Whether we are reading stories or working with writers or students from other traditions, cultural sensitivity demands that we remember that how we think is cultural. It isn’t right where someone else is wrong. It is learned.
But how do other traditions differ? Trying to find information on this isn’t always easy so I love it when I happen upon an article or interview like this one in School Library Journal by Dan SaSuWeh Jones, former Ponca chairman.
One of the biggest problems for Euro-American listeners is that many American Indian stories are nonlinear. Western stories have a beginning, a middle and an end. American Indian stories may but may not because often an individual story is part of a larger whole.
I have to admit that I want my stories to have a strong beginning, middle and end. I’m okay with non-European-American stories that don’t have them because I understand that I am in another person’s territory. But when I expect it, I expect it unless I make a conscious effort not to.
This is because American Indian stories were originally spoken. As part of an oral tradition, the stories were meant to be spoken in the language of the person telling the story. Translation of and writing down of these stories is not part of this tradition.
This may not seem like a big deal but think of the differences between a published short story and a story told aloud at the dinner table. How does that story that a family member loves to tell again and again differ from a story in print?
If a character dies in one story, Western listeners expect the character to remain dead in the next story unless it is occurs earlier in the timeline. A character can also be presented differently according to the age of the listener. As explained by SaSuWeh, Coyote stories for children are more innocent that those for elders in which the character is smart.
There isn’t only one type of American Indian story. Many are instructional. This is how you honor X person, perform X rite, etc. Others are sung and some of these stories are ancient. They have been passed down for generations. I suspect that the closest things we may have in our tradition are Christmas carols.
Now imagine how different these stories must become to be published – if the teller would even choose to do this which would mean sharing the story with outsiders. Our way is not the only way.
Just a little something to consider as you read in the coming weeks.