The Power of Oral Tradition

Illustration by Amanda Cibulka.

One of my favorite ways to exchange information is in the form of storytelling. I find it hard to give an answer or explain something without giving it context first, usually in the form of a story explaining the purpose or meaning of my answer. If you are in a rush, don’t ask me how my day is – it could take a minute.

In this day and age, storytelling has gone from oral traditions – family moments and cultural exchange – to a story being captured in a click of a button and portrayed in a single image or short video. A big problem with photos and videos are that they tend to convey minimal information and they can change the narrative in a negative way.

Oral exchange and storytelling is how Native American culture is kept alive and passed on from one generation to the next. With the rise of online communication, there has been a great loss in the storytelling tradition. The survival of Native American culture depends on the oral tradition because there is little to no artifactual evidence or written traditions among Native American tribes.

Even in 2017, there are some oral traditions that have to be told in person. A friend of mine who is of Ho-Chunk tribal affiliation told me that she had to be face-to-face with her uncle in order for him to tell the creation story of their people to her. In exchange for this oral history, she was to bring tobacco (a medicine sacred to Native Americans and used for prayer and offering). It was not something that could be done informally over the phone.

The Impact of Stories 

Even though traditional forms of storytelling may seem far removed from mainstream society, the evocative power of sharing stories and experiences remains.

When I was younger, I wondered why everything I was taught about the Native American way of life and my own identity came in the form of a story.

Some of the stories created an “ooh” and “ah” response, while others to this day make me cringe, provoking in me an urge to adhere to tradition or to rectify the situation.

Being Ojibwe, I can recall the first time I heard the story of how our people came to be and being in awe of the muskrat, which had the moxy to retrieve the dirt that became “Turtle Island.” So many underlying messages were conveyed, such as “never give up” and “never underestimate those around you because of size.” The story emphasized the idea that everyone has a purpose.


The Great Flood

After their creation, the Anishinabe (the Original People) went astray from the creator’s teachings, so the creator sent a great flood to cleanse the earth.

Only one human, Nanaboozhoo, survived, but the whole world was submerged. He needed a handful of dirt to create new land. He dove, but couldn’t reach the bottom.

The remaining animals joined Nanaboozhoo in his mission. The loon, the helldiver, the mink and the turtle all tried, but failed to bring back earth.

Finally, the muskrat spoke, “I can do it.” The other animals laughed at this small creature — how could he succeed? But Nanaboozhoo let the mustkrat try.

The muskrat was underwater so long that everyone thought he had failed. Finally,  he floated to the surface, lifeless. In his hand was a little ball of dirt.

The turtle offered his back “to bear the weight of this earth.” When Nanaboozhoo placed the dirt on the turtle’s back, the winds began to blow, and the handful of earth grew and grew to form “Turtle Island,” now known as North America.

Read the full text here


Symbolism in Stories

My favorite origin story is about how the jingle dress and dance came to be. There are different variations, all with a central theme of an elderly man asking for spiritual healing for his granddaughter who was sick.

In asking for guidance, he offered tobacco to the creator and was given a dream in which he was shown how to construct a dress that would cure his granddaughter’s ailments.

He was to make this dress and put it on his sick granddaughter, and she was to dance. She was still very sick and weak when she put the dress on, but as the story goes, her strength grew as she danced.

This girl grew strong and healthy. Her name was Maggie White, a member of the Whitefish Bay First Nations. After her healing, her life was devoted to sharing the teachings and healing powers of the jingle dress and its dance.

An example of Ojibwe beadwork. Source: Creative Commons

Modern jingle dresses are adorned with twisted snuff lids and are usually accompanied by beautiful beadwork and/or applique.

Jingle dress dancers are referred to as healers and are from time to time called to dance for and heal the sick. It is said that the sounds of the jingling cones are a way of calling upon the spirits to heal.

Though the regalia may be beautiful and emit an alluring sound, the jingle dress dance is sacred and is of high obligation to those women who choose this style of dance. Through the process of storytelling, the importance and significance of the dress and dance are reiterated.

Some stories can be used to transmit experience. Stories can inspire us with their symbolic meaning or act as guides in difficult times. In my own life, stories have been a way to find purpose in negative events and to articulate the lessons I have learned. Stories of shared experiences can create a dialogue with people you would otherwise find nothing in common with. They lay the foundation for exchange between yourself and those around you.

A Deeper Meaning

There are stories I can recall being told that had various meanings and messages. Everything was done with intents and purposes that intertwined, drawing me back to the reiterated importance of the circle.

To some, myths of trickster spiders and the belief that the moon is our grandmother (Nokomis) might seem a bit outlandish. To me it is so much more. The stories that have been passed on to me have many facets with multiple interpretations and intentions. The stories encourage habitual acknowledgement of tradition and values and teach children cause-and-effect relationships and other life lessons, while reinforcing cultural tradition.

Stories about something as small as a fly, worker bee or cicada bug can provide enlightenment, encouragement and guidance. They help you find meaning in the things around you and the world you live in, while helping you discover your role in it.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *