then in school districts all over New Mexico. He performs before teachers' conferences and has even taught the art in the education department at the University of New Mexico.

''It's important for children,'' he says. ''It makes them appreciate reading and what words can do. With languages kids can create a story. Now kids are used to having things done for them in a story. In storytelling they get to imagine in their own way.''

One kindergartener was so entranced by a Hayes tale that she told him, ''You just gave me a dream.''

Meanwhile, Mr. Hayes's collection of stories is growing. In his research he has found that between the 1930s and '50s many of the old tales had been reduced to fragments. Often people will tell him a story, or tell him about a story. Then he goes to the library and puts fragments together. Sometimes someone tells him part of a story in one place, another tells him another part, and he weaves it together.

To preserve these tales from Spanish New Mexico, Hayes has collected some in a book, ''The Day It Snowed Tortillas'' (Mariposa Publishing, 330 Garfield, Santa Fe, N.M. 87501; it's $6).

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