Oral tradition pulls listeners toward twinkling eyes

COFFEE WITH WARREN, with Warren Harbeck
Cochrane Eagle, September 13, 2006

Throughout the 1970s, the Stoney Nakoda community at Morley hosted the annual Indian Ecumenical Conference. Several thousand Aboriginal visitors from across North America and elsewhere gathered mid-summer at the breathtakingly beautiful Stoney Park. There they set up a four-day tepee village and lit the sacred fire that burned for the length of the encampment. Elders shared their wisdom and ceremonies with a respectful generation of younger folks in search of their ancestral identity.

One teaching in particular really caught my attention. In fact, it sort of rubbed me the wrong way at first – that is, until I understood it in the larger context of oral tradition.

The speaker was Bob Smallboy, the visionary chief of the Ermineskin Cree Band of Central Alberta. He had turned his back on modernity and the reserve system in 1968 and moved many of his people to the Kootenay Plains at the foot of the mountains a three-hour drive to the west, in a return to their traditional roots. He’s the subject of Gary Botting’s 2005 biography, Chief Smallboy: In Pursuit of Freedom, which I discussed in my column at the beginning of this summer.

Chief Smallboy was standing just downhill from the sacred fire, only a short walk from where Beaufort Creek flows into the Bow River. On the grassy slope between the highly-respected elder and the sacred fire sat an audience of all ages, myself included.

He was speaking about the importance of their mother tongue, a topic dear to my heart as a linguist actively involved in developing a writing system for the Stoney Nakoda language.

All of a sudden he caught me quite by surprise.

Don’t ever let a linguist talk you into putting your language into writing, he said.

Was I hearing right?

He continued: When people put your language into writing, you’ll read the words and think that’s what the speaker was saying. But is it really? You won’t hear the speaker’s tone of voice, nor will you see the expression on his face or the twinkle in his eyes.

Twinkle in his eyes?

After I recovered from the shock, I had to conclude there was something to what he said – at least, from the standpoint of oral tradition. And the language at Morley was, first of all, an oral-tradition language – a language that, unlike almost all European languages, did not have a written literary heritage, but was rich in the stories and teachings passed on from generation to generation by word of mouth.

I’ve given a lot of thought to the features of oral tradition since that day with Chief Smallboy. Here are just two I’ve observed among the Stoney Nakoda community:

The first feature is exceptional memory. Whereas I might have difficulty remembering only three items I’m supposed to pick up at the store without writing them down, I’ve been with oral tradition elders at Morley who can remember dozens of items at a time.

And when it comes to accuracy of retelling a long story? Well, I’m immediately reminded of the time when Lazarus Wesley, an elder long revered for his Stoney language competence, was called on at a public meeting at Morley to be the interpreter for a visiting politician.

Now, most often when we speak of someone interpreting for another, we think of them doing it a phrase or sentence at a time.

Not Lazarus! The politician gave his whole half-hour speech in English without interruption. Only then did Lazarus stand up and retell the whole speech in Stoney, with phenomenal accuracy and enthusiasm – and all without one written note!

I asked Lazarus later how he did that. There’s nothing magical here, he said. “When the politician was speaking, I just created a motion picture in my mind. Then when it was my turn, I replayed the motion picture and described it in Stoney.”

The other feature I’ve admired within Stoney oral tradition, in addition to memory, is the learned discussions among elders. Details of stories and teachings are not passed on in just any old slipshod way, but are discussed among elders, much as peer review of important writings is used among academics.

Often times I’ve seen elders huddled together over coffee for hours discussing the correct use of this Stoney Nakoda word or that.

Responsible oral tradition is reflective, and like all good scholarship, builds on the lessons from generations past – the serious stuff as well as the humorous.

And maybe that’s why Chief Smallboy was so concerned for folks to see the twinkle in the speaker’s eyes. It might not be simply the twinkle of amusement, however. It could very well be the sign of profound understanding.

© 2006 Warren Harbeck

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