Sunday, May 24, 2009

oral tradition

Here is why traditional stories passed down through families can be so compelling.

What is involved includes discipline, insistence on accuracy and confinement of the storytelling within a family group.

The Tlingit native people have numerous clans; within each clan a storyteller is entrusted with the responsibility of ensuring his or her own people's history. This responsibility is neither given nor received lightly. A storyteller must tell only the stories of his own clan, never that of a neighboring people. A new storyteller may not publicly repeat the stories until she has proven to the elder who is teaching her that she can repeat it word for word, with no changes nor elaboration.

The storyteller, young or old, sits close to his audience, seeing them and observing their reaction as he speaks.

Recently, I was privileged to hear the story from a Huna Tlingit (Xunaa Ka`awu) young man about how what we call the Grand Pacific Glacier in Alaska's Glacier National Park rapidly took over his ancestors' lands centuries ago, displacing his people to a new settlement. He spoke to his audience with the storytelling mantle that had been bestowed on him (his grandmother made him repeat the story accurately five times before her permission was granted), and exactly in the manner of respect that was prescribed.

Within my own family storytelling, we have never considered the importance of these protocols, so we expect individual memories to change aspects of what is remembered. We rely on the written word, so place less importance on oral memory or repetition. We suspect that one person's remembrance must always be different from another's. So we enjoy our family traditions and we believe our family stories to be important to us as a small group of related people, but we don't quite trust that the information is truly accurate. We want to see a diary of the period, or an official document, or another form of written history. And yet, these, too, can be distorted, as we know well by the common occurrence of immigrant names being changed by officials who could not understand foreign pronunciation or when a foreign sound could not be rendered adequately into English. We know that typographical errors are made; before our eyes and ears we hear the former vice president of the United States rewriting with his version of history the events of less than a single decade.

With the trust that stories are communicated accurately from grandparent to grandchild, then a people, a family, can ensure that what is passed down from generation to generation, from century to century, remains true to the memory of the events.

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