Sarah Elisabeth Sawyer and her mother Lynda Kay Sawyer, both tribal members of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, opened their filmmaking and creative writing class for young students at this summer’s Chickasaw Arts Academy with what seems like a simple question: “What’s the first thing you need to make a film?”
Actors, cameras, lights the students guessed.
“The answer,” Sarah explained, “is a good story.”
Sarah, a 2015 Artists in Business Leadership fellow and First Peoples Fund’s eSPIRIT writer, knows good stories. A storyteller of traditional and fictional tales based on the lives of her people, Sarah, just 31, has published five books. She also works as a freelance copywriter, primarily with Native organizations working in Indian Country.
Sarah’s upcoming book tells the story of the Choctaw code talkers of World War I.
“They were the first tribe to work as code talkers. They used their Native language to transmit messages that brought a quicker end to the war,” Sarah said. “At that point, Oklahoma had been a state for ten years, the Choctaw Nation was no longer sovereign, boarding schools were in full swing and our language was actually being taken from us.”
Sarah spent six months researching the book, now in draft form and due for release 2018 in recognition of the 100th anniversary of the conclusion of WWI.
“Choctaws have always honored our code talkers,” Sarah explained, but this will be the first novel to tell their story.
At the heart of every good story, fiction or nonfiction, is character transformation, Sarah said. She has brought this key concept of character transformation to her creative writing classes at the Chickasaw Arts Academy for the last five years. The Chickasaw Arts Academy is an intensive two-week learning experience offered free to students across cultures ages 8-18 that provides classes in theater, dance, visual art, music composition, vocal music, creative writing, textile design, photography and video production. The Academy is held on the campus of East Central University in Ada, Oklahoma.
As an instructor at the Academy, Sarah has witnessed valuable transformations among her students. There were two students last year who entered her class believing that all writers were “hobos.” One of their parents discouraged them from writing, but meeting and working with Sarah shifted their perceptions. This year, there was the “little genius” who wrote poems with perfect meter but not much heart. Working with Sarah, he learned to connect with and convey his feelings.
Most classes at the Academy include Chickasaw culture but don’t focus on traditional art forms. Participants come together at the end of the day for Culture Time to “keep Chickasaw culture in the center,” Sarah said. The Academy culminates with a Gallery Walk and Showcase open to the public.
Chickasaw storyteller Lori Carmichael encouraged Sarah to apply to teach at the Academy after seeing her work with the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian, where she was honored as a literary artist through the 2012 Artist Leadership Program for her work in preserving Trail of Tears stories. This year for the first time she teamed up with her mother at the Academy to teach a combined class on video production and creative writing.
Sarah said she and her mother, a photographer and filmmaker, “partner on just about everything.” They live together in Sarah’s childhood home in Canton, Texas, and her mother assists Sarah with research and is her first reader and editor.
Sarah said she inherited her love of writing from her mother and also her father, Ara C. Sawyer, a singer songwriter who passed away 5 years ago. “He was a storyteller and a half,” she said. “He taught me that stories make the world go round.”
Read more about Sarah’s work at SarahElisabethWrites.com.