Storytelling and Culture

Overview and Background

Overview

This Learning Center was originally designed by ECHO workshop participants from Alaska, Hawai'i, and Massachusetts led by Margaret Russell Ciardi.

In this Learning Center, students will learn about the roles of storytelling in different cultures. They will compare and contrast stories from different cultural communities.

Enduring Understandings

Keep these three enduring understandings in mind as you and your students explore this Learning Center. They should be the basis of your checking for understanding and final student assessments.

  1. Everyone has important stories to tell.
  2. Stories are a universal form of communication told through various media and for a variety of reasons.
  3. Stories are dynamic in the hearing and telling, adapting to reflect the cultural communities in which they are told, heard, and seen.

Time required

Activity One: 1 class period

Activity Two: 1 class period

Activity Three: 2 class periods

Classroom resources

  • Downloaded and printed copies of Handouts A through F
  • Downloaded and printed copies of Anansi story
  • Downloaded and printed copies of Aesop's Fables (optional enrichment)

Learning Objectives

  • Students will know various roles that storytelling plays in different cultures.
  • Students will describe how stories are similar and different across at least three cultures, including their own.

Background

Storytelling is a universal means of communicating cultural traditions, values, and beliefs, as well as a vehicle for passing on information about history, science, government, and politics. Some stories are new; others have been handed down from the ancients. Regardless of the origin of stories, storytelling is unique, a dynamic interaction between the teller and the listener. The storyteller uses voice and movement to tell a story. The listeners create mental images of the story’s events. They smile or frown, the storyteller responds, and the story evolves. The storyteller and listeners bring their own experiences and prior knowledge to the storytelling event and each takes away a unique interpretation of a story.

Since the earliest times, people of all cultures have used stories to help them explain a practice, belief, or natural phenomenon. Massachusetts has a multiplicity of Native and non-Native groups, each with its own approach to storytelling and stories. The indigenous people of Alaska, Hawai`i, and Mississippi also have vibrant and distinctive storytelling traditions.

For information on the benefits of teaching storytelling, visit the National Council of Teachers of English web site.

Alaska
Alaska’s population includes 11 distinct Native cultures: Aleut, Alutiiq, Athabascan, Cup’ik, Eyak, Haida, and Inupiaq, St. Lawrence Island Yupik, Tlingit, Tsimshian, and Central Yup’ik. (You will find information about each of these groups on the Alaska Native Heritage Center website: http://www.alaskanative.net/). Alaska’s Native cultures have a long history. Over time, people have retained the hunting and fishing practices, way of living, language, and customs of their ancestors, including their oral storytelling traditions. Several points are important to remember about Alaska Native cultural stories:

  • Traditionally, there was no censorship. Children heard the same stories their parents and grandparents heard. It was assumed that each person’s understanding of the story would grow with age and experience.
  • The oral tradition meant not only that stories were passed down orally, but also that the storytelling situation and the relationships between storyteller and listener were of prime importance.
  • Traditions about who could tell stories varied from group to group in Alaska, but in all cases there were specialists who were known to be the best storytellers and historians. In most places, future storytellers apprenticed with elders and were required to recite narratives accurately before telling them to an audience. This did not mean that each telling was identical to the one before, but it did mean that all the elements had to be present in each retelling.
  • Alaska Natives traveled widely and loved to listen to each other’s stories. There are many similar plots and motifs in stories told throughout the state’s eleven cultures and twenty linguistic groups, though local variations are always apparent.
  • Acceptable and appropriate audience behavior varies from culture to culture. The norm throughout Alaska Native cultures is for children to listen very quietly, not asking questions and NEVER interrupting the storyteller. If the children become restless, the storyteller will end the storytelling session. If a child asks a question, such as “Why?” or “What next?”, he or she will be told to listen carefully, and the answer to that question and all others will be revealed. Adults, similarly, do not interrupt or correct a storyteller, though the storyteller might sometimes turn to a friend and ask if he or she tells the given episode in the same way. After the story is complete, another storyteller might offer his or her version.
  • Audiences are expected to show appreciation and attention. When a Tlingit elder gives a speech at a formal occasion, others respond with “Awé!” when they agree and want to underscore a statement. It’s somewhat similar to “Amen!”, though without the religious overtones. In Athabascan cultures, the audience responds with “Mm hm,” as each episode in the story unfolds. As in all cultures, laughter and smiles are appreciated and are part of the experience for storyteller and audience alike.
  • An important part of Alaska Native stories is the “frame.” At the beginning of each performance, storytellers introduce themselves to the audience and establish their right to tell the story. The introduction includes both English and Native names, hometown, family background, and how the storyteller came to learn the story. There are various formulaic beginnings, just as English fairy tales begin with “Once upon a time.” There are also often formulaic endings. For instance, in the Koyukon Athabascan culture, each narrative ends with, “I thought the winter had just begun, and now I’ve bitten off a piece of it.”

