Storytelling is vital to many Indigenous cultures, but preserving oral traditions can be challenging
Humans share knowledge through storytelling – historians retell the events of the past, scientists present narratives of their experiments. For many Indigenous American tribes, oral traditions are central to the transmission of knowledge. The stories they tell range from tales meant to warn children of the dangers in the world to accounts of historical events recorded only in the minds of elders. Listening to these stories not only preserves this knowledge but offers valuable perspectives that are too often overlooked.
There are many Indigenous people in Utah, including members of Navajo, Shoshone, Paiute, Goshute, and Ute tribes. For many of these groups, the start of winter signals the beginning of storytelling season. Joel Charles, a student at USU who grew up on a Navajo reservation, first informed me of this custom.
“Traditionally we're not supposed to tell stories until after the first snowfall hits the ground, and we stop telling stories when the first thunderstorm comes through during spring,” Charles said.
Winter was historically a season to tell stories because time that would otherwise be spent hunting and gathering food was now spent sitting inside with family. Darren Parry, a Shoshone historian and Tribal Leader, said that this was when the elders would pass on the knowledge that was shared with them to the younger generations. Parry counted himself fortunate to have grown up listening to stories at the feet of his grandmother.
“She’d tell me those stories over and over again. Not a word out of place, as she's telling the story, because it had to be accurate. She needed to make sure that I heard the story, the way she had heard the story from her elders, because in this culture, nothing is ever written down. So, I went through that same process with her. And I'm probably the last generation that did,” Parry said.
According to Parry, his biggest challenge as a tribal leader is getting the young people interested in learning about the culture. Like many kids, they are glued to their cell phones and don’t have the patience to sit and listen to their grandparents tell stories. As a result, the stories remain untold.
Charles, himself a young Indigenous person, admitted there are many stories he doesn’t know. He grew up listening to stories told by family members, but said now people turn to media for entertainment and storytelling has become less popular.
When searching for stories to share with me, Charles found an online interview with a Navajo man from his reservation relating stories about the surrounding mountains. Though he didn’t recall hearing the story himself growing up, Charles was able to access the information through the internet.
“One thing that I've noticed now is that a lot of people are actually sharing things on to YouTube. Now you can actually find a good amount of our stories told by native Native American speakers that share their stories,” Charles said.
While technology can cause distractions, it also provides new tools for storytelling. To harness these tools, Parry has collaborated with a Technology professor at USU to provide recording equipment and laptops to Shoshone children, encouraging them to interview their elders and record their stories. He says many kids were initially hooked by the offer of free gadgets but have developed a passion for learning and are motivated to build their interviewing and filmmaking skills. He hopes that this project will inspire young people to learn about their culture and give elders a sense of purpose and a chance to share their stories.
Storytelling is an important form of cultural transmission, but it also plays a role in how people perceive history. If only one side of a conflict is recorded, people cannot fully understand the situation. Parry pointed out that history is written by the victors, and stories are often used to evade responsibility for wrongdoing by painting a party in a favorable light. For groups who traditionally have not recorded written histories, this means that their perspectives are often missing from larger discussions.
“And it's not that our perspective is any more important than, than anybody else's perspective. But ours is a perspective that's never been heard. And so, once you start getting a clearer picture, and have multiple perspectives on the same event, then I think true learning can really take place, and people have the opportunity to find out for themselves what really happened,” Parry said.
Stories are how people learn and remember. Facts and figures are quickly forgotten but emotions and memories endure. For some Indigenous groups, knowledge that has been passed down orally for generations is being lost with the passing of elders. Listening to and uplifting these stories will make sure their knowledge and perspectives last. Modern technology can help preserve their stories and helps young people to connect with the histories of their people.