Vermont Folklife Center

Reader Activity: Native Family Stories

Family Storytelling for most Native peoples is more than just sitting down to hear grandfather recite a legend. Native families have always passed on information about the past, and lessons about survival in the present, by sharing words with each other. A family’s tribal affiliation and personal history might be expressed through shared seasonal activities like hunting trips or basketmaking, or group social events. Special clothing, songs or stories might be brought out at these times. Personal accomplishments might be recorded by giving family members nicknames, or telling them stories about other family members who were inspiring. Lynn Murphy recounts how “My grandmother told stories that were centuries old with my grandfather in them. The immediacy of having it be your uncle instead of long ago and far away made the stories more believable to the kids.” Children may also be disciplined by telling them stories. My grandfather Jesse used to say, “Whenever I done something wrong, my father would tell me a story – sometimes I wished he’d just punished me - them stories was powerful.”

Cultural Beliefs: Native people in general believe that all living creatures deserve respect. Family and traditional stories are often used to reinforce this belief. Other concepts that figure into both family stories and traditional stories are the ideas that time is not linear but cyclical, and that items in the natural world can recall particular stories. Native people also believe that the past is still accessible to the present, and telling stories about the past can bring the memories and influence of the ancestors back to life. Listening to the life stories of the oldest members of the family can be a way of showing respect to all of the ancestors.

Remembering Family Stories: Some traditional techniques that Native peoples have used for generations to remember stories include connecting stories to particular places or things. These techniques for remembering can also help you remember the stories of your relatives.

Try the following exercise:

  1. Pick a story that some elder in your family has told you, and write down the basic details.
  2. Have any of the following techniques been used in telling the story?
  3. Go back to one of your relatives or the same elder, and ask for more information about the story. Try using one of these techniques to learn and remember the details.
  • Pass information from the oldest people in the family to the youngest
  • Tell a story only in a particular time and place
  • Practice retelling the story with a relative to improve your memory
  • Think about any historical events that connect to parts of a personal story
  • Use a natural object or a personal possession to help remember the story
  • Make special symbols, craftwork, or illustrations to recall and explain the story
  • Include music or poetry in the story
  • Keep a simple outline or pattern, and then add or delete details for different audiences
  • Think about any animals or other creatures that are part of the story
  • Connect the story to a shared family activity
  • Share the story with other relatives and thank all of those who participated in the story

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