Hawai`i

Native Hawaiians are the indigenous people who migrated from other Polynesian islands to inhabit the islands of Hawai'i. Native Hawaiians pass on ancient cultural practices, values, traditions, and historical information through oral traditions, including storytelling. Hawaiian storytelling includes chants, song, hula (movement that interprets chants), and verse. As in Alaska, storytelling in the Hawaiian culture has a number of unique aspects.

  • Storytellers were highly regarded in Hawai`i. Like their Alaska counterparts, future storytellers apprenticed with elders. They studied such specific content as genealogy, and learned storytelling skills.
  • Mele (song) and oli (chant) are part of the storytelling tradition. There are different types of mele that vary in level of formality. “Mele oli” are chants unaccompanied by any implement, and are generally performed by one individual; while “mele hula” are chants accompanied by dance or by dance and musical implements. The power of oli lies in its “kaona,” or hidden meaning. Traditionally, it was believed that words with hidden meanings might bring good or bad fortune. Kaona might be humorous, praising, or insulting. It was rude to be direct, so sometimes the kaona was used as a way of criticizing something. As in all storytelling, each person would interpret the kaona either literally or figuratively, based on prior knowledge. Many of these hidden meanings have been lost over time. Today, the art of kaona is continued by those who are carrying on the traditions of writing oli and mele for a new generation. More and more Native Hawaiian storytellers are reaching back to understand their past so they may carry on the traditions of creating oli and mele with a deeper sense of kaona and poetic interpretation.


  • In Hawai`i, stories were told in both formal and informal situations. Formal storytelling would usually take place in the chief’s court, where renowned orators would perform for the chief. It also occurred during rituals and ceremonies. Informal stories were told anywhere and at any time. “Talk story,” one of the great oral traditions in Hawai`i, is the act of sharing history, ideas, opinions, and the events of the day with other people at any time and in any place, including the workplace. The missionaries who came to Hawai`i in the late 1800’s, lacking an understanding of the role of story in the Hawaiian culture, disapproved of it; however it has remained a vibrant part of Hawai`i’s oral tradition.

  • Oral language was the only medium of communication, so Hawaiians of old were good listeners. They needed to “get it” the first time because there was no recording or written work to look at later. Thus, there were rules for acceptable and appropriate audience behavior during storytelling that depended on the context. Formal and sacred settings demanded complete quiet and a reverential demeanor. Less formal settings allowed for more interaction between the storyteller and listeners. Listeners might respond with facial expressions, such as a raised eyebrow. Or, they might make sounds with their voices to show approval: a clicking sound, a response like “auwe,” or laughter. In some cases, members of the audience might add commentary to the story.

  • Storytelling is central to the development of Hawaiian children. In early times, there was no censorship and children heard the same stories their parents and grandparents heard. However, nowadays stories might be censored for violence or other adult content. Children were expected to listen and take away lessons they could use. Originally, they were expected to listen quietly to the stories. Over time, this changed, as storytelling became more interactive and children participated more with the teller. Native Hawaiian children enjoyed their own kind of storytelling, called “He he,” a game similar to “cat’s cradle,” in which they sang or recited chants as they manipulated string in their fingers.

  • Petroglyphs, or rock carvings of people, animals, canoes, and other objects, are found throughout Hawai`i. Their exact meanings are unclear; however, it has been speculated that they might be records of family genealogy, directions to certain places, or information left for passersby.

Mississippi
It is from the time of European contact that we have a written history of the Choctaw people. John R. Swanton shares collected writings describing the Choctaw as the most populous and peaceful tribe in the region. They were farmers, stewards of the land with reverence for all living things, devoted to the harmony and balance of the earth. They practiced seasonal migration dictated by hunting, gathering, and planting. Although the Choctaw adapted to the changes that came with the Europeans, much of their indigenous culture was lost or altered from the influence. Archaeological evidence suggests the cosmos of these Southeastern peoples consisted of three worlds:

1) the sky or upper cosmos which represented order,

2) the earth or middle cosmos which was characterized by change, and

3) the world below the surface, which embodied chaos.

The duty of human beings was to strive for harmony and balance. Southeastern tribes had a variety of sacred creations that combined elements to traverse and speak with the residents: serpents with human faces and wings, deer with talons, and snakeskin cougars with fishlike tails and falcon eyes. Like other Native Americans, they viewed themselves as participants in the great natural order of life, related in some way to all living creatures. They believed that every species possessed unique knowledge and skills that humans should incorporate into their own lives and behavior. The arts of the Choctaw reflect their beliefs. They danced and told stories about snakes, raccoons, turtles, eagles and alligators. They created and used animal masks in celebrations such as the “Nittak Hollo Cito,” a community Christmas gift giving event, and in the telling of animal stories that have long been used as fables to teach lessons of life.