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Oral Storytelling

Two silhouette profiles facing each other
Two silhouetted profiles facing each other on a brown textured background
Image source: Anne Zbitnew/Charmaine Lurch

We are all made from stories.

As we intersect and collaborate with others, our stories become more complicated.

As a community, we are tangled in the stories; as a collective, we can move the stories out of isolation and into a new location.

Oral Storytelling

For as long as we have had spoken language, we have passed on stories orally as songs, myths, prayers, legends, chants, plays, instructions, and poetry. They are also told with gesture, movement, and dance. The earliest stories were visual, made with stone, clay, wood, and other natural materials on cave walls that passed on information about life and survival. Stories are also told with sign languages and enhanced with hand and facial gestures. And oral storytelling continues to this day in the form of podcasts, audiobooks, video, film, conferences, rallies, protests, whispers, gossip, music, and theatre.

Writing changed the nature of storytelling by ensuring permanence and the recording of historical information. But it also required literacy and education, which initially excluded many people. The advent of photography gave the viewer time to think, react, feel, and wonder about details they might otherwise miss. And today the digital realmhas made sharing stories instant, immediate, and rich - Instagram, Twitter, blogs and vlogs, text messages, emails, and other social media allow the incorporation of still and moving images, memes, sound, and music with text.

Indigenous Oral traditions

Indigenous Medicine Wheel
A medicine wheel circle with four quadrants, white, yellow, red, and black.
Image source: Littlejohn657/Wikimedia

Storytelling did not begin with books, printing, or publishing. One of the oldest forms of storytelling, oral histories, have been used by Indigenous peoples in Canada for thousands of years, kept alive through the continuous sharing of words, prayers, poems, songs, gestures, and phrases.

Indigenous elders, Hereditary Chiefs, and Knowledge Keepers are often responsible for sharing and maintaining oral histories and may adjust the context of the history depending on their audience. In some Plains Indigenous communities, for example, some stories are told only in the winter because they are less likely to anger sleeping spirits (The Canadian Encyclopedia, 2022).

First Nations, Métis, and Inuit peoples use different genres of oral narrative, many of which require special consideration in retelling. For example, the Plains Cree genre of âcimostakewin deals in current events and personal stories, while the genre of âtayohkewina deals in sacred stories. Within that genre, the subgenre of mamâhtaw âcimôna describes miracles and legends. Opwanîw âcimona are sacred stories considered "a direct communication with the Creator or spirit world" and are only told in specific circumstances (Government of Alberta, 2004).

In 2020, the MacKenzie Art Gallery in Regina, Saskatchewan presented an exhibit called Travelling Memory, which featured Sitting Bull's Robe, a buffalo hide painted with symbols and designs of spiritual meaning. Beginning with the creation story in its centre, represented by a starburst, the hide includes symbols for stories of hunting parties, warriors, families, and the movements of the tribe during that time. Knowledge keeper Wayne Goodwill, a descendant of Sitting Bull and one of the last known hide painters in Saskatchewan, can decipher the symbols and interpret the stories and is keeping them alive by sharing them with his children and grandchildren (CBC, 2019).

Oral histories have been threatened by colonialism, which would have us believe that, for a story to be legitimate, it must be written. Colonial treaties, policies, and acts, such as the Indian Act, forbade the sharing of certain oral traditions and customs by law. In 2015, The Truth and Reconciliation Commission's report, Honouring the Truth, Reconciling for the Future acknowledged the importance of the inclusion of oral histories to the maintenance of Indigenous culture. Indigenous communities continue to work to reclaim their historically lost or threatened oral histories, first-hand knowledge and accounts, and traditions (The Canadian Encyclopedia, 2022).

There are many Indigenous writers whose books urge us to understand Indigenous people, communities, and experiences. Award-winning novels by Cherie Dimaline (The Marrow Thieves, 2017), Thomas King (The Inconvenient Indian, 2012), Tomson Highway (Permanent Astonishment, 2021), and Michelle Good (Five Little Indians, 2020) lead a so-called Indigenous renaissance taking place in Canadian literature.

