Storytelling in Native American Cultures

How did we record history before we understood writing? In most cultures, the only way we remembered the past was through passing on stories word-of-mouth from one generation to another. These stories teach us lessons, give us history, and help us remember where our traditions come from, and in Lakota culture, we hold that you must tell every story just as heard or it loses its meaning.

Storytelling remains an inherent part of many indigenous cultures today. Historic records within tribal cultures consisted of weavings, paintings, drawings, pottery and other artistic mediums, but the important part of reading these recordings is interpreting them the correct way. Most often, the records “visualize” rather than “narrate” the story or event, and this is where some people get the story confused.

For centuries, us Lakota have carried our past through oral tradition, as we call it. These stories tell the origin of entire nations, why animals looked or acted the way they did, and where or how entire cultural traditions originated.

However, it may be in part due to storytelling “as record” that much of our history has been lost, some stories never retold, others forgotten and some dying with the last person to remember them. In today’s culture, we often tell stories through video and audio recordings, instead of hearing it from one’s grandparent or friend. This makes history more easily spread and known, but it also takes away from the tradition of storytelling.

There is meaning in hearing a story that has come to you from generations of past relatives, and there is meaning in passing it on. Now, there are so few who still practice remembering stories with the skill and cadence and fanaticism of a storyteller.

Hearing these stories was always one of my favorite things as a kid. Knowing that I could tell a story or talk about it with someone else was always such a great part of meeting others. When we all have that part of our culture to draw on and connect through, storytelling still unites our tribes across the miles and borders.

If you want to learn more about Native American storytelling, watch “Dream Keeper.” The film features stories from many indigenous cultures and an almost all-Native cast, including Eddie Spears, August Schellenberg, Chaske Spencer, Gary Farmer, Floyd Red Crow Westerman, Cardinal Tantoo, John Trudell and more.

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