Feb 7, 2022
Posted in: culture
Storytelling is a time-honoured concept and an integral part of our early history. Staying in at night kept us safe and warm in the days when heat loss was more challenging to bear and home fires required a lot of work. Daylight hours were spent harvesting food and wood to lessen the hunger and cold.
The night’s entertainment had to be self-generated, affordable, and convenient. Storytelling was a natural fit, an ongoing process, with lots of leeway for different styles of storytelling and for the many purposes storytelling could achieve. Storytelling was for the whole household. The same story could be told each year but what made it different was how the listener’s understanding would have grown. People matured and both their experience and focus may have changed. Young children could take a story at face value, seeing only the basic entertainment value. Many stories are “there for your own good,” advising children to stay safe and close to home. The same story could have other teachings that transmit our cultural values such as being kind to one another, sharing, not gossiping, not being greedy, and seeing ourselves as part of the world and not apart from it. Older youth and adults would process a story differently than they did as children and take away deeper meaning than what was evident to them before. Some stories were short, some stories took days.
In modern times, the tradition of storytelling is shared through venues such as schools and libraries. What cannot be duplicated in these settings is the homey atmosphere and sense of belonging felt by all present during storytelling in the home. You belonged to this group – as a listener, a storyteller, or as a guest. The acceptable level of engagement was very flexible and people could do what they wanted as long as it wasn’t rudely interfering with the story. Listeners could be doing things like handwork and come and go as they pleased without insulting the storyteller. This is very much a traditional teaching style which touts that the learner will learn when the learner is ready.
Some of the important protocols include knowing when to tell certain stories. None of them can be told without the expressed permission of the original storyteller and this must be accompanied by acknowledgment each and every time the story is re-told. In today’s lingo, to do otherwise is intellectual property theft. Some stories can be told at any time of year while other stories require snow on the ground.
For the most part, stories were told to entertain. With humour being such a part of most Indigenous cultures, storytellers would weave explanations about nature with teachings that could serve as good examples, bad examples, warnings, and admonishments. Some of the main characters like Ti’ Jean, the Trickster, and Wesakechak, often got their comeuppance in spite of having powers and privileges bestowed upon them by the Creator. Bragging and being self-centered and devious were definitely negative characteristics that were sure to have negative consequences. Some of the messages I have had the privilege of receiving through stories are:
The Gabriel Dumont Institute has had the privilege of working with a number of Elders and storytellers. Some of these stories are now available as a free download from the Institute’s Virtual Museum of Métis History and Culture at https://www.metismuseum.ca/browse/index.php/13100. Hard copies can be purchased from the GDI Press store, https://gdins.org/shop-gdi/.