Conserving Oral Tradition: Old Stories and Children

Storytelling indigenous people

Conserving Oral Tradition: Old Stories and Children

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Stories and Children

Storytelling is a powerful tool for children, especially for those from indigenous communities. It helps them connect with their culture and heritage, and empowers them to share their own stories. 

Sandra Sherman, J.D. and Ph.D., a principal team member, highlights the importance of storytelling skills for children and how it can benefit them in the long run. Read on to learn more about the impact of storytelling and how it can shape the future of our children.

a kid and adult storytelling

Oral and Written Storytelling

Storytelling is not a critical piece of the economy – yet! But people relate and consume stories at an astonishing rate; they pay money to find great stories and to learn how to create them. A kind of Narrative Industrial Complex has turned “stories” into artifacts. These stories are to be shared, debated, performed, recorded, and studied.

Storytelling and Indigenous Culture 

NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC writes this about storytelling culture:

“Storytelling is as old as culture. Many societies have long-established storytelling traditions. The stories, and performances thereof, function to entertain as well as educate.”

The Storytelling Industry 

Since 2003, for example, the nonprofit juggernaut StoryCorps has collected 100,000 personal stories. Most of which are archived in the American Folklife Center in the Library of Congress. The Moth, dedicated to the art and craft of storytelling, presents theme-based storytelling events around the world.

Storytelling for Lawyers

Philip Meyer’s perennial best-seller, Storytelling for Lawyers, teaches lawyers how to present a chain of events – whether in a bankruptcy or bank robbery – so that juries and judges get the message. Storytelling, Self, Society, and Narrative Culture are academic journals that examine the social and technological bases of stories whether they derive from indigenous tribes or an immigrant community in Queens.     

Why Stories Matter

Clearly, stories and children matter to us – and not just stories in books with a publisher’s imprimatur, but local stories, amateur stories given voice in the spoken word.  People flock to NPR, BBC Sounds, Apple Podcast, story slams, and an array of performance venues where stories hold their own against memes.  In fact, the same digital technology that circulates memes also allows longer, narrative versions of the human condition to make their way through society.  We would have it no other way.  

Preserving Stories

But “we” are privileged.  What about societies where there is no concerted effort to collect, preserve, and study the stories that matter to their own self-definition?  In these societies, elders tell stories perhaps for the last time, since the next generation – the children – are distracted by cell phones or, worse, by war.  The task of preserving these stories – the whole oral tradition of a people – has fallen to individuals and organizations dedicated to that purpose.       

Children in an Orphanage in Kenya attending a ChildsPlay International CPI Storytelling event

Such dedication comes from the immensity of the need, that is, from what is likely to be lost without deliberate preservation.  

Preserving the Art of Storytelling

In a recent essay for Terralingua, Luisa Maffi wrote:

“From origin stories to stories about supernatural beings, ancestors, key events from past history, places of special significance, and the relationship between humans and the natural world, to morality tales, educational tales, humorous tales, and just plain old gossip, storytelling has had a fundamental role in human lives. It has tied people together, connected generations, established cultural identity, grounded people in place, and helped transmit cultural values, beliefs, knowledge, practices, and languages. In other words, storytelling has had a fundamental role in sustaining the biocultural diversity of life.”

The great anthropologist George N. Appell described storytelling as a basic human impulse, a cognate of religion that allows us to re-envision – and cope with – existence by situating all of life within of a narrative order.  For Appell, oral literature is inescapably profound:

“It arises in response to the universal aesthetic impulse to provide narratives that explain the nature of life and human response to challenges. It retains knowledge to be passed on to succeeding generations. It contains the history of society and its experiences. Thus in various forms, this oral literature portrays society’s belief systems and makes sense of life. It provides a guide to human behavior and how to live one’s life. . . As such this literature is a response to the universal human instinct to find balance, harmony, and beauty in the world and the need to understand pain, suffering, and evil. It functions to fulfill the need for religious belief and spiritual fulfillment necessary for human existence.”

Local Populations Must be Involved in Story Preservation

With the arrival of mass literacy and its technological concomitants, this repository of knowledge-as-art disappears in a generation . . . unless there are efforts to preserve it. Accordingly, an array of international initiatives has been mounted, including by UNICEF. Scholars from around the world have published numerous studies showcasing specific projects and outlining their sophisticated methodologies. 

However, it has been clear from the outset that merely recording and transcribing these stories, without including local participants in preserving them, can be an act of cultural appropriation. Community-based programs of collection and transcription are becoming the norm. The Firebird Foundation, among others, has published extensive guidelines for collectors, emphasizing that the benefits of collecting should flow both ways.  The goal is to increase the community’s respect for its own culture, and encourage its own efforts at preservation. 

Cultural Storytelling: Preserving Heritage Through Stories

When ChildsPlay International records local stories, it ensures that local people are involved, and that the methods of recording and transcribing are reproducible at the local level.  This involves finding and training local apprentices in skills such as film-making, and audio-recording, and instructing local teachers to pass on to students an interest in cultural preservation.  Students are encouraged to define their own relationship to oral tradition by creating works of art – paintings, puppets, masks, plays – that interpret that tradition and perpetuate it as a living practice.  These works of art are also collected and exhibited, enabling the children to see the direct connection of their own creativity to that of the past.

Storytelling as a Link between Generations

This linkage among generations, at the shared level of creativity, is what distinguishes the methodology of ChildsPlay. Children are given tools – and the impetus – to envision their creativity as connected to previous generations. Such connection is presented as natural, and it  becomes as much. The idea is to help indigenous children become self-sufficient in story-telling, a skill that children in developed societies take for granted. In this sense, storytelling is a great leveler among societies, one skill that all children are able to share and to cultivate using their own, indigenous stories. At the same time, storytelling is dynamic: it is both a way to interpret a child’s own society, and a way to communicate with and understand children from other societies.  

