Telling Stories: a way to preserve indigenous history.

By Philippa Hadlow

Reading time: 14 minutes

Do you remember a time when your mum used to tell you bedtime stories? She might have read them from a favourite fairy tale book – one that she’d delved into over and over again. Or she might’ve made them up as she went along, embellishing bits here and there, adding intrigue, drama, and flights of fancy. She might've spoken wistfully about her own childhood and given you mindful snapshots of the way she was brought up; her culture and the traditions that formed the woman she became.

You would’ve lain there, safe and warm, as you listened intently, focused on your mum’s familiar voice. Your heart would have been open, and your body relaxed as your imagination was freed to wander and expand, to digest and interpret, to explore and soar.

Listening to the spoken word in whatever context it's presented can be one of the most transformational aspects of life’s journey. Oral narrative can hold you spellbound; it can

By Philippa Hadlow

Reading time: 14 minutes

Do you remember a time when your mum used to tell you bedtime stories? She might have read them from a favourite fairy tale book – one that she’d delved into over and over again. Or she might’ve made them up as she went along, embellishing bits here and there, adding intrigue, drama, and flights of fancy. She might’ve spoken wistfully about her own childhood and given you mindful snapshots of the way she was brought up; her culture and the traditions that formed the woman she became.

You would’ve lain there, safe and warm, as you listened intently, focused on your mum’s familiar voice. Your heart would have been open, and your body relaxed as your imagination was freed to wander and expand, to digest and interpret, to explore and soar.

Listening to the spoken word in whatever context it’s presented can be one of the most transformational aspects of life’s journey. Oral narrative can hold you spellbound; it can excite and persuade. It’s a way to absorb ideas, feed the mind, and shape destiny.

Why? Well, partly because it reflects experience, but also because the sound transfers emotion. The voice is a powerful medium. The core qualities held in every word uttered – and there are about eight: tone, inflection, volume, pitch, rhythm, tempo, texture, and resonance – all add interest, emphasis, and meaning to the spoken word. These subtle shades in sound are called nuances. When added to the message, you have an inimitable form of communication that quite literally speaks volumes about identity; about who you are.

Vocal identity is expressed by your personality. What you say and how you say it stems from the unique characteristics developed both genetically (inherent) and by learning (acquired). Those personality traits define you and affect the way you think, feel, and behave. To the people around you, those actions are perceived as your persona.

Whatever your personality or persona, they are both undoubtedly influenced by your culture.

Culture refers to the shared knowledge, skills, language, values, beliefs, customs, and norms of a specific group of people. It, therefore, moulds how we learn, live and behave. We depend on culture to survive – without it, we would be lost because humans are social animals reliant on a society created, fed, and maintained by culture.

You can appreciate how vital a job we all have in helping our culture survive! How can we ensure its continuation?

One of the most impactful methods of ensuring our culture is acknowledged, preserved, and kept alive is by telling stories.

Storytelling connects the past to the present and transfers cultural mores and practices from elder to youngster. And beyond … to those who are within our stratosphere, and without it.

Storytelling can also be described as oral history – practices that shed light on the past, inform the present and inspire the future. They enable people to share their stories in their own words, with their own voices, through their own understanding of what happened and why. They bring depth to our comprehension of how the now came to be by carrying us into the experience, simply by listening.

The Baylor University Institute for Oral History (2012) claims that:

“Oral history preserves for future generations a sound portrait of who we are in the present and what we remember about the past.

Oral history helps round out the story of the past.

Oral history helps us understand how individuals and communities experienced the forces of history.

Oral history teaches us what has changed and what has stayed the same over time.”

And it’s a process that’s been around for a very long time. In fact, oral storytelling predates writing.

Before the invention of writing (which is a relatively recent phenomenon in the history of humankind), oral tradition served as the sole means of communication for forming and maintaining societies and their institutions. This went on for millennia. Moreover, numerous studies – conducted on six continents – have illustrated that oral tradition remains the dominant mode of communication in the 21st century, despite increasing literacy.

Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey poems were created around 3,000 years ago as part of a Greek oral tradition, passed down by word of mouth through generations of oral poets before – and for some time after – the invention of the alphabet. They are believed to be the first oral epic poems and the most influential archaic method of storytelling.

Archaic lyric poetry such as Homer’s paved the way for a style of literature that used the hexameter verse, which was expressive and historically descriptive. Homer used dactylic hexameter (rhythm or meter) to create oral pace and inflection. This is a strict poetic structure in which every line of the poem has six ‘feet’ or dactyls, each made up of one long and two short syllables.

Homer’s characters were enhanced with a description to clarify their identity and evoke a picture to the listener. For example, in the Odyssey, Penelope was spoken of as ‘circumspect Penelope’; there was ‘grey-eyed Athena’, ‘cloud-gatherer Zeus’, and ‘sound-minded Telemachus’. Furthermore, Homer repeated epithets (descriptive phrases), so the listener got the impression of a formalised narrative akin to a rhythmic incantation.

