The Importance of Storytelling In Indigenous Culture
It’s 9 pm on Thursday, August 1st and my dad text me to see if I am up for a visit. I am living in the condo next to his this summer, while I complete my summer research project, in Northern Heights. It’s a towering building of 16 floors, on top of the mall, in the heart of downtown Yellowknife. We sit on the balcony, overlooking a magnificent view of the Great Slave Lake, watching the lake activity – floatplanes, boats, and houseboats – while music from the band playing at a local pub across the street wafts up. We settle back into our oversized folding lawn chairs, and I prepare for some masterful storytelling.
We have spent many hours together as my dad regales me with stories of his childhood, family history, and stories of Northern life. We both laugh in unison at his jokes – big, hearty laughs – that makes me think humour and laugh patterns are genetic. I believe it’s possible to inherit a sense of humour. His stories are his philosophy of life. I listen to learn how I should live. Listening involves being fully present, asking questions in my own mind about the story, but never interrupting, and extracting the lesson from each story that will guide me on my journey.
Storytelling – a form of knowledge exchange – is an essential part of Indigenous culture. We share to entertain, but mostly to pass down wisdom without being confrontational. A good storyteller knows what their listeners needs to hear, and can deliver it in a way that makes us draw our own conclusions about the best way to approach the issue.
I have learned how to listen, which is a special skill that Indigenous communities value, because it requires “thinking mutually” which means the “position of the listener and the teller will thus have an impact on what is told, and both parties carry responsibility for the knowledge” (Anderson, 2011, p. 21). My dad teaches me how to be a good leader through his own life stories, which often has multi-layered meaning. Elders share teachings as a form of “reciprocity in relationships” so that we can learn how to live in good relations with each other (Anderson, 2011, p. 73). Living in reciprocity is fundamental to our survival – the collective always comes before the individual.
Metis Elder, Maria Campbell states, “the quality of oral history is based on the quality of the relationship between the teller and the student” (Anderson, 2011, p. 20). Being a good listener requires a huge investment of time and energy on behalf of both the Elder and the recipient. This investment means respect, reciprocity, and responsibility that outsiders of Indigenous communities are often not privy to because traditional knowledge comes with deeper cultural teachings.
The author of Life Stages and Native Women (2011), Anderson learned on her journey writing this book that, “there are ceremonial and healing responsibilities that I gained through the process of doing the oral history for this book” (p. 23). She acknowledged listening to stories from a community comes with responsibilities to that community and “in the Cree world all knowledge is not knowable. Some knowledge is kept in family lines, other kinds of knowledge have to be earned” (Anderson, 2011, p. 23). This teaching means some stories are not for outsiders to hear, and it is of utmost importance to keep stories safe within communities because they are sacred.
A notable challenge for outsiders coming into Indigenous communities to research is resistance on behalf of communities to share their traditional knowledge with outsiders. The reason being is the outsiders cannot reciprocate that responsibility, and pass it on to future generations because it is not their place. It is not a personal attack against the outsider but a cultural teaching, “in the Cree world our sources are our teacher and the student-teacher relationship prescribes life-long obligations and responsibilities” (Anderson, 2011, p.23). If you are an outsider thinking about research with Indigenous communities prepare for a long-term commitment and a solemn oath to be responsible for their stories.
Stories are the lifeblood of Indigenous communities and the way that Elders pass their wisdom to future generations. To be gifted with stories is to honoured by your community and requires you to be responsible for the greater good. It also means respecting the storyteller and story enough to listen with an open heart and preparing to receive the stories.
Before you watch these digital stories I ask that you prepare your heart for this responsibility. In the book, Unsettling the Settler Within, “Indigenous educator Jo-ann Archibald describes the principals and protocols that are integral to Indigenous storytelling as pedagogical practice: respect, responsibility, reciprocity, reverence, holism, interrelatedness and synergy” (Regan, 2010, p. 190). This practice requires treating the stories and storytellers with respect, and reflecting on what wisdom they are sharing. It also means, as a responsible listener, sharing these stories with others if you find wisdom in them. Furthermore, after viewing the five digital health stories reflect on the interrelatedness and synergy between the stories – how does each story reflect the holistic understanding of Indigenous women’s health? What connections do you see between the stories?
I will share my own insights in short essays beneath each story, but our life experiences and positions in society are unique. The way that I understand these stories is different from your understanding, yet both of our perspectives are important. The beauty of storytelling is its ability to bring people together and allow us to find common ground and a shared understanding of humanity.
Please feel free to comment in the comment sections beneath the stories on our channel. Our website www.womenwarriors.club is currently being revised to accommodate the digital stories. Please feel free to forward this newsletter to interested parties or share the digital health stories channel using the share button on the top left coroner of the channel.
Anderson, K. (2011). Life stages and Native women. Memory, teachings, and story medicine. Winnipeg, Manitoba: University of Manitoba Press.
Regan, P. (2010). Unsettling the settler within : Indian residential schools, truth telling, and reconciliation in Canada. Vancouver, British Columbia: UBC Press.