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The Importance of Indigenous Oral Traditional Storytelling: Part 2

By Chad Valdez (Diné)

Storytelling has always played a significant part in my life, and when I started in academia, I knew it was an area I would be in close alignment with. Researching Indigenous epistemology furthered my desire to better understand storytelling as a vehicle for conveying knowledge. There are multiple threads connecting Indigenous worldviews, but one can trace a cohesive line back to stories. Whether it be Native science or philosophy, I would always see similar lines of thinking and worldviews in these two seemingly different fields. For Indigenous ways of knowing, all fields, areas of research, and knowledge must connect. In creative writing, there is a maxim about form complimenting content; in other words, how something is written should match what is being written. Indigenous epistemology seems to share those same values. If its core is based on the world being interconnected, then everything that is studied from this viewpoint will have that basis as well. 

Storytelling is how Indigenous Peoples share knowledge. Through all of my research, I encountered stories. They were lifelines and experiences I could wade through to find meaning. Being a storyteller is not as simple as being a person who tells stories. A storyteller is someone who perceives things in an Indigenous worldview, passes on helpful knowledge, shows an interrelated universe and a circular philosophy, and can pass on valuable experience to the listener or reader. Understanding Indigenous epistemology and oral storytelling is to understand a better way of knowing. 

In many places, western ways of thinking have become the dominant mode of epistemology. When compared to Indigenous epistemology, there are profound differences in almost every aspect. Indigenous worldviews and ways of knowing, like its peoples, are broad and complex. These worldviews demonstrate deep knowledge passed down through generations in oral traditions and storytelling that show legitimate theories of our world and universe. The vehicle relies on storytelling and experience, and direct experience permeates every facet that is in process. Through an Indigenous viewpoint, new paths to knowledge are learned as one traverses the world in cycles and circles, and the knowledge learned will consistently be used to show respect to nature and the natural order of life. 

In my search for stories and their relation to epistemology, I came across many brilliant writers and thinkers who were also considering the importance of story, which pushed me further in my studies. Reading and writing on this subject helped me in my connection to my own Indigeneity and my work as a writer and storyteller. With reference to these writers, I would like to share some of their viewpoints and thoughts here. 

Donald L. Fixico (Shawnee, Sac and Fox, Muscogee Creek and Seminole), an esteemed professor at Arizona State University and highly regarded writer, wrote a book titled The American Indian Mind in a Linear World that I drew inspiration and knowledge from. In the chapter, “Oral Tradition and Traditional Knowledge,” Fixico writes that “story is the basis of American Indian oral tradition.” Stories are how knowledge is passed down through generations. While most Americans rely on factual interpretation of history and deeds written down, Indigenous Peoples rely on the importance of experience and the orality of that experience being passed on. Oral tradition shows what the community finds essential. These stories have purposes and lessons in them, and are ways to teach the natural laws of the universe. Fixico writes that there are five parts to a story: time, place, characters, events, and purpose, and together, they form the experience. 

There is power in a story when it is done effectively, and it can influence society when the listeners take care to interpret and understand it. Experience is essential, a central component of oral storytelling. The experiences of the storyteller directly translate to the power that the story holds. Oral tradition is not only a means to share knowledge and experience; it is vital in holding communities together. An example is creation stories. They are essential to the identity of an Indigenous community as they tell who a community is and where they came from. A key concept in oral traditions and stories is the place in which they are told. The natural and sacred places where stories are set are necessary for understanding and learning about the life around them. As Fixico writes, they show ways to care for the land and how there cannot be ownership over it, as the places have their own knowledge to share. Stories that may seem mythical or full of superstition in a western worldview are fundamental functions of perception and reality. This reality combines the conscious and subconscious, and stories convey that reality when told in the oral tradition. Oral traditions and storytelling are central to Indigenous epistemology. It is not only a way to share knowledge but serves multiple other purposes. Stories have power and life in them, and like Fixico says, they will live on longer than any of us.

