The Role of Community Storytelling
Historically, Indigenous people of the Pacific Northwest shared and passed on information through storytelling. According to Dell Hymes, et. al., they told stories “to instruct, to caution or warn, to explain, to validate, and above all, to entertain.” Storytellers memorized and carefully repeated tales to prevent significant alteration of narratives that had been passed down through the generations. The storyteller is a mediator who delivers a tale deriving its authority from age and universality (within the culture) rather than from the individual. Some stories were told only during the winter, “from the first frost until the frogs start to croak,” a condition still observed today, according to Chinook storyteller Joan Wekell. The act of storytelling and the stories themselves are essential to understanding Chinookan history and culture.
Ownership of traditional information does not lie with a single narrator but is shared within a family or with the tribe. The collective voice and shared creativity of storytelling is a part of Chinookan teaching which influences how the past is constructed and remembered, and how an individual identifies with his or her homeland, tribal community, and family. Stories demonstrate inter-tribal and family relationships and establish an understanding of the landscape and natural events.
In her book Kutkos, Chinook author Mildred Colbert reminds us of what is lost when stories are written: “One must read between the lines to get the real meaning from these stories. They were usually related by professional storytellers whose chief purpose was to keep the traditions of the past alive.”
Claims Court of the United States. The Lower Band of the Chinook Indians of the State of Washington vs. the United States. Testimony given by Catherine George to Harrison Allen, Astoria, Oregon, January 21, 1902.
Colbert, Mildred. Kutkos: Chinook Tyee. Boston: D.C. Heath & Company, 1942.
Hymes, Dell, and William R. Seaburg, “Chinookan Oral Literature.” In Chinookan Peoples of the Lower Columbia, edited by Robert T. Boyd, Kenneth M. Ames, Tony A. Johnson, (163-180). Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2013.
Wekell, Joan, and Jane Wekell Pulliam, unpublished interview with Katrine Barber, Makenzie Moore, and Donna Sinclair, November 6, 2011.
Yow, Valerie, Recording Oral History: A Guide for the Humanities and Social Sciences (Altamira Press, 2005).
Indigenous Peoples Specialty Group (IPSG) of the Association of American Geographers (AAG). AAA Indigenous Peoples Specialty Group’s Declaration of Key Questions About Research Ethics with Indigenous Communities, 2010.