Indigenous Storytelling

  • Eden Robinson
    The Sasquatch at Home: Traditional Protocols and Modern Storytelling. University of Alberta Press
  • Kim Anderson
    Life Stages and Native Women: Memory, Teachings, and Story Medicine. University of Manitoba Press
  • Neil Christopher
    Kappianaqtut: Strange Creatures and Fantastic Beings From Inuit Myths and Legends, Volume 1: Giants and the Mother of the Sea Mammals, Second Edition. Inhabit Media

Neil Christopher’s Kappianaqtut: Strange Creatures and Fantastic Beings From Inuit Myths and Legends, Volume 1 is a collection of stories about two beings from Inuit cosmology: the “mother of the sea mammals,” Nuliajuk, and the giants of the north. For the most part, the stories are excerpted from late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century ethnographic texts by Knud Rasmussen and Franz Boas, who recorded and translated the oral stories of Indigenous “informants.” Christopher links the excerpts with brief glosses, illuminating major themes such as the power of women, the creation of natural phenomena, and the mistreatment of orphans. The collection is important, amassing out-of-print stories—and often multiple versions of the same story—in one text, but it should be recognized mainly as a compilation of colonial translations of Inuit stories from Inuktitut to English, and from oral to written. And while Christopher references consultations with Inuit elders and storytellers, he includes only a few contemporary narratives. The collection would have been much stronger if, in addition to including more unmediated Inuit voices, the author had discussed the issues and limitations that attend colonial ethnography. Naïveté is also evidenced in diction—for example, the use of “strange creatures” to refer to cultural figures of great importance. However, the book will prove an accessible starting point for those interested in studying Inuit cosmology in general, and the figures of Nuliajuk and the giants in particular.

Kim Anderson’s Life Stages and Native Women: Memory, Teachings, and Story Medicine also brings together stories, in this instance about the roles and responsibilities of northern Algonquian women (Cree, Métis, Ojibway, and Saulteaux) during the 1930s to 1960s. Like Christopher, Anderson (Cree/Métis) uses non-Indigenous ethnographic texts, but she makes readers aware of their ethnocentric and androcentric bias. Through interviews conducted with fourteen women from the Prairies and Ontario, Anderson puts oral history at the centre of her analysis, illuminating how Indigenous identities were informed by gender and life-stage, and how the women’s fulfillment of these roles was necessary to the healthy functioning of their societies. Her intention is decolonization; she shares “story medicines” of traditional (i.e., land-based) practices in order to recover knowledge of Indigenous women’s lifeways and inspire current and future generations. While she recognizes the many atrocities of the time, she chooses to focus on empowering narratives, showing the survival of customs and values. She provides context of the kind missing above, discussing ethical scholarship, protocol, and the importance of relationship in the sharing of oral tradition. Readers learn that oral stories are both consistent and flexible: while maintaining core truths, they often change to suit the needs and relationship of teller and listener. Who is listening thus matters very much to the kind of story that is told and the information that can be shared. Returning to the stories in Kappianaqtut, readers would do well to remember Anderson’s insights into the living, relational aspect of oral narrative.

In 2010, Haisla/Heiltsuk author Eden Robinson delivered the 4th annual Henry Kreisel lecture. Published as The Sasquatch at Home, the lecture revisits ideas raised by Christopher and Anderson’s texts such as the role of stories in passing down lessons and cultural values, the importance of relationships to the continued life of stories, and the ways in which place and context shape narrative. Itself a print version of an orally delivered text, The Sasquatch at Home contains three episodic narratives (a common structure of oral tradition, where stories are linked thematically rather than chronologically). The major theme of all three, as the book’s subtitle suggests, is “traditional protocols and modern storytelling.” In the first narrative, Robinson explains how she came to understand nusa—the traditional way of teaching Haisla protocols—through a trip to Graceland she took with her mother. While traveling to the King’s Manor might seem an unlikely place to learn about Haisla tradition, this is exactly Robinson’s point: traditional protocols should not be seen as vestiges of the past; rather, they are an active presence in the contemporary world, carried in stories. The second and third narratives in the lecture continue to explore the relationship between tradition and modernity, turning to the importance of land in the continuation of traditional practices. Land holds stories, connects generations, and inspires contemporary writing: Robinson’s novel Monkey Beach, for example, preserves Haisla stories rooted in specific places Robinson visited with her father while writing the book. The genius of Robinson’s lecture is that it makes the reader/listener “do the work” of making meaning: as in oral traditions, we are called to draw the connections and come to our own conclusions. And as Qitsualik and Tinsley remind us in the foreword to Kappianaqtut, “only an individual who has sought out and actively plucked a lesson from interaction with others is one who has truly learned.”

This review “Indigenous Storytelling” originally appeared in Contested Migrations. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 219 (Winter 2013): 147-48.

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