First Nations from Orality to Writing
Click here for a recording of “Storyteller” by Joan Crate (2008, p. 388).
Until contacted by European explorers and settlers, Canadian First Nations’ communities were what Ong (1982) would call primarily oral. Their stories were essential to their culture because the stories conveyed not only information, but also the voices of ancestors (King, 2003). So, when the Europeans arrived and, in many cases, forced the knowledge of written communication upon the First Nations, their culture began to change.
By looking first at the First Nations’ oral traits, and then at the impact of residential schools and writing, this paper will explore some of the cultural changes that occurred.
First Nations’ Oral Traits
Before discussing how writing affected the First Nations, we must understand the First Nations’ oral traditions before writing took hold. However, the First Nations are diverse, so it is difficult to speak of general traits when differences exist among the different First Nations’ cultures. So, while the following traits are true in a general-sense, it is important to keep in mind that they may not have been true for every First Nations’ cultural group.
The First Nations had a strong oral tradition. Stories, which contained knowledge of history, territory, and other culturally important events, were crucial to their ways of life. Even today, many First Nations’ communities consider their stories to be their most valuable historical information source (Preston, 2005). Because the stories were told orally, the storyteller’s knowledge and interaction with his audience was critical for the communication of knowledge (Preston). The stories were not the storyteller’s, though. They were the stories of his ancestors (King, 2003). Thus, despite Ong’s (1982) assertion that spoken messages come “only from the living” (p. 101), the storyteller believed he spoke with the voices of those who told the stories before him while adding his own pattern to it (King).
To the First Nations, the value of the orally-told history was not found in the facts, which could change with each telling, but in the truths conveyed through the narrative, told by the teller, and interpreted by the listeners (Preston, 2005). The subjective element was so valued by First Nations’ cultures that it could not be removed from their stories (Preston). For instance, emphasis could be placed or removed to further a desired effect (Preston). Even when telling of his culture’s history, the storyteller filtered the events and analysis through his perspective. The combination of the events and the interpretation allowed the teller to connect past events to current situations and problems as a way of helping the listeners understand the present (Preston). Even though people from a literate culture may question the veracity of an oral story, the storytellers told only what they remembered as truth, and, thus, their words were always accurate according to their experiences (Eigenbrod, 1995).
So, while it would be inaccurate to say that all First Nations’ cultures’ oral traditions contained all of these traits, these are traits that seem to be common among many of the cultures.
Colonialism: Residential Schools
The terrible conditions at residential schools have been well described in many places, but for the purposes of this essay, I’m going to focus on the impact on the First Nations’ languages.
Writing was not necessarily welcomed by the First Nations’ peoples. Instead, it was forced upon them. Similarly, the First Nations did not get to decide how writing would change their education because a new education system was imposed as a way to make the First Nations become more like Westerners (Bedasek & Godlewska, 2009; De Leeuw, 2007). Because the change from primary orality to written communication induces changed ways of thinking (Ong, 1982), sending the First Nations’ children to school made sense from the government’s perspective because the children would learn to write, and therefore, their way of thinking would become more like the white people’s.
Unfortunately, the schools had some success at changing First Nations’ cultures. Canadian institutions have replaced First Nations’ oral, historical narratives with the institutions’ own versions of history (Preston, 2005). As well, one of the most important methods of assimilation was through the removal of the First Nations’ languages. While the removal of language was not completely successful, many First Nations’ languages have been lost because of the residential schools (De Leeuw, 2007). So while writing and a change in educational practices both occurred, they were not usually embraced by those who were being changed.
Impact on the Reception and Telling of Stories
The introduction of writing into the First Nations’ cultures impacted how the First Nations told their stories. Because of the First Nations’ stories often contained a comical tone, which pleased First Nations’ audiences, Westerners who read written versions of the stories did not take them seriously (King, 2003). As well, Westerners began labelling the stories as “myths” or “legends”, which had taken over how Westerners thought of the stories (Preston, 2005).
As a result of being written down and given a decreased significance by outside cultures, the First Nations’ stories changed. For instance, written cultures took the tricksters of the First Nations’ stories and placed them into children’s books; therefore, the trickster had become something no one believed in (Eigenbrod, 1995). Also, the West’s written version of First Nations’ history made the First Nations seem as if they were doomed to be taken over by the superior Westerners (Brownlie, 2009). Even then, the West tended to begin history when the Europeans arrived in North America, and ignored the histories of the First Nations (Brownlie) because the Western historians limited evidence of the First Nations’ history only to written documents (Preston, 2005). This caused conflict whenever the West used writing to control their appropriation of the First Nations’ land, and when the First Nations’, who spoke only what they remembered, remembered the injustice (Eigenbrod, 1995). Thus, the First Nations cultures had changed for the worst because of the introduction of writing and literate colonizers.
In response, the First Nations’ also had to change their own stories in order to regain control. As well, after writing the stories, their versions became more permanent (Ong, 1982) and, thus, accepted alongside the West’s (Brownlie, 2009). As well, the West’s written histories conformed to the value that the West placed on objectivity (Preston, 2005), so they contrasted with the subjectivity of the First Nations’ stories. By writing down their own history so that they would be taken seriously by outsiders, the First Nations removed the subjectivity and context that they valued in their stories. Thus, in the conflict between oral tradition and writing, the writing was winning (Eigenbro, 1995).
Even authors of First Nations descent who wrote for mainstream society faced difficulties because they were aware of the conflict between writing, which was the “colonizer’s medium”, and oral story, which was the First Nations’ medium (Eigenbrod, 1995). One Annishnawbe writer noticed that his stories lost a lot of their humour when written down (Eigenbrod). Similarly, a Metis writer noted that it was difficult to write down stories that had been told orally because orally told stories had to be told to audiences whereas written stories had to be told alone to a piece of paper (Eigenbrod). Eigenbrod also mentioned that the back and forth communication pattern between audience and teller became linear when written down. So, when the First Nations’ oral tradition was overtaken by writing, the First Nations lost not just their oral history, but also their values that the oral stories contained (Preston, 2005).
Stories are an important component of First Nations’ cultures. However, the Canadian government’s imposition of writing as a means of control, and the First Nations’ assimilation into a culture of writing as a means of regaining some of their own control have changed their stories. With more permanence and less humour, the First Nations’ written stories have had to push aside the qualities that their cultures had previously embraced. As a result, the First Nations’ culture has also had to change.
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Brownlie, R. (2009). First Nations perspectives and historical thinking in Canada. In A. M. Timpson (Ed.), First Nations, first thoughts (pp. 21-50). Vancouver, BC: UBC Press.
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Preston, C. (2005). A past of tragic stories: The (non-)treatment of Native Peoples’ oral histories in Canada. Undercurrent, 2(1), 54-64.