The chapter “Coming-to-Knowing” from F. David Peat’s book Blackfoot Physics demonstrates how knowledge for an Indigenous person is an ongoing process derived through an activity. There is a power in acquiring knowledge, not from a western viewpoint, i.e., in a personal sense, but in a way that strengthens the relationship with all things in the universe. Peat writes that stories told by Indigenous Peoples come from direct experiences. This is very different from just stating facts, which is what the western world relies on. Peat relays some canoe stories as an example of how knowledge is learned by observing and assisting someone with expertise. In an Indigenous worldview, knowledge cannot just be given; it must be learned through observing, watching, listening, and dreaming. The knowledge to be learned must come through direct experience, unlike the process of coming to know in a western sense, where knowledge is derived from stories and facts that can simply be told and forgotten. Peat writes that for Indigenous Peoples, knowledge is not a dead collection of facts but is alive with spirit, and that there is a relationship between that spirit and the spirit of people. When that relationship happens, there is an assumption of responsibility for it that must continue throughout a person’s life, as knowledge is an ongoing process. Another critical aspect of coming to know Indigenous knowledge is that stories can be told multiple times, and the person listening can have a different, appropriate level of understanding each time they listen, so a new lesson can be understood through different stages in life. Silence is essential when understanding Indigenous knowledge in an oral tradition. One must listen and attempt to interpret. As Peat suggests, it is a meditation on the experience that has just been told.

Brian Yazzie Burkhart’s (Cherokee) article, “What Coyote and Thales Can Teach Us: An Outline of American Indian Epistemology,” lays out the Indigenous worldview in understanding epistemology, the interrelatedness of all things, and the experiences of those relationships. Burkhart first frames the questions and moral investigations that must be understood before hearing the knowledge, which is how Native philosophy is concerned with the questions asked. Indigenous epistemology does not require justification, unlike western knowledge. For Indigenous Peoples, the most essential knowledge is that experience being shared. Seeing that type of knowledge is an embodied knowledge, a lived knowledge. Whereas western knowledge is separated into different parts like literature, science, religion, and philosophy, for Indigenous Peoples, that separation does not make sense. If all knowledge is experience, it would not make sense to distinguish between each experience. In a Native philosophical understanding, all experience must be included, not just as individuals, but all the knowledge in experiences that can be told through stories. These experiences in the form of a story are the vehicles, according to Burkhart.

The chapter “Origin Tales and the Nature of Reality: How Son of Raven Captured the Day” from Richard Atleo’s (Nuu-chah-nulth) book, Tsawalk, demonstrates further importance of the aspect of storytelling when trying to understand an Indigenous epistemology. These stories begin with an expected knowledge—the knowledge of the setting—because the stories told all take place in the land around the listeners and the background comes from those who have passed on the stories. Because the setting is already known, additional context is unneeded. In Indigenous stories, the details may change when told in different families, but the theme does not. The characters often do not differ, and the lessons taught do not change. A westerner might hear two different stories, but an Indigenous person listening will understand the theme present and know that those details only change with who is telling the story because they are using their own experiences to relay it. Questions that are asked are answered in stories. Stories show an orientation to life and reality. They show how Indigenous Peoples should live their lives and manage communities. These stories have been around for centuries and continue to persist because they are an effective means of conveying essential knowledge to the listener. 

The story Atleo presents, “How Son of Raven Captured the Day,” demonstrates different types of knowledge found in the telling. There are lessons, morals, answers, and values from this story that a westerner might view as just a simple myth, but there is a vastness underlying it. To understand that in this story there are ways of gaining the purest form of knowledge for Indigenous Peoples—the experience, and all of the aspects that go into it—is to understand Indigenous epistemology. Storytelling is how knowledge is shared and conveyed, but this knowledge is not just taken. One must understand the context, sit and listen, and have respect. The story must be seen as more: it is a lesson through which one learns and gains experience.