Kodiak Alutiiq Literature
Purpose & Value of Stories: Wellbeing through Story
Oscar Kawagley (1999) in his book A Yupiaq Worldview explains that the Yupiaq, like other Indigenous cultures rooted in the oral tradition, “use mythology and stories for value creation and teaching what it means to be human” (para. 69). This entire process is how values are transmitted as the stories provide a “cultural orientation—an identity.” Kawagley’s claim that the storytelling process instills one’s identity emphasizes the importance of the tradition and its value as a practice, given our state of divergent worldviews today. Among many Alaska Native families, including many Kodiak Alutiiq families, suppression of cultural traditions throughout colonization has left a silence. A silence in which many traditional stories, conveyed across millennia, have been extinguished in their oral form. Therefore, communities must make efforts to maintain traditional storytelling as a primary means for youth to learn, as stories connect them to their families and heritage values, and build a strong sense of identity and well being.
Storytelling as a traditional vehicle for knowledge acquisition is multifaceted and offers a richness in learning that is difficult to surpass. Shared stories build a common experience; develop the art of listening and symbol association; foster social skills and an understanding of human motives and patterns of behavior; invoke a physical response through language; prepare us for life through experiential connections; transmit cultural traditions; strengthen identity and demonstrate “right” behavior within values. All of these complex lessons and more can be conveyed through a simple story passed down from generation to generation. As Oscar Kawagley (1999) explains, “Mythology is an invaluable pedagogical tool which transcends time” (para. 15). Across millennia, stories convey their lessons and have sustained generations as they are retold and become integrated into our minds as a means of interpreting and comparing our experiences to what we’ve been told through story. Storytelling is a powerful learning tool that links us to our ancestors. For all these reasons and more, a culture’s storytelling practices and oral traditions should be cultivated for each new generation as one of their best ways to maintain connections to their ancestors and valuable lessons.
Stories reinforce our identity and help shape our sense of purpose in life (Cajete, 1994; Eder, 2007; Kawagley, 2006; L. Smith, 1999). As we find our place in the world, stories keep us on track and motivate us. In a healthy environment, metaphors and archetypes within traditional and family stories repeat in our minds and our communication with others. However, as our Indigenous communities suffered colonization, they watched their people, beliefs and stories repressed and devalued, which injures a family’s spirit for generations as evidenced by the challenges of many within our Alaska Native community.
Ancestrally and contemporarily, storytelling is done to perpetuate life, convey values and a worldview, as well as heal from and honor past hardships. Asserting who we are as a people, how we see the world and what matters to us most is the job of storytelling. Use of this process is not new, but based in the ancestral oral tradition. As Bruchac and Ross (1994) state, “[Our worldview] has been preserved nowhere more strongly than in the traditional stories told by Native people, stories which point out the relationship between human beings and the natural world” (p. 12).
Exploring the concept of story as survival, I designed a diagram based on the metaphor of the ripples a stone makes when thrown into water, as shown below. This diagram illustrates how at the core storytelling is an educational process, where cultural and skill based traditional knowledge is transmitted. As the story’s intensity and messages radiate outward, storytelling can become a healing process, both for storytellers and their audience, reinforcing our sense of identity and belonging to our identifying group ― building unity, wellbeing and a sense of purpose or meaning to life. These ripples move outward further, carrying the power to correct history, stopping inaccuracies or untruths from being passed on, which is particularly important for Indigenous people whose histories previously were told by their conquerors. Then in a larger sense, stories seek to empower a community, becoming tools for reclaiming ￼lost traditions or lands, and validating actions within the community’s lived context. In essence they function as change agents, drawing attention to and addressing inequities of power.
As Alutiiq traditional knowledge has regained respect and space is being made for it to reclaim its proper place as central to Alutiiq people’s lives and homes, there has been a movement to integrate the language and culture more into schools—ironically the force which once banned our heritage language. Despite this openness, Indigenous stories are often enigmatic for non-Indigenous teachers to figure out how to integrate into their classrooms, particularly if they have little familiarity with the families and community of that heritage. With few Alutiiq Elders remembering or telling traditional stories, and even fewer who are comfortable coming into a classroom setting, it is not currently feasible for every child to have regular exposure to storytelling within schools. Any opportunity to engage directly with an Elder storyteller should be taken as precious, and families should encourage their grandparents and other Elders to share stories with children in their own homes and community gatherings. Yet, in order to continue Alutiiq storytelling, it appears that the transmission of traditional story will also have to evolve for it to survive in our modern context. As Mather (1995) argues, we must make use of writing and technology to increase access to these important lessons. While the focus of this study is limited to one cultural group, the application and larger lessons discussed should be useful to other Indigenous groups in exploring their own oral traditions as education tools.
Excerpt from Alisha Drabek's dissertation: