Tributes & Video Biographies
Sharing Life Stories, Connecting Generations, Preserving Legacies

Cultural Tradition of Passing on Oral History – Voices of The Elders Conference – APH


I recently returned from the 2010 Association of Personal Historians Conference held in Victoria, British Columbia. The theme of this conference was “Voices of the Elders” and was named as such to “honor the First Nations, the first peoples of Canada, on whose traditional territory we met, as well as the elders of all nations, whose stories we help preserve.”

The first morning our keynote speaker was a man named John Elliott, a First Nation Elder of WSAÅLNEC? who teaches language and culture at the LÁU,WEL,NEW Tribal School and is a guest lecturer at the University of Victoria and other institutions. He is co-founder of the FirstVoices website, a resource for archiving and teaching aboriginal language and culture. In 2009, Elliott was awarded an honorary doctorate in Natural Law by the Maharishi University of Management in recognition of his work on the connection between traditional language and nature.

Mr. Elliott shared how, in each family, one person is chosen to continue the storytelling tradition. His culture is rich with symbolism and meaning and like any culture, particularly one which was on the recent verge of extinction, the oral traditions play a large part in community and family life. In his family, he was the chosen one. He explained to us that in his culture, when you reach an age where it’s felt that you are responsible enough to look after it, you are given your adult name. Your name could be something historical, about a story, or a place, but in order to prove you are responsible enough to have this name, you have to know the history and information about your name and be able to pass this information along to future generations. This begins the tradition of storytelling within each person.

He told us a story that had been passed down, about the oldest human in his culture who was known as “Rain”. When Rain was lowered down from the heavens in water, his creator walked with him and taught him how to look after and respect the ‘gift of the day” and how to be in a relationship with all things, to speak to the elements and address them as if they were human. This story and the symbolism it embodies shows us that knowledge of historical things is in each person as well as our children, and that the stories they carry, and pass on to the future, are evidence of the past.

Elliott has spent his life learning these stories and now devotes his time to coaching young members of his tribe in re-learning almost lost languages and traditions. In some area tribes, there may only be one or two people who speak the indigenous language. To Elliott, it’s a matter of the survival of his culture to teach young children the language and pass on the oral stories and traditions.

What about your culture? What do you pass on that was taught to you by your ancestors? What stories does everyone in your family know and retell at family get-togethers? We all have this cultural tradition, to some degree or another. We tell stories, create photo albums, journals, make time capsules. The question is how intentional we are about recognizing that the survival of cultures depends on these stories not only being passed on but putting them into a context that can be passed on.

Stefani Twyford is a personal historian sharing life stories, connecting generations and preserving legacies. To learn more, visit her web site, find her on Twitter as @stefanitwyford, visit the Legacy Multimedia Facebook Fan Page, or send her an e-mail.

3 Responses to Cultural Tradition of Passing on Oral History – Voices of The Elders Conference – APH

  1. Dan Curtis says:

    A lovely reminder of one of my favorite conference presentations. Thanks for this, Stefani.

    • admin says:

      Thanks Dan. I am savoring my memories of all the speakers and presentations and hoping to write a few more blog posts about my experiences at the conference.

  2. cj Madigan says:

    “.. when you reach an age where it’s felt that you are responsible enough to look after it, you are given your adult name.” I love that idea – and the whole theme of his talk – that words and the names of things matter, language matters. Thank you for such a thorough report on the talk – you were really paying attention!

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