ChildsPlay believes that there is power in stories and that, in turn, stories are empowering. 

Stories and Children

Storytelling is a powerful tool for children, especially for those from indigenous communities. It helps them connect with their culture and heritage, and empowers them to share their own stories. 

Sandra Sherman, J.D. and Ph.D., a principal team member, highlights the importance of storytelling skills for children and how it can benefit them in the long run. Read on to learn more about the impact of cultural storytelling and how it can shape the future of our children.

a kid and adult storytelling

Oral and Written Storytelling

Storytelling is not a critical piece of the economy – yet! But people relate and consume stories at an astonishing rate; they pay money to find great stories and to learn how to create them. A kind of Narrative Industrial Complex has turned “stories” into artifacts to be shared, debated, performed, recorded, and studied.

The Storytelling Industry (and Podcasts)

Since 2003, for example, the nonprofit juggernaut StoryCorps has collected 100,000 personal stories, most of which are archived in the American Folklife Center in the Library of Congress. The Moth, dedicated to the art and craft of storytelling, presents theme-based storytelling events around the world.

Storytelling for Lawyers

Philip Meyer’s perennial best-seller, Storytelling for Lawyers, teaches lawyers how to present a chain of events – whether in a bankruptcy or bank robbery – so that juries and judges get the message. Storytelling, Self, Society, and Narrative Culture are academic journals that examine the social and technological bases of stories whether they derive from indigenous tribes or an immigrant community in Queens.     

Why Stories Matter

Clearly, stories matter to us – and not just stories in books with a publisher’s imprimatur, but local stories, amateur stories given voice in the spoken word.  People flock to NPR, BBC Sounds, Apple Podcast, story slams, and an array of performance venues where stories hold their own against memes.  In fact, the same digital technology that circulates memes also allows longer, narrative versions of the human condition to make their way through society.  We would have it no other way.  

Preserving Stories

But “we” are privileged.  What about societies where there is no concerted effort to collect, preserve, and study the stories that matter to their own self-definition?  In these societies, elders tell stories perhaps for the last time, since the next generation – the children – are distracted by cell phones or, worse, by war.  The task of preserving these stories – the whole oral tradition of a people – has fallen to individuals and organizations dedicated to that purpose.       

Children in an Orphanage in Kenya attending a ChildsPlay International CPI Storytelling event

Such dedication comes from the immensity of the need, that is, from what is likely to be lost without deliberate preservation.  

Preserving the Art of Storytelling

In a recent essay for Terralingua, Luisa Maffi wrote:

“From origin stories to stories about supernatural beings, ancestors, key events from past history, places of special significance, and the relationship between humans and the natural world, to morality tales, educational tales, humorous tales, and just plain old gossip, storytelling has had a fundamental role in human lives. It has tied people together, connected generations, established cultural identity, grounded people in place, and helped transmit cultural values, beliefs, knowledge, practices, and languages. In other words, storytelling has had a fundamental role in sustaining the biocultural diversity of life.”

The great anthropologist George N. Appell described storytelling as a basic human impulse, a cognate of religion that allows us to re-envision – and cope with – existence by situating all of life within of a narrative order.  For Appell, oral literature is inescapably profound:

“It arises in response to the universal aesthetic impulse to provide narratives that explain the nature of life and human response to challenges. It retains knowledge to be passed on to succeeding generations. It contains the history of society and its experiences. Thus in various forms, this oral literature portrays society’s belief systems and makes sense of life. It provides a guide to human behavior and how to live one’s life. . . As such this literature is a response to the universal human instinct to find balance, harmony, and beauty in the world and the need to understand pain, suffering, and evil. It functions to fulfill the need for religious belief and spiritual fulfillment necessary for human existence.”

 

Local Populations Must be Involved in Story Preservation

With the arrival of mass literacy and its technological concomitants, this repository of knowledge-as-art disappears in a generation . . . unless there are efforts to preserve it.  Accordingly, an array of international initiatives has been mounted, including by UNICEF. Scholars from around the world have published numerous studies showcasing specific projects and outlining their sophisticated methodologies. 

However, it has been clear from the outset that merely recording and transcribing these stories, without including local participants in preserving them, can be an act of cultural appropriation. Community-based programs of collection and transcription are becoming the norm. The Firebird Foundation, among others, has published extensive guidelines for collectors, emphasizing that the benefits of collecting should flow both ways.  The goal is to increase the community’s respect for its own culture, and encourage its own efforts at preservation. 

Cultural Storytelling: Preserving Heritage Through Stories

When ChildsPlay International records local stories, it ensures that local people are involved, and that the methods of recording and transcribing are reproducible at the local level.  This involves finding and training local apprentices in skills such as film-making, and audio-recording, and instructing local teachers to pass on to students an interest in cultural preservation.  Students are encouraged to define their own relationship to oral tradition by creating works of art – paintings, puppets, masks, plays – that interpret that tradition and perpetuate it as a living practice.  These works of art are also collected and exhibited, enabling the children to see the direct connection of their own creativity to that of the past.

Storytelling as a Link between Generations

This linkage among generations, at the shared level of creativity, is what distinguishes the methodology of ChildsPlay. Children are given tools – and the impetus – to envision their creativity as connected to previous generations. Such connection is presented as natural, and it becomes as much. The idea is to help indigenous children become self-sufficient in story-telling, a skill that children in developed societies take for granted. In this sense, storytelling is a great leveler among societies, one skill that all children are able to share and to cultivate using their own, indigenous stories. At the same time, storytelling is dynamic: it is both a way to interpret a child’s own society, and a way to communicate with and understand children from other societies.  

ChildsPlay believes that there is power in stories and that, in turn, stories are empowering. 

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