Suddenly a piercing howl rends the quiet of the Smithsonian's Indian exhibit. Over by the Mandan robe a tall, angular woman wearing feathered pigtails and a fringed elkskin dress paces before her young audience. "Track-track-track, Old Man Coyote was making his tracks across North America," she begins.
For six years Susan Strauss has been making tracks in this country and across Europe, spinning out native American Coyote tales. "Coyote is the right-hand man of the Great Spirit," she explains. "The Great Spirit creates the universe. Coyote creates the world the way it is. He's a trickster, and it is through his bad doings that we learn how not to be."
Strauss, 30, grew up in McLean. After graduating from the University of Virginia with a master's degree in English education, she moved to Portland, Ore., in 1979 to teach at the High Country School. An "academic version of Outward Bound," this summer traveling group took high school students to museums, national parks and Indian reservations throughout the Pacific Northwest.
It was on these reservations that Strauss developed the stories for her book -- "Oh That Coyote, 14 Stories for Reading Aloud," published in 1983 -- and the foundation for her art. "When I went to Oregon, I became involved in everything Indian. I went to powwows, went to sweat lodge ceremonies, participated in sun-dance ceremonies. And everywhere I went, I inquired about elderly people who still told the stories." This was how she met Agnes Vanderburg, an 84-year-old Flathead Indian from Montana, from whom she collected many stories and methods of telling.
"The Hollywood image of Indians has always been the silent, stoic Noble Savage," she says. "The beauty of Coyote stories is that they release those stereotypes. Children see that Indians had a sense of humor, they had human foibles just like our own. There's a tolerance for human mistakes in Indian stories -- they teach you to laugh at yourself . . .
"People are surprised to hear the bawdy stories. Indians didn't always intend them that way. Indians developed a candor about birth, their children grew up in the lodge where those activities took place. One purpose of bawdy stories was to teach young children how to cope with their sexuality."
A devoted naturalist, Strauss also regards Coyote tales as a tool in environmental education. "Indian stories are filled with a sense of landscape and natural history. Indian children who grew up listening to those stories developed a strong feeling of emotional attachment and awareness for all life in North America."
In this area, Strauss has performed at the International Children's Festival at Wolf Trap, on WRC-TV's "Three Stories Tall," in northern Virginia schools and at last year's storytelling festival in Charlottesville. Last summer she received a grant from the city of Portland to work on a program of Yiddish stories, and eventually she would like to tell Jewish and Middle Eastern stories together. But that's another story.
Susan Strauss will bring her Indian Coyote tales, some of the oldest stories told in America, to the Source Theatre tomorrow and Sunday at 2 p.m., and on Tuesday at 8 p.m. (1809 14th St. NW; 462-1073). The performances, for both adults and children, will include "Coyote Loses His Song," a story about being true to yourself, and a Nez Perce swallowing monster story about conspicuous consumption.