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Nature's Law
Spiritual Life, Governance, Culture, Traditions, Resources, Context and Background
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Storytelling Teachings
Orality and Creativity

Orality and Ceremonialism

Orality and Social Memory


Visual representation of nature's laws

Storytelling is also a way of showing the consequences of certain acts that are or would be extremely unlikely to occur, and by doing so set certain community norms in place. It is this kind of "teaching" component that imbues Indigenous law with a qualitative difference from our way of presenting law. As Ross points out: Storytelling as a means of law-giving seems to be based on the same understanding – that law can be known to everyone through reciting the consequences of acts alone, not through communicating judgmental labels for either the act or, worse still, the actor (Ross, Returning 171).

The implication of the teaching quality in law suggests that there is a consequence for almost every possible scenario of life. This teaching is "like" a law, or rulebook. It says that, to be aware of such and such an extreme outcome of such and such an event is to warn all listeners of the negative potential in wrong behaviour. Contrariwise, it is to guide in a way that allows people to live in a good way, in tune and in balance with the ‘natural’ order. It says that, should the teaching be broken, the result will have a tremendous consequence, usually of the kind we would associate with the supernatural.

Storytelling could give access to the unusual to everyone who heard such stories. These special cases of encountering reality were not regarded as extraordinary—they were merely experiences accorded the gifted, and everyone potentially could experience them in dreams or in other culturally-acceptable ways. Storytellers were specially gifted, however, for they could articulate the teachingness of law in a potent manner through their gifted oral skills. It is that teachingness of law that is connected to good medicine.

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. It is not even a group sitting around the fire while an elder or the society authority relates a story of the ancestors, in effect, recounting a foundational myth (to use our term for the process). Rather it is a re-embodiment of the same kind of creative act that occurred in the long-ago period. Storytelling language is laden with meanings. By extension, language is a creative arena within human life that can be directly linked to the kind of orality of the group at the beginnings of the tribe.

Furthermore, storytelling is much like a case at 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 each has his/her own spiritual take on their meaning, and the teller realizes the nature of the group receiving the story --and their limitations. Consequently even a myth like the Adam and Eve story in the Bible cannot be fixed like it is in Western religious canon because it will need to be told in contexts that must be taken into consideration. If we examine the apple story, we realize that the significance of the apple can be overblown…that the key may well not have been that it was an apple, but the disobedience of the founding couple. Indigenous story tellers, had they the Adam and Eve story, would say that storytellers may change the story, and even shift the details to make the point that they thought the group should focus upon. Specific details might be modified considerably in oral expression.

Yet, as von Gernet and others have noted, there is a distinction to be made, even in the indigenous case, between oral traditions and oral histories. Ruppert and Bernet (2001) distinguish these two categories by the way in which the people think about and of their stories:

The first genre we will refer to as distant-time stories…these stories tell of the origin of the world and all its inhabitants, and they function in the manner of sacred history. A second grouping clusters what we might call ‘historical’ narratives that recount events of known people in specific locations. Many of these stories may be personal experiences or descriptions of events that have come to an individual storyteller from a trusted source." (Ruppert & Bernet, 2001, 9)

Scholars differ on whether the two can be separated …the later, for example being recorded and turned into text as ‘fact.’ Some believe the text-making is itself reflective of a vigorous social process; this is Cruickshank’s rendering of this position:

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. From them I have come to appreciate a very particular definition of ‘editing’ that includes carefully tailoring performances for specific audiences. In the not so distant past, A Native storyteller would always count on local listeners to be familiar with stories they were being told and hence to appreciate why these stories were being directed specifically to them. To really hear a story, these elders agreed, you need to know it already at some level, and if narratives told and written in English can provide today’s audience with background they would otherwise lack, so be it. From this perspective, writing becomes just one more component of performance: one way of familiarizing audiences with narratives so that a storyteller can count on listeners to appreciate the really creative editing or shaping when she tells those stories again. Such a perspective enlarges the definition of performance to include the written page, so that ‘editing’ goes beyond the written page just as ‘performance’ may go beyond the physical act of telling the story.

Such a view of Indigenous communications recognizes that even before whites came, indigenous peoples used various mnemonic aids, such as birch bark scrolls or wampum belts. There is also evidence that the Midewewin medicine doctors used sign patches for healing purposes, and in the Edmonton area, at least one report that the Midé ceremonialist, Maskepatoon, had received signs for writing before the time of Evans. (Chief Wayne Roan, oral statement, 2001). But to emphasis the writing aspect of communication is to ignore the whole process as an interpretive activity…it is an interpretive situation that required protocols and proper intentions. As Simpson notes: "Traditional stories provide us with a lens to see the past and with a context to interpret that experience. It is therefore vital to be aware of the cultural ‘rules’ regulating the oral tradition. These rules must be practiced when interpreting the stories." (2000, 26)

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