Celebrating Native Cultures Through Words: Storytelling and Oral Traditions
Indigenous peoples have strong storytelling traditions. Histories, stories, and religious rites were/are passed from the memories of one generation to the next through the spoken word. The worldview of Native people is intricately woven into the fabric of language and ways of speaking. The oral tradition connects past, present, and future and tightens tribal and familial bonds. These oral traditions can provide moral lessons for children on how to behave; they can communicate creation stories, cultural beliefs, and personal, family, or tribal history and experiences. Creation stories are often sacred and only told through the oral tradition.
Oral traditions are a form of shared history in specific Native communities and are a source of historical knowledge. American Indians employed a variety of methods to record and preserve their histories. Native Americans of the Northern Great Plains region recorded their histories through pictographic paintings on bison hides called winter counts. Winter counts were preserved by keepers, who painted the images and served as storytellers. Winter counts are only one example of how Indigenous knowledge is sustained and shared. Storytelling is an integral part of traditional Native education systems. Stories develop listening skills, memory, and imagination, and they support social and emotional learning to develop the whole child.
Language loss was part of the systemic destruction or assimilation of Native peoples. Some languages have vanished completely, while many others are weakened. Elders believe if the language is lost, the people will be, too. Teachers, elders, and linguists have been working to capture Native speech in written form, through online classes, and in language-school "nests" as ways to pass on the languages—and cultures—to younger generations.
Today, many Native artists, illustrators, authors, and poets use books and prose to share contemporary experiences with the world. We encourage the use of storytelling in your classroom through invited presenters, videos of Native stories from the community itself, or through books by Native authors.