Regarding Oral Traditions

There is a proud oral tradition among the indigenous peoples of the world. Culture, traditions, knowledge and stories have been passed through countless generations by oral transmission. Before there was written language, there was the oral tradition.

Oral tradition and living example are the best way to learn a culture; to hear the knowledge of a person who grew up immersed in the culture and observe the way that they perform their traditions and practices. To hear the stories of their lifetime and the lifetimes of their ancestors. Then one can fully understand what it is to be a part of that culture.

I am a storyteller. I chose to learn the stories so that I could tell them myself. I learned quickly that there is a tradition that the storyteller must adhere to: that a story cannot be told until it can be repeated verbatim to the storyteller from which it was learned. And I have tried to follow that tradition to the best of my ability, even though many of the stories I recite were gleaned from books, not other storytellers.

I used to consider how a Native story should begin. Some of the earliest stories I encountered began with “Long, long ago, in the beginning times…”, which seemed appropriate for most of those stories. But I encountered an introduction that I truly came to appreciate in the film “DreamKeepers” (Hallmark, 2003): “I will tell it to you as it was told to me, by my father, who heard it from his father, who heard it from Black Elk…”. That is how a story shold be told; citing the source and the lineage of the story to affirm its veracity.

I’m not sure it would carry the same cultural significance if I said: “I will tell it to you as I read it from Richard Erdoes, who heard it from the White Mountain Apache…” but I suppose that is how I should introduce each story. Yet the point is still to establish the source and veracity of the story for the listener. And so it should be for any cultural perspective the enthusiast chooses to share with an inquiring listener.

I have previously commented at length about an incident where an oral tradition was recited but could not be properly cited with regard to where it originated. This is the point at which much of the “education” that I have witnessed, and at one time offered, breaks down.

Most of us enthusiasts are not fortunate enough to have an unimpeachable source of oral tradition available to us. We rely on other enthusiasts who, hopefully, are better informed than we on a given subject, or on written resources we can obtain in print or on the Internet. We are forced to accept the veracity of what we learn from these sources. We should be diligent enough to at least attempt to corroborate the information from multiple sources. Likewise, we should be prepared to cite our source(s) for any information we divulge to others as culturally factual.

We should always be ready and able to answer the question: “Who told you that?” If we cannot truthfully answer that question, we would be well advised to keep that story or bit of information to ourselves.