Unit 2: The Oral Tradition

In Unit 2 we examine the oral tradition, which has been the basis for Indigenous culture for millennia and continues to inform Indigenous societies throughout the world. Fittingly, for much of this unit you will be listening to stories, as opposed to reading them. Grab some hot chocolate and settle in.

Andy Everson - 'Dominion'

“Dominion” Andy Everson

“For countless centuries, First Nations knowledge, traditions, and cultures have been passed down from one generation to another in stories and narratives, as well as through songs, dances, and ceremonial artifacts. Before Europeans arrived in BC, First Nations had oral cultures: their languages had no written form. The oral tradition was integrated into every facet of life and was the basis of the education system… The information is taught to the next generation exactly as it was taught to the one before. Stories are used because they are easier to remember: you learn by listening closely and remembering. The oral tradition passed on the spiritual beliefs of the people and the lineage of families. It recorded ownership of property and territory, political issues, legal proceedings and survival skills. The oral tradition also mapped the geography of an area, and it recorded history.”   – from BC First Nations Studies textbook

ACTIVITY 1: What is a Story?
1) What is a story? What comes to mind when you hear this word? What are some stories that come to mind immediately?
2) In your understanding, what is the difference between ‘stories’ and ‘myths’, ‘legends’, and ‘fairy tales?’
3) What purposes do stories have in modern society? How is this different than the role stories have played (and continue to play) in Indigenous societies? (See the above quote for some hints, or do some quick research).

thomas king

ACTIVITY 2: “The Truth About Stories”
For an excellent take on the role of stories in culture, listen to the following Thomas King story, The Truth About Stories   (start at 3:00)
** For the written version, go here: “The Truth About Stories”
As you listen to the story, answer the following questions (in complete sentences):

  1. What does King mean when he writes, “The truth about stories is that that’s all we are?”
  2. Refresh your memory and do a quick google search for “irony.” How does King use irony in this story?
  3. How does Thomas King compare Indigenous oral traditions & creation stories to the creation story told in the bible?
  4. “Contained within creation stories are relationships that help to define the nature of the universe and how cultures understand the world in which they exist.” Do you agree or disagree with this statement?
  5. How would you answer King’s question, “Do the stories we tell reflect the world as it truly is?”
  6. After hearing this story, how would you define what a story is? (Tricky question, I know, but try your best)

Activity 3: Stories & Legends
“Traditional stories play a vital role in cultural transmission and preservation in indigenous cultures throughout the world.” Several First Nations and Inuit oral stories were collected for the CBC “Legends Project.”
Choose and listen to 1 of the 11 legends on the site: Legends Project

a)  Certain themes are common throughout Indigenous legends. Refer to this hand-out, Themes in Traditional Stories , as you listen to the legend, and make note of which themes are present. In 2-3 paragraphs, explain what you felt were the main themes of the story.

b) Setting is when and where the story takes place. Conflict is the central problem/dilemma/issue at the heart of the story. There is often more than one conflict in a story. Conflict is often categorized as one of the following: Person vs Person (so a character versus another character, or many characters), Person vs Self (an internal conflict, a personal struggle), or Person vs Environment or Society (character is in conflict with society or their environment). In 3-4 complete sentences, describe the setting and conflict/s in the story you listened to.

phil u

Comox Valley Elder Phil Umpherville

Activity 4: Teaching Stories/Stories from an Elder
Often stories have an educational purpose, some kind of lesson that the teller of the story is communicating to the listeners. I’d like you to recall a story you have heard from an Elder, a family member, or even a story from your own experience that also functions as a teaching story. This can be one paragraph or many – it’s up to you.
(We will also arrange to have several Elders visit the school throughout the year, so you might want to hold off on this activity for the time being).

Activity 5: Speech Making
Speechmaking is an important part of the oral tradition, and continues to be an essential form of oral communication. Listen to the Chief Dan George speech, “Lament for Confederation

1) What techniques or devices did you notice Chief Dan George using? Did he appeal to emotion, to logic, to authority?
2) What are your overall impressions of the speech? Was it effective?