Oral Traditions

Background Information

Oral Tradition

Storytelling draws on a broad range of human activity. Although much classroom activity focuses on reading and writing, there are other ways that narratives can be expressed and understood by students and teachers.

In the video, Tribal Elder Cecilia Kunz describes how stories are passed down through oral traditions and artifacts in her Tlingit culture. Oral tradition refers broadly to information or stories that are transmitted from one generation to the next by speaking, listening, and then retelling. This narrative mode goes back to the earliest stories. Tlingit culture is at least 4,000 years old, so the stories that Cecilia Kunz and her people tell may be about as old as many of the oldest epics from the Middle East—such as the Epic of Gilgamesh from 2700 B.C.E.—which are also part of the narrative tradition.

Oral traditions, as a means of preserving stories and transmitting history, relate not only to stories that began this long ago. Communities of all types and in all periods have used this mode, and the stories in themselves often help build communities. They transmit more than the plot or story; the telling of the story and the way it is told also become part of the tradition.

Many students and teachers can think of examples in their own lives of stories passed down through oral tradition. These stories may be about a family member or a notable or humorous event, or refer to an actual, fictional, or mythic event associated with a community, region, or institution. Supernatural stories or folklore are common examples.

Such stories reflect the beliefs, cultural identity, vocabulary, and language forms that relate to the community that originates the story. Many aspects of these underlying elements are visible in the video. The Tlingit people live among fjords, mountains, and dense spruce and hemlock forests, and this environment is reflected in their stories.

The Tlingit pass on their stories using more than just words: stories may also be embodied in clothing, through ornament and decoration that have specific meanings and histories. Dance is another important way to pass on traditions—referring to specific events that are still part of daily life and may go back thousands of years. Many stories—perhaps the most frequently encountered type of information passed down in any culture—are about families and kinship. The Tlingit people record aspects of these stories in totem poles, which are works of great beauty and meaning.

Behind these varied, rich, and beautiful Tlingit stories is the universal question: why do we tell stories? Is narrative something we need as humans to make sense of our world? There are perhaps as many answers to this question as there are stories. One answer is that we need stories to help us express our beliefs and our culture. In the video, Cecilia Kunz says that in her world, everything—animals, the land, the sky, the rain—is alive. This belief and understanding about the interconnectedness between humans and the natural world become the central idea of the story.

To learn more about how dance is used in storytelling, check out the Performing "The Walrus Hunt" and Choctaw Dances Learning Centers.