University of Pittsburgh

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Story Seeker

Written by Lauren Mylo

On a leisure trip through the American West, a tourist visits the Museum of the Plains in Browning, Mont. There, while learning about the Plains Indians’ tradition of passing down history and culture through storytelling, he remembers how stories shaped his own understanding of his heritage as the son of Polish and Austrian immigrant parents. As an English literature and liberal arts scholar, he also notices how the stories have similarities to the oral traditions of the ancient Greeks, as well as of the medieval Celtic and Germanic peoples.

The tourist, Paul Zolbrod, had just earned his PhD in English from Pitt when he stopped at that museum back in 1967. It was a visit that would shape his scholarly career and personal life for decades to come. He began archival research on Native American tribes, and he soon focused on the Southwest’s Navajos. While a faculty member at Allegheny College in Pennsylvania, Zolbrod (A&S ’58, ’62G, ’67G) spent 13 years translating and writing Diné bahane: The Navajo Creation Story (University of New Mexico Press), which is now in its 16th printing. He also investigated and wrote about some of the tales represented on Navajo handmade rugs, as well as the Navajo tradition of oral poetry.

When Zolbrod—a Pittsburgh native—retired from Allegheny College after a 30-year career, he moved to New Mexico, where he now teaches part-time at the Navajo Nation’s Diné College. Since he lives in distant Albuquerque and there are no hotels within 50 miles of the campus, he often sleeps on the library floor during the nights before his classes. At sunrise, he stretches and exercises, then heads to a classroom where he teaches adults to read and relish the stories of many cultures.