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What Are Oral Traditions?

First Nations youth learn about our culture by spending a lot of time watching and listening to elders - in our homes, at gatherings and at ceremonies.  Over time we learn about who we are and where we fit in.  Every generation transmits these important teachings to the next through actions and by word of mouth. That is the way it was in the past. That is the way it is still done today.  That is what is meant by oral traditions.

James Lamouche defines oral tradition as, “the transmission of knowledge passed down across generations using memory and language” (Personal interview 2005 Memory, lived experience and language converge into stories, myths, legends, songs). Through these we learn about our past, present and future. We must know and understand these things so that we in turn can pass on this fundamental wisdom to the next generation.

Our nations have lost a lot of traditional knowledge and languages. In many families, the important connection between generations was broken when children were forced to go to residential schools.  There, they were forbidden to speak their language and practise their cultural ways.  Many traditional elders have gone to the spirit world, taking with them all they know and have experienced.  Society and culture has also changed. The way we learn, think, speak and live is different from the way our ancestors lived

Today, we have new ways of learning about our history and culture. We can look in a history book, or watch television, rent a DVD or search on the internet. But our most valuable source of knowledge is still the elders who are willing to share their wisdom and experience. All we have to do is respectfully ask and they will share what they know.  This project is bringing the old and new ways together.

About The Author

Tan’si Lana Whiskeyjack n’tsikason ohci niya Saddle Lake First Nations. Ninehiyaw, I am Cree.  My mother is Pearl Cardinal of Saddle Lake First Nations and my father, Harley Cardinal, is from Elizabeth Métis Settlement in Alberta. I want to stress that I am only one among many Aboriginal voices writing about Canada’s First Nations’ drum mythologies.  Our stories reflect the many different cultures and landscapes of this country.  However, I do believe that sharing these stories is important as it will promote cultural as well as cross-cultural awareness and will also educate native and non-native people alike. All I can share is what I know as a Cree woman.  My knowledge is based on the stories and teachings shared with me by many grandmothers and grandfathers from different nations.

Dedication

It is important to remember the responsibilities that come with learning knowledge – especially with shared knowledge – even if this knowledge is acquired through texts. Thus, I offer you what I know in hopes that you will respect it and share it with others. Lana Whiskeyjack.

Personal Story: My Nohkom

For a short while I lived with Nohkom (my grandmother) and she would teach me through her daily experiences. I didn’t know that I was learning until I was much older. For example, before we would leave for long walks into the bush Nohkom would have tea and bannock set on the table in case someone would come into the house when we were not there to greet them. She said that we must always feed people, even if we have very little because the Creator will always supply us with what we need. After setting the table with cups and utensils we would leave for our walk. On our walks, Nohkom would always tell me something about an animal we would see or we would play a game of ‘whose tracks or droppings?’ She would share funny stories and legends of animals or the little people.

We would walk to a clearing where Nohkom had poles to stretch her hides. While she scraped hides, she would share hunting stories, and how the old people would speak to the animals.  Time passed without me even realizing she was teaching me something.

In the evening the tea and bannock was gone and whoever drank and ate left some rabbit meat in the fridge. She would smudge the food we were given and I would always smile at her magical powers. That was how I learned. My experiences with Nohkom told me a lot about our people and the way we lived.


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