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Elders Voices
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The Elders' Voices
"From [women Elders] I have come to understand how they see words as having work to do; words make the world rather than merely referring to it."1

In Aboriginal culture, the oral tradition is very complex. Aboriginal Peoples give a special place to the ability to speak with meaning and confidence. The birth of oral tradition lies in its immediacy and liveliness. For Aboriginal Peoples, the act of oration is powerful.

Aboriginal Elders are an example of those who have mastered the creative art of the human voice. Elders are living examples of the power of storytelling; their stories contain the power to transmit the social and cultural folklore, memories, histories, and laws of their peoples from generation to generation.

Northern Light – Dancing Spirits It begins with the telling of the story. Oral history can be defined in many ways among the Aboriginal Peoples. Stories can be told in ceremony as well as in everyday speech. Some Aboriginal Peoples view ceremony as the physical enactment of a story that was created by the ancestors or the spirit world. Although a ceremony may not mimic exactly that mythic moment it describes, it makes present for the people their connection with ancestral history and tradition.

The ceremony reveals the cultural truths found in the ancestral past. The re-enacting of ancient events also bears with it the thrust of social memory. It is this social memory that plays a key role in many Aboriginal cultures. Social memory is central in the construction of Aboriginal law. Social memory not only remembers what we would call the historical past, but more importantly it remembers the potent mythic past. Moral and religious values stem from this shared, remembered history.

The stories laid down by the ancestors set both the framework and the laws for the contemporary community. The practice of ‘remembering’ in the daily lives of Aboriginal peoples reaffirms their place in the social and physical world. For example, it confirms who they are, what they are to do, and, more importantly, what their relationship is to other beings and objects: animate and inanimate. Social remembrance retains both the ceremonial acts that we would call spirituality and the norms that we would call law. The result is circular. Oral history is the crucial element in the ongoing transmission of identity but it also stems from that identity.

Oral history can be a way of showing the consequences of certain acts that are or would be extremely unlikely to occur, and by doing so set standards for the good, in tune and in balance with the ‘natural’ order. Should the teaching be broken, the result will have a tremendous consequence, usually of the kind we would associate with the supernatural. This kind of "teaching" component sets Aboriginal law apart from other ways of presenting law. Oral history provides access to the unusual for everyone who hears such stories. These special cases of encountering reality are not regarded as extraordinary—they are merely experiences accorded to the gifted; however, everyone potentially can experience them in dreams or in other culturally-acceptable ways.

Though many of these stories and story types are found almost everywhere in the world, what is so significant for Native North Americans is that their stories indicate who and what they are. Storytelling is not just the act of retelling a favourite tale with passive listeners. To say that it is a group sitting around the fire while an Elder or the societal authority relates a story of the ancestors is, in effect, stereotypical and narrow. Oral history is a re-connection to the unimaginable act that occurred in the ancestral past. The language within the stories told is laden with meanings. By extension, language is a creative arena within human life that can be directly linked to oral traditions.

Oral history is much like a case in law that is tried more than once…each time deals with the same facts, but the place, time and characters can shift the parameters of the case. No two authorities will tell the story the same way for the simple reason that no two people are on the same life journey. Therefore, each has his or her own spiritual take on the meaning, and the orator realizes the nature of the group receiving the story.

This multimedia presentation provides access to Aboriginal oral history. Through video segments, audio clips, and text articles, the stories and wisdom of the Elders, the keepers of knowledge, have been preserved for future generations to experience and enjoy.

There is an increasing need to preserve such oral traditions in this manner. Time and circumstance have eroded many cultural foundations for the Aboriginal Peoples in Alberta and across Canada. It is not enough to translate into written text the stories of Aboriginal Elders, simply because it is impossible for the written form to articulate the cultural expressiveness of the oral tradition. The written word cannot capture the immediate moment of cultural transmission, or recreate the physical gestures or subtle nuances in tone that lend deeper context to the words spoken.

Aboriginal Elders are a living form of oral and visual cultural and historical expression, and the Elders’ Voices project has undertaken to preserve this mode of expression through auditory and visual media. In this way, a living record of Aboriginal history is being compiled. As one explores these video and audio segments, one will see the faces, the gestures, and the expressions that will enrich the meanings of the words one hears.

The audio, video, and text resources for this project were provided through the generous donation of a number of organizations that are listed in the quicklinks section of this webpage. Click on the name of the desired organization to access their materials.

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            For more on Aboriginal history of Alberta, visit Peel’s Prairie Provinces.
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