This repetition helped the bards performing the poem improvise verses that fit the necessary rhythm while also giving them time to recall what came next in the story.

Plato, a famous Athenian philosopher, would later tell us that Homer had gained a reputation as “the educator of all Greece”. This and other accolades demonstrate that Homer’s work was truly impressive as a formative oral text for the Ancient Greeks to be taught socio-cultural customs and beliefs.

Across many other cultures, too, oral narratives were built out of set phrases stockpiled from a lifetime of hearing and telling stories. Set themes were another type of ‘story vocabulary’ – a set sequence of events that structured the tale and that could be adapted to fit the message of any story. Repeating these phrases and themes told the listener what they needed and wanted to know.

These stories created a sense of belonging (so vital in society) and a reason for being. American writer and literary academic, Reynolds Price, said in his 1978 book A Palpable God: Thirty Stories Translated from the Bible with an Essay on the Origins and Life of Narrative:

“A need to tell and hear stories is essential to the species Homo sapiens – second in necessity apparently after nourishment and before love and shelter. Millions survive without love or home, almost none in silence. The opposite of silence leads quickly to narrative, and the sound of story is the dominant sound of our lives, from the small accounts of our day’s events to the vast incommunicable constructs of psychopaths.”

Telling stories about life in an oral format, whether poetry, song, chant, or dance, has persisted between cultures and transcended time, cultural boundaries, and technological advancements. Humans tell stories, and we somehow wouldn’t be humans or connected to each other if we ceased this life-giving and culturally-affirming action.

In every culture, storytelling is associated with the practices and core values that contribute to identity. Indigenous culture in North America tells them as myths, philosophies and narratives that establish morality, literacy, and history. Native oral traditions in the Pacific Northwest use them to preserve and pass on tribal and environmental history, such as natural disasters like earthquakes and tsunamis.

Indian religions such as Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism have been perpetuated and conveyed by oral tradition. In fact, Brahmin (Hindu) priests drew respect and authority from their ability to recite the sacred Vedas (written in about 1500-1000 B.C.) with the correct intonation. For over a thousand years, orality dominated – the Sanskrit epic, Mahabharata, for instance, existed and was transmitted in oral form for over a millennium before it was committed to writing.

In Kyrgyzstan, the Epic of Manas revolves around events that coincide with the history of that region in the 9th century – primarily the interaction of the Kyrgyz people with Turkic and Chinese people. The government of Kyrgyzstan celebrated the 1,000th anniversary of Manas in 1995 – a stand-out example of oral tradition inspiring modern day recognition.

In Aboriginal Australian societies, stories about geography and history were told as people moved along ‘songlines’: remembered routes across the land. This ancient civilisation dates back 60,000 years and its oral stories can be traced for at least 10,000 of those. Aboriginal Australians still follow some of the clearest and most accurate indigenous oral traditions of any culture today.

South African praise-singers create orally-performed résumés for tribal chiefs, and when they praise or criticise public figures. And in northern Albania, oral tradition was the repository of the secular law code for more than 500 years before the law was committed to paper in the 20th century.

Thriving oral genres in the Pacific Islands include protest songs, spirit narratives, love songs, clan traditions, laments, and dance-dramas. The Basque poets of southern France and northern Spain first began using their improvisational oral contest poetry, called Bertsolaritza 10,000 years ago, not merely to entertain but to discuss cultural, linguistic, and political problems.

So much evidence, so many stories, all bearing information fundamental to life. Where to find water, how geographical movement shaped a country and created new races. How ancient mythology established moral fibre; how a family legend evolved into a modern-day tradition. Messages to be committed to memory, repeated, and passed on from generation to generation. They were designed to amuse and engage the audience and offer practical lessons applied to moral, social, psychological, and environmental issues – namely, culture.

But what are the time limits of oral storytelling before the essence becomes irretrievably lost and diluted by Chinese whispers? Under optimal conditions, as suggested by science-determined ages for events recalled in ancient stories, orally shared knowledge can demonstrably endure more than 7,000 years, quite possibly 10,000, as noted within the Aboriginal Australian culture.

That’s a thought-provoking figure! And as oral stories continue to be created in this century by impromptu and professional storytellers, despite the increasing popularity of written, digital, and televised media in much of the world, this first and most ubiquitous mode of communication is set to continue the preservation of cultures worldwide.

So, when you next get the chance, sit down with a person younger or older than yourself; or with a compatriot or a friend from a culture that differs from your own. Talk for a while, share some stories about your family, your town, your heritage and why you think and behave the way you do. In a very small but hugely profound instant, you too will be aiding the continuation of your uniquely indigenous culture.

“With careful attention to preserving our sound recordings, the voices of our narrators will endure to speak for them when they are gone. By complicating the story with individual experience, oral histories will help future historians avoid sweeping generalizations that stereotype people, engender prejudice, and overlook important variables in the historical context.” – Baylor University Institute for Oral History.

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