2.2 The Meanings (or Lack Thereof) Behind First Stories

In this lesson I say that our capacity for understanding or making meaningfulness from the first stories is seriously limited for numerous reasons and I briefly offer two reasons why this is so: 1) the social process of the telling is disconnected from the story and this creates obvious problems for ascribing meaningfulness, and 2) the extended time of criminal prohibitions against Indigenous peoples telling stories combined with the act of taking all the children between 5 – 15 away from their families and communities. In Wickwire’s introduction to Living Stories, find a third reason why, according to Robinson, our abilities to make meaning from first stories and encounters is so seriously limited. To be complete, your answer should begin with a brief discussion on the two reasons I present and then proceed to introduce and explain your third reason from Wickwire’s introduction.

First stories tell the reader/listener about the very beginning and how something came to be. In regards to our situation this ‘something’ refers to the land we call home. These first stories illustrate the first relations between the Indigenous people and the European settlers. There is a propriety issue involved with first stories as ownership is attributed to those who tell them. With this sense of ownership, comes obstacles of interpretation. There is not just a single type of story. Since it is being told by a person in a certain way, the individual may have a personal agenda in terms of the way they are performing their story. It is told from their own viewpoint, and particular facts or viewpoints may be hidden in order to shed a positive light on their story. In this sense first stories are manipulative because the listener may not have all the facts to decipher true from false. I view first stories as a type of performance. It is a script which the author/orator tells a story and creates a world with his own words and performance. As Dr.Paterson explains, there are a couple of major issues in understanding the meaning of first stories.

“In the acts of collecting, translating and publishing these stories, the social process of the telling is disconnected from the story and this creates obvious problems for ascribing meaninfulness” – Dr. Erika Paterson.

First stories are a property of the owner. The original story teller is the one who created that specific version of the story and told in a specific time and place, in a manner that is personal to the storyteller. The performance of the story and meaning is only known to him. Once the story becomes translated and published in different ways it loses its meaning. The second version of the story is not performed the same way it was by the original author. It becomes a copyright because it loses all of its meaning behind the performance. In Living By Stories: A Journey of Landscape and Memory, this becomes apparent as well in Harry Robinson’s interactions with Wickwire. Robinson continually tells Wickwire during his later years that he is “going to disappear and there will be no more telling stories” (29). What I take this to mean is that Robinson is not concerned with the idea that he may soon pass away, but that his stories will no longer have meaning because he is no longer telling them. Even after Robinson records his later stories for Wickwire through an audio recorder, and she compiles his stories into a book, Robinson still understands that only he can have the ability to tell those stories. The performance aspect and meaning of the story disappears if it does not come straight from him.

“There exists a serious time gap of almost 75 years…when the telling and retelling of stories…across the country, were outlawed by the Indian act…and the authority of the Department of Indian affairs to remove school-age children…from their families” – Dr. Erika Paterson.

First stories have a mythology and retelling aspect associated with them. They are told to younger generations so these children can learn where they come from and how their land was created. These stories are a fabric of their identity.When Robinson was telling his stories to Wickwire, he felt at ease with the situation because I had the feeling that he felt as it was as if he was telling stories to his own family. He shared his home with her and when he his health was deteriorating and he was forced to visit the hospitals, it was Wickwire that went to his bedside to keep him company (Robinson 19). When Robinson told these stories to Wickwire, he was confident that they would be kept alive for younger generations to learn from. Unfortunately, this was not the case when the retelling of stories were banned in the early 19th century. This posed serious problems for the nature of the true stories because they could no longer be passed down to younger generations. The horrible brutality demonstrated against the Native Indians also did not help the issue as their children were forced out of the families. The link to younger generations was completely cut down. This article further examines the genocide committed against younger children and how the extremely negative impact it had on their families and communities.

According to Robinson, another reason as to why our abilities to make meaning from first stories and encounters is so seriously limited is due to the type of stories that are being published in our collections. When Robinson tells about the stories of historical narratives, Wickwire makes a startling revelation concerning the process selection of certain stories: “the collectors’ goal was to document some overarching, static, ideal type of culture, detached from its pragmatic and socially positioned moorings among real people” (Robinson 22). The meaning of the story gets lost in translation when it is published and edited to fit a certain collection. Wickwire alludes to this fact once more in her discussion of Boas when she wonders if Boas selected a story “as Harry did in my case, to convey a political message – that whites were, and would always be, vistors on Indian land?” (Robinson 23). Wickwire is concerned that the meaning of the stories she has heard have been manipulated in order to convey the message of the publisher. Unfortunately, this is the true nature of first stories and it is extremely difficult to understand the true meaning behind each one.

