Observing oral tradition in Indigenous communities
While the art of storytelling to preserve and transmit culture may change, its significance remains the same.
The most common way of observing oral tradition in Indigenous communities is through the art of storytelling. Through oral tradition, the Elders—older members of the community—pass down legends and history to future generations.
Traditional Indigenous stories have a different structure than European fairy tales because they do not have any real beginning, middle, or end. Stories told by the Elders are often ongoing and can be continued over a long period of time, ensuring that the stories have many layers which allow for unique interpretations. Usually, these stories are tailored to suit the age group of their audience and impart relevant life lessons.
The spiritual obligation of the Indigenous community to their Creator often ties into the stories that are passed down—including how certain creatures, like the werewolf, were created. Storytelling and these oral records keep Indigenous cosmologies and aspects of their culture alive, like how stories told by the Métis have a spiritual aspect to them and are influenced by their ancestral cultures (Cree and Ojibwa). Within Indigenous communities, there are also stories for specific occasions, such as prayer offerings and expressions of gratitude. A few tales are considered sacred and told only to select people in the community.
While oral tradition preserves many aspects of Indigenous culture, it also significantly contributes to accurately portraying kinships and genealogy within the community. Oral records describing kinships and relationships are paramount for preventing marriage among close relatives. It was often the duty of the older women in the community to ensure that younger generations were aware of kinships.
More recently, storytelling has become essential for the survival of Indigenous communities. Elders tell stories about where food can be found, how to prepare and consume food, and how to harvest certain crops during the year; this knowledge is beneficial for the survival of younger generations and their families. In modern times, the Indigenous oral tradition remains prevalent. However, their stories are now presented through print media—such as novels, poetry, films, and artworks. While the storytelling tradition has also been affected by societal pressure and assimilation of Indigenous cultures, not every aspect of Indigenous culture has been catalogued; stories told by Elders still play an essential role in imparting knowledge and lessons to younger generations in the community.
Even though storytelling in Western cultures is considered mostly “make-believe,” Indigenous communities use stories to express their view of the world. These stories are not fictional but serve as allegories to how the Elders in different communities view the world around them. The value of these stories should not be lessened by the assumption that they are myths or based on superstitions. These stories are often based on facts and have an underlying truth. There is significance in the oral tradition and the storytelling aspect of Indigenous cultures, as these stories are shared for the good of the community.