"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.
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
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 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
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