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Storytelling and Oral History

"As kids, we used to ask elders to tell us stories we already knew by heart. We’d say, ‘Can you tell us about this or that historical event? What do you know about it?’ What we were really asking for was their analysis, their particular interpretation of the event as it related to life."
— Elder Russell Wright

For hundreds of generations, oral history has been fundamental Aboriginal communities and cultures. At one time, it was the primary means of passing on history, tradition and knowledge. Stories and myths were memorized and told from one generation to the next. Talented storytellers knew exactly how to tell a story so as to capture the attention of young and old alike.

Message from an Elder Much like scrolls, manuscripts and books in Western tradition, the stories and myths of the First Nations functioned to preserve their social memory: the experiences and histories that bonded families and communities. They united people in a shared understanding of the universe and their place within it.

Oral histories were and continue to be, different types of stories and storytelling. Some were true historic accounts based on factual occurrences like band migration, past battles and hunting experiences. Mythological tales, on the other hand, were meant more for entertainment and instruction. They told of life’s creation and origin, of clever animals, shrewd tricksters and supernatural Spirits who guided people in visions and dreams. Some stories came with ominous warnings that prevented their telling at certain times of the year. Certain Weesakayjak stories, for example, were only to be told on winter nights; to disregard this warning could anger this Trickster Spirit and bring bad luck.

Future In the years following contact, the European emphasis on the written word spread across the land as settlement grew and First Nations found that their oral tradition was continually devalued. The Aboriginals, who had always made, and honoured, spoken promises between one another, found that many pledges or oral contracts that had been made with them by European newcomers were meaningless unless committed to paper. The contentions that have become part of the Treaty 6 legacy are caused in part by this incongruity. Many Aboriginal peoples today believe that the First Nations representatives who signed the treaty did not have a fair and complete understanding of what the treaty document — hand-written in English and full of legal jargon — entailed. The treaty was a traditional European contract, a way of solidifying promises that the First Nations were unfamiliar with.

The importance of oral history became especially important with the growing influence of European culture and the ensuing pressure to assimilate. At times, these pressures threatened to destroy First Nations cultures, but the stories and myths passed down by storytellers generations ago have weaved their way into the lives of contemporary Aboriginal peoples. It is no accident that this is the case – it is thanks to the hard work of the Elders, who recognized the significance of keeping the stories alive, that youngsters today are able to listen to variations of the stories told to their ancestors many hundreds of years ago. These stories are a living link to the past and to ancient ways of understanding the intricacy and interconnectedness of life.


1 Dianne Meili. Those Who Know: Profiles of Alberta’s Native Elders. (Edmonton: New West Publishers, 1991), 51.

Sources:
DeMallie, Raymond J, and Douglas R. Parks. “Tribal Traditions and Records,” in DeMallie, Raymond J. Handbook of North American Indians. Vol. 13, part 2 of 2. Washington: Smithsonian Institution, 2001.

Meili, Dianne. Those Who Know: Profiles of Alberta’s Native Elders. Edmonton: New West Publishers, 1991.

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