New methods are being developed to capture oral narratives. Canadian Indigenous syllabics were developed by James Evans in the 1840s. Originally created for the Swampy Cree and Ojibwe languages, they spread to other language groups including other Cree dialects, Naskapi, Blackfoot, Inuktitut, Inuinnaqtun, Slavey, Dënesųłiné (Chipewyan), Carrier, and Tsek'ehne (Sekani). James Evans developed the script, aided by native Cree and Ojibwe speakers with most of the characters borrowed from shorthand scripts which have roots dating back to the 1500s

Illustration of a lit lightbulb

Mii maanda ezhi-gkendmaanh/This is How I Know

Mii maanda ezhi-gkendmaanh / This Is How I Know book cover
Mii maanda ezhi-gkendmaanh / This Is How I Know book cover illustration with two people walking hand in hand along a shoreline. Image courtesy of House of Anansi Press and Groundwood Books

This bilingual, Governor General's Award-shortlisted "story-poem," written in Anisinaabemowin and English by Brittany Luby, illustrated by Joshua Mangeshig Pawis-Steckley, and published by Groundwood Books, follows an Anishinaabe child and her grandmother exploring and experiencing the four seasons together.

One of the first books published in Canada to be available in print and accessible formats simultaneously, Mii maanda ezhi-gkendmaanh/This is How I Know demonstrates that accessible formats can be much more than a reproduction of text. These alternate formats include an audio-embedded narrated by Anisinaabemowin speakers accompanied by geographically accurate nature sounds. "I've never seen an audiobook work so beautifully in my life," says Laura Brady, who worked on the book. Its braille edition, produced by National Network for Equitable Library Service (NNELS), is enhanced by tactile graphics that mark the beginning of each new season. It is one of the first commercially available books in North America to have this feature.

African American Coded spirituals

In a 2007 episode of the popular PBS television show History Detectives, host Wes Cowan meets with a man named Avery Clayton, who has made an interesting discovery in his mother's attic: a book of Black spirituals, published in 1867, which later turns out to be the very first published recording of Black spirituals. Throughout the episode, experts trace the recording and keeping of these songs to early abolitionists, who were "trying to document the cultural voice of the African as a way of affirming the humanity of the African."

Closely associated with the enslavement of African people in the American south, spirituals are a type of religious folksong, typically sung in a call-and-response with a leader. For the enslaved, singing served many purposes, including providing a rhythm for repetitive, unpaid labour, for inspiration and motivation, to express values in solidarity with each other, and as a tool to remember and communicate. Although their phrasing mirrors that of hymns and psalms, spirituals often contained coded lyrics based on everyday words used by railroad conductors. As the railroad was an emerging form of transportation, the meaning of many of the words was not widespread. The use of this secret code allowed the singers of spirituals to speak to the reality of their lives, and, in some instances, to convey information about the Underground Railroad to freedom in Canada (Library of Congress).

Here are some of the code words used in spirituals, and their meanings
Agent Coordinator, who plotted courses of escape and made contacts
Baggage Fugitive enslaved people carried by Underground Railroad workers
Canaan Canada
Conductor The person who directly transported enslaved people
Freedom train Underground Railroad
Heaven Canada, freedom
Promised Land Canada
River Jordan Ohio River

- Adapted from: Underground Railroad Secret Codes, 2022

Swing Low, Sweet Chariot

"Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" is a well-known spiritual with lyrics that contain double-coded meaning. If an enslaved person heard this song, they would know they needed to be ready to escape as a "band of angels" was coming to take them to freedom. The Underground Railroad (sweet chariot) is coming south (swing low) to take the enslaved person to the north, or freedom (carry me home) (Harriet Tubman Historical Society, 2022).

Lyric Literal Meaning Coded Meaning
Swing low Come down Come into slave holding states (the south)
Sweet chariot Heavenly vehicle The Underground Railroad
Comin' for to carry me home Taking me to heaven Take me to freedom to the northern states or Canada
I looked over Jordan, and what did I see? I looked over Jordan, and what did I see? I looked over the Mississippi or Ohio rivers and what did I see?
A band of angels coming after me A group of angels Workers on the Underground Railroad coming to help me
If you get there before I do, tell all my friends I'm coming too If you get there before I do, tell all my friends I'm coming too If I have escaped friends or family, tell them my escape plan
I'm sometimes up, I'm sometimes down I'm sometimes up, I'm sometimes down I have good days and bad days
But still my soul feels heavenly bound But still my soul feels heavenly bound But I know I will soon escape north on the Underground Railroad

Adapted from: - Underground Railroad, n.d.