Oral Tradition

Oral Tradition: An Introduction

We live in a storied landscape. The knowledge that has been here for thousands of years has been overlooked, ignored, or disconnected. This resource unit is an example of the oral tradition based on Sinixt First Nation whose legends, stories, myths, and parables relate to the many aspects of existence and subsistence. First Nations community utilized the oral tradition in their traditional educational process. This resource unit is an offering to assist educators in bringing the Sinixt Peoples into their classrooms and metaphorically out of extinction. The purpose of the unit is to provide educators and students with an experience of traditional, educational, and cultural practice that the Sinixt hold and value to this very day.

Variation Aspect

The linear frame of reference so prevalent in our modern-day society rarely accommodates two versions of a story without feeling the need to consider one correct, or more correct than the other. Variations in the oral presentations can, and do, exist even within the same family unit without being considered contradictory. Multiple versions need not imply that one is correct and the other debased or confused. There simply is no contradiction; the core message remains consistent. It is important to clarify both the value placed upon the variation aspect of the story and the importance of the oral tradition within the context of the educational form being utilized. Simply put, it is important to note that a story told in the oral tradition may have different versions.

Political Correctness

There may be some difficulty in interpreting the following statement using a linear frame of reference:
The Sinixt exist but are extinct.
One would think this statement defines a logically impossible reality; however, the statement is politically correct. The former federal Minister of Indian Affairs, himself, stated in 1995 that the Sinixt ceased to exist for the purposes of the Indian Act but they did not cease “to exist as a tribal group”. Political correctness has a serious flaw in that it is concerned with political rather than historical accuracy. Teachers are cautioned to be aware that some maps used in educational institutions are historically inaccurate, often excluding the Sinixt First Nation; however, said maps are considered to be politically correct. Political correctness pervades many aspects of Sinixt existence and involvement, from the extinction process, to asserting their rights as a legally non-existent First Nation, as well as politically correct exclusion by government agencies, environmental organizations, and even other native groups from activities and processes that relate to Sinixt interests.
Rather than succumbing to the temptation to rely solely on eurocentric data and bring everything into line from the 1956 extinction onward, scholars and educators must allow data to express itself in its natural context within a world-systems view. The larger cognitive map must be explored beyond the parameters of both a linear frame of reference and political correctness in order for truth and knowledge with depth of understanding to be realized.

The Oral Tradition

Communication systems or techniques have been used in many forms since the beginning of time. The written word is a valid and highly valued method of communication, but it is not the only method. Consider the following forms of communication that do not rely on the written word:
        • Pictographs
  • Petroglyphs
  • Singing – in canoe as someone nears their territory to tell their people they’re coming home
  • Runners to deliver messages/warnings
  • Tattoos/markings on the face
  • Hand signs
  • Signal fires/smoke
  • Flashing lights – i.e. lighthouses
  • Drawings, ie. In the sand/dirt
  • Branding
  • Performance/drama
  • Storytelling
  • Scouting to find out information
  • Dress codes – gang members wearing hoodies/bandanas
  • Nature – notching trees for directions, footprints tell a story, bending willows, intertwining trees, culturally modified trees, carvings (Haida)
  • Inukshuks – as locators, direction information,
  • Drums
  • Flags – on ships for quarantine, military, pirates
  • Handshake technique and body stance – can relate membership in Masonic Lodge
The focus for this resource unit is the most common practice utilized to educate members of First Nations communities, namely, oral presentation, often referred to as the oral tradition. Oral presentations in traditional times depicted actual historical events or utilized stories and parables that would serve to inform, encourage, or train community members in many areas. Every aspect of First Nations reality, history, existence, and substance was culminated within a context of the oral tradition.
It is not the intention of the Resource Team to diminish any written aspects of First Nations that exist within the recording of events on bark, hides, weavings, and picto- or petroglyph recordings. Neither is it the intent to limit the scope of First Nations presentation. Many First Nations groups had written languages and documentation in the written form. An oral presentation aspect would remain evident, however, even amongst those First Nations groups that had a developed written practice.
(For added interest there are several websites, including https://examples.yourdictionary.com/examples-of-oral-tradition.html, that offer many contemporary examples of oral traditions relative to customs, superstitions, folklore, weddings, games, proverbs, legends, and so on.)

The Stories

While narrative stories helped to build historical consciousness in First Nations community, one single story could, in effect, save one’s life. It is important to acknowledge the practices of First Nations Peoples and the validity of those practices. It is also important to create a value for those practices and for the ethnic grouping the practice is depicting.
For First Nations communities, storytelling is a function of community living. Stories are related for a variety of reasons:
  • To transfer knowledge, protocols, skills, and values from one collective memory to another, as well as the social, political, and economic order which makes up a unique culture.
  • To inspire unity, hope, faith, and strength.
  • To set standards by which to measure oneself.
  • To show honour and respect for all living things; interconnectedness.
  • To serve both community purpose and purpose of community.
  • To note the importance of land formations within one’s territory.
  • To relate a peoples’ history, i.e. of survival, of creation, of significant or memorable events and processes.
  • To provide role models, historical examples and inspiration
  • To honour the ancestors who went before.
  • To honour contributions other beings have bestowed upon the community group.
  • To keep the story alive.
All original instruction or spiritual teachings were passed along in the oral tradition. How well people kept that oral tradition alive is relevant. It was a gift to gather and share knowledge. The repayment for sharing the gift was simple: by ‘not forgetting’. And it is on this inadvertent trust that the Sinixt stories are being offered to us today, not ‘in’ but ‘through’ the unique publication entitled Not Extinct: Keeping the Sinixt Way. May they help you to create value for the oral practice form as a teaching technique.
(For added interest, Eric Hanson has written an excellent overview of First Nations oral traditions on the UBC Indigenous Foundations website at https://indigenousfoundations.arts.ubc.ca/oral_traditions/ .)


  1. This is great! Thank you for all of your hard work and developing these local resources for our teachers!


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