Oral Tradition | Ruth A. Myers Center for Indigenous Education
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Required Profile of Learning
To achieve a diploma a student must show an appropriate level of achievement in each of the following elements:
Understand what they read, bear and see. Comprehending, interpreting, and evaluating information received through reading, listening, and viewing;
Write and speak effectively. Writing and speaking in English clearly for academic, technical, and personal purposes with a variety of audiences;
Gather and use information. Applying methods of inquiry needed to conduct research, draw conclusions, and communicate and apply findings;
Understand interactions between people, their world and their cultures. Understanding how principles of interaction and interdependence affect physical and social situations;
Make informed decisions. Applying informed decisionmaking processes to promote personal growth and the well–being of society;
Students will be able to: summarize and explain the significance of American Indian oral tradition in the perpetuation of culture and history.
This outcome includes:
- defining American Indian oral tradition.
- knowing the types of traditional stories.
- understanding that values, humor, truth and history are transmitted through oral tradition.
- identifying and investigating contemporary American Indian literature.
- knowing the role of elders in transmitting the culture.
- respecting the proper time for storytelling and the offering of tobacco to the storyteller.
- recognizing oral tradition as one classification in the study of language arts.
- comprehending, interpreting and evaluating information received through the refinement of listening.
American Indian oral tradition and teachings are used to transmit culture and preserve the history of American Indians. The study of American Indian oral tradition will assist students in understanding the culture and recognizing the importance of oral history.
Cultural Content/American Indian World View
American Indian oral traditions, which include storytelling, teachings, family and tribal history as well as contemporary Indian literature, lie at the heart of tribal culture. It is largely through oral tradition that American Indian cultures have been preserved and transmitted through the generations. American Indian stories, teachings and oral histories are rich in cultural context. They provide great insight into the world view, values and lifestyle which are an integral part of the heritage of American Indians.
For American Indians, the oral traditions must be treated with respect. Many of the stories, for example, are seasonal. Most often, the winter months are the season for stories. For the Dakota it is believed that the time to tell sacred stories is when snakes and other animals that hibernate underground are covered with snow. Their spirits, if above round, would use the sacred knowledge against the storyteller. For the Anishinabeg, the belief may differ from area to area, but the practice is similar. Sacred stories, particularly those about Nanabozho are to be told only in the winter. Other stories can be told throughout the year. If possible, elders in the community should be consulted regarding timing and customs for specific stories.
It is customary on the part of one who requests a specific story to offer tobacco or some other gift to the storyteller. The storyteller uses tobacco to show respect for the spirits who live in the stories and whose names are mentioned.
The stories passed down to American Indians by their ancestors are very important because they express what American Indians value and believe. In addition, the stories help people to understand the meaning of their existence, and the existence of other things in the world. From these stories, young children learn how people came to be; they receive explanations of why things are the way they are and instructions on how to live properly.
Teacher Background Information
American Indian oral tradition includes stories and teachings, family and tribal history, and some contemporary Indian literature. Oral tradition has been and continues to be a primary means through which American Indian philosophy, values, beliefs and culture are transmitted to future generations.
In recent years, some of the stories and teachings have been put in a written form. Many of the stories have been edited and adapted to suit the tastes of an American Indian and a non–Indian audience. Colorful illustrated American Indian stories for children are available at most major bookstores and children´s libraries. Rendered in English, and written down, the stories sometimes lose some of the original humor and meaning.
American Indian stories should not be trivialized by referring to them as myths, tall tales or fables. These categories prevent students from fully understanding the vital role played by oral tradition in American Indian cultures. History is not trivialized in this way and American Indian teachings deserve the same respect.
American Indian oral tradition expresses the truths, wisdom and humor of human existence. The themes are universal. Oral tradition tells how the Earth was created. It explains that people have a special responsibility to all living things with whom we share the Earth. Many of the stories are about a person with both human and mystical characteristics. The Dakota call the sometimes hero sometimes trickster, Unktomi. To the Anishinabeg he is Waynabozho (Nanabozho, Nanabush, Manabozho). Through his actions American Indian children for generations have learned how to behave and what is expected of them as adults. There is much for all students to learn from the oral tradition of American Indians. Note: Teachers in schools sometimes refer to American Indian stories or teachings as myth and legends. Myth, fable and legend often mean an old story or a story that is not true. To avoid the problems that these words can create and to provide consistency, these lessons use the term story or teaching.