THE IMPORTANCE OF ORAL TRADITION
People have told stories for a long time. As long as there has been language and words, people have told stories. Even before language and words, people told stories through images, signs, and sounds. They drew images on cave walls, on stone, and wood. They carved out meanings. They created songs and rhythms that were passed from one person to the next, and from one generation to the next.
Histories and stories of a people that come to us in a form that is spoken or sung are part of what is called an oral tradition. Oral tradition means that the information, the stories, are spoken aloud rather than written down. Sometimes, like the Mi'kmaq, a people may have both a written and an oral tradition. Because people hold the story in their memory, and because sometimes the story changes with the telling, oral histories can be more fluid, more dynamic, more alive, than written histories. This doesn't make them less true than written history, just different.
Oral traditions are one way that people make sense of the world in which they live. The stories explain how things came to be the way they are in the world, or in some cases, explain how things are supposed to be. The traditions also help to teach the young the things they need to know to fit in with their society. Because these traditions developed over generations within the boundaries of a society, they are often unique to that society, and help to define who they are and what they believe in as a people. Thus, the oral traditions of the Mi'kmaq differ from those of any other people in the world, and help to keep the Mi'kmaq unique.
MYTHS, LEGENDS AND FOLKLORE
Oral traditions can be loosely placed in three types: myths, legends, and folklore.
Myths are those accounts which portray the earliest possible time, including creation stories. Other myths account for the organization of the world and society, for instance how men and women were created and why they are different from one another. Because of their power to describe how things should be, myths can be very powerful in shaping and carrying on traditions in a society. This Creation Story is an example from Mi'kmaw society, as is the story of how Muin became Keeper of Medicines.
Legends are oral traditions related to particular places, and often involve cultural heroes, witches, ghosts, or some other characters related to that place. They can involve the recent or distant past, but are most important in linking people and the land. "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” is an example from contemporary literature; "Muin, the Bear's Child" is an example of a Mi'kmaw legend, as is The Legend of the Hand of the Medicine Man, which tells a story about one of the petroglyphs at Kejimkujik Lake.
In contrast to other types of oral traditions, folktales are stories that everyone knows are fictional, but are useful stories for providing moral or social lessons, or even just for amusement. During long winter nights around the fire in a wigwam, a good storyteller was highly prized by the Mi'kmaq. Grimm's Fairy Tales are examples of contemporary folktales; "The Invisible One" is an example of a Mi'kmaw folktale.
Within oral traditions, a culture hero is a human or superhuman who figures prominently in the traditions of that society and whose life, deeds, and adventures are important to shaping the way things are. For many Native American societies, the culture hero was often both the source of good things in life (who brought agriculture, taught hunting, etc.) and a trickster or fool who delighted in showing people that they were not as important or as smart as they thought they were.
Many Mi'kmaw stories feature Glooscap, who brought man into being and who traveled about having amazing adventures, and righting the wrongs that he found along the way. He is also a trickster, as he proves in many legends that speak of people seeking him out to be granted a selfish wish, only to have the wish turned back on them in some way. Glooscap appears in both the Creation Story and in "Muin, the Bear's Child."
LOST TRADITIONAL KNOWLEDGE
Because of our recent dependence on written records, modern society often fails to respect oral traditions. We know how a verbal message can get changed in the telling, and find it hard to believe that oral histories can be accurate. We tend to place a great deal of trust in the idea that once a fact has been written down, it will never change. In this belief, we somehow manage to overlook the masses of conflicting information that have been written down over the years. One need look no further than any Internet search engine for thousands of examples of contradictory data being presented as absolute fact.
However, when oral traditions were passed from person to person, the importance of the tradition was always understood by the teller, and the message was passed with great care. While the fine details of the message may vary from one storyteller to the next, as the story was heard many times from different tellers in a person's life, the varying details got filtered out, and the underlying truth was always passed correctly. Ideas about truth, ethics, morality, beliefs, and ways of knowing the world were kept pure within the context of each society, and the oral traditions are therefore entirely valid within that context, and must be respected as such.
In Aboriginal communities, including those of the Mi'kmaq, more and more of the children's education comes from books rather than from elders. Because there is a need to fit in with the modern world, children need to go to school to learn skills such as reading, writing and using computers, because these will help them get a job or earn the money they need to do other things.
However, over time less and less of their knowledge will come from the oral tradition of their own culture. The elders do not have as important a role as they used to in passing along their knowledge to younger people. In some communities the children do not speak the language of their elders, which makes it difficult for elders to teach them. These changes mean that much important traditional knowledge is being lost.
This is a crisis for many reasons. The knowledge that is being lost can provide people with a sense of identity. Knowing who you are can give you pride in your culture. Elders have knowledge that is needed for survival. They know a lot about the land they live in. They know where to find animals to hunt or trap because they know of places where animals will go to find food. They know how to find their way around the land because they know the landmarks. Traditional knowledge still has many uses in our world today.
The stories told by the storytellers, the drums, the dancers, and the singers are all part of our world. The stories may come from a specific people, but that also makes them part of the stories of all people on the Earth. We help to keep the story alive when we hear it. We have our place in the story. And in turn we all have our story to tell.