Works Cited

Paterson, Erika. “Lesson 2.2”. English 470A Canadian Studies. University of British Columbia Blogs, 2013. Web. Feb 06, 2015.

Robinson, Harry. Living by Stories: A Journey of Landscape and Memory. Ed. Wendy Wickwire. Vancouver: Talon Books. 2005. Print. 1-30.

N/A. “Hidden From History: The Canadian Holocaust. The Untold Story of the Genocide of Aboriginal People by Church and State in Canada”. The Truth Commission into Genocide in Canada, 2001. Web. Feb 06, 2015.

5 thoughts on “2.2 The Meanings (or Lack Thereof) Behind First Stories

  1. SusieCarter

    Hi Rajin,

    I really liked your discussion and thought it was very thoughtfully written. Especially your ending comment: “Wickwire is concerned that the meaning of the stories she has heard have been manipulated in order to convey the message of the publisher. Unfortunately, this is the true nature of first stories and it is extremely difficult to understand the true meaning behind each one” which I felt really challenged me as a reader to think about the biases/goals of each piece of literary work I read….

    It made me think how much of today’s information is just taken by most at face value – do you think we, as a species, are losing so many of our stories because of this? And, furthermore, what are the implications?

    thanks for a great read!


    1. RajinSidhu Post author

      Hi Susie,

      Thank you for your comment! I can’t speak for us as a species, but personally, I have made the mistake of taking information I come across at face value. The beauty of receiving an education and one of the main reasons why I decided to major in English Literature is so that I can learn a new way of reading and critically approaching information. I never used to think about the meaning behind stories, and whether or not what I was reading/viewing was fact or fiction. I always took information for what it was and never questioned the validity behind it. Over the last couple years (more so since enrolling in this class) I have learned to approach information and stories with a critical eye. I always ask myself “why is this story being told the way it is?” It has guided me in my understanding of information and the motivation behind first stories and contact stories being told the way they are, especially from the critics that are mentioned in Wickwire’s introduction. As a person that is unfamiliar with the First Nations culture, I feel as if I am getting a skewed view of their stories when I read the works published by Levi-Strauss and Boas. Their motivations in terms of what is being published regarding First Nations stories are different from Aboriginal or non-Western critics, and this is a cause of great concern for me.

      Thank you for taking the time out to read my blog post!
      Rajin Sidhu

      1. SusieCarter

        Hey Rajin,

        Thanks for your thoughts back! I too am struggling with this course as I am bombarded with lots of different versions of stories from different perspectives… I so badly just want ONE story that is the true one – but sadly, it seems that every story needs to be taken with a grain of salt.

        Kind of makes me want to go back and challenge my history teachers on everything 😉


  2. AlexandraLashbrook

    Your blog really opened my mind up to the way in which stories become disjointed and changed over the passing of time in history. I like your description of what a first story is and how it becomes altered even after the second time it is told. It makes me think about how much of our own history is misinterpreted, as it changes every time it is retold. Again, thinking about the story of “The Iliad” which was first used as an oral story, it must have been altered by the time it was written. How much of our history is different from the events that occurred? When you tell a story, the person hearing that story can choose what to retain and retell, even having the option of adding or removing information as they please. It might be average to tell a story of your commute to school, but by adding something like dragons, your story changes. And with this change the story then becomes something like a fairytale and not reality. In historical accounts, the changing of the first story is bound to occur. How much has been changed can never been found out, but it adds personality to the story as each account of it becomes new. The first story is one the does belong to the teller, but for the listener they will always have the option of adding that new detail that can change the story forever.

    1. RajinSidhu Post author

      Hi Alexandra,

      Thank you for your insight! I agree with you, that’s the thing I’m trying to understand about these first stories that are passed down to other generations. Are they true stories, myths, fables, or a combination of everything? I love your example about a simple narration about a commute to school. It can be changed in a variety of ways (characters, subject matter, tone of narrator’s voice, etc) to manipulate the listener into believing a fictional tale. I am excited to continue through this course and learn more about First Nations stories and how they dealt with this aspect of first stories.

      Thank you for taking the time out to read my blog!
      Rajin Sidhu

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