I am in the process of getting an Elder to come to my Gr 7 Humanities class to tell us some stories. To prepare, I need to teach my classes the importance of stories in different First Nations cultures. I’m not part of a First Nation. I have no true insight into the importance of stories in relation to First Nations culture and religion. I know that growing up we read Bible stories of God’s love for His people and we told stories around the camp fire about ghosts and Sasquatch. But what place do stories have in my own culture and religion? Especially oral stories.
The area specialist recommended that I listen to the Massey Lecture series given by Thomas King. I instead opted to READ his lectures. The Truth About Stories: A Native Narrative. Ah, the irony.
Reading King’s book (I will say, I did listen to the first part!) was uncomfortable at times. The narrative of creation in Genesis versus the narrative of all of the animals working together in balance at creation was troubling because King states that once must become sacred and one must become secular. They are different in their fundamentals. Yes, I am aware of the differences between FNMI nations and my own personal background, but I had never had it presented in such a clear-cut dichotomy. I suppose it forced me to do some reflection on my own beliefs and views about FNMI traditions and how I talk about them. I suppose that is the point. How do I talk about traditions that are not my own.
According to King, oral stories have power: “For once a story is told, it cannot be called back. Once told, it is loose in the world. So you have to be careful with the stories you tell. And you have to watch out for the stories that you are told” (Pg 10). I like that relationship that humans have with oral stories. Be careful which ones you tell and which ones you hear.
At the same time that stories are (or can be) sacred and should not be told or listened to lightly, they also have the potential to affect change. King believes and teaches that stories are medicine: “stories were medicine, that a story told one way could cure, that the same story told another way could injure” (Pg 92). There is power in words and that is something that we are quick to forget. The power of a compliment or a kind word can affect a person in ways we will never know. I see everyday the power of words that tear people down and the toxic environment telling stories can create. Further in his lecture, King writes that “Native writers aren’t arguing that evil isn’t evil or that it doesn’t exist. They’re suggesting that trying to destroy it is misguided, even foolish. That the attempt risks danger” (Pg 111). Hello every North-American summer blockbuster!! We are a culture obsessed with good defeating evil. There always has to be a battle and there always has to be a winner, preferably the good. In FNMI stories, the world is more complex and complicated. There are no clear ‘bad guys’ and often times the stories about about cooperation and working together, but war and defeat and victory. Again, that is a sweeping generalization and I know rules are constantly being broken. In FNMI stories, show how they think and feel about the world around them: “While the relationship that Native people have with the land certainly has a spiritual aspect to it, it is also a practical matter that balances respect with survival. It is an ethic that can be seen in the decision and actions of a community and that is contained in the songs that Native people sing and the stories that they tell about the nature of the world and their place in it, about the webs of responsibilities that bind all things” (Pg 113-114).
After reading King’s lecture series I feel like I am in the same place I was before reading his book: “The truth about stories is that that’s all we are…’One way or another we are living the stories planted in use early or along the way, or we are also living the stories we planted–knowingly and unknowingly–in ourselves. We live stories that either give our lives meaning or negate it with meaninglessness. If we change the stories we live by, quite possibly we change our lives'” (Ben Okri as quoted by Thomas King, Pg 153).
So how do I teach First Nations storytelling to my Gr 7 class?? “Take Charm’s story, for instance. It’s yours. Do with it what you will. Tell it to friends. Turn it into a television movie. Forget it. But don’t say in the years to come that you would have lived your life differently if only you had heard this story. You’ve heard it now” (Pg 29).
“There are no truths, Coyote,” I says. “Only stories.” (Thomas King, Green Grass, Running Water)
“Hear this, you elders;
listen, all who live in the land.
Has anything like this ever happened in your days
or in the days of your ancestors?
Tell it to your children,
and let your children tell it to their children,
and their children to the next generation.” (Joel 1:2-3)