In the past few months, as Canada started vaccinating the first few eligible groups of people against COVID-19, provinces, including Manitoba, have chosen to prioritize Indigenous knowledge keepers for the first batches of jabs. In Ontario, this prioritization applies to all First Nations, Métis and Inuit adults. The policy was well-received by local Indigenous communities, as knowledge keepers serve are vital in preserving their languages and cultures, which, until two centuries ago, were based solely on oral traditions.
Prior to the arrival of Europeans, writing systems were not known to the land that is now known as Canada. Over 70 Indigenous languages spoken in Canada today passed their cultures and histories down for generations without any written documentation, and it was only through the memories of knowledge keepers. Since there is no written material proving these languages’ existence, when the people who possess these memories are gone, the languages will be lost forever and won’t be revived.
Oral tradition is much more complicated than it sounds, as it is different from simply talking. It is the most widespread way of human communication and is the earliest form of human history. Through verbal exchanges of information and interactions with the listeners, knowledge, art, ideas and the sparkles of ancestors’ wisdom with the volume that sounds far beyond humans’ memory capacity are transmitted and kept alive for thousands of years. Since the last century, Western academic discourse has increasingly accepted oral history as “a legitimate and valuable addition to the historical record,” and in Canada, Indigenous oral history is allowed in court as admissible evidence in certain cases.
In North America, one of the most well-known forms of oral tradition is storytelling. The content might include the ones told at formal ceremonies to validate a person’s or family’s authority, responsibilities, or prestige. The seasonal ones are told to give lessons on a society’s culture, and ways members are supposed to behave and interact. There are ones that educate about history, the creation of the world, the land, and the appropriate attitude people are supposed to have towards nature. Or the ones for entertainment that narrate hunting adventures and cultural heroes, comfort little kids and foster spirit during the long winter nights. The difference between “true” and “fictional” stories is often distinct, and many believe that the time should be used wisely and not wasted on fiction during summer.
Another famous form of oral tradition is singing. Indigenous songs vary from nation to nation in terms of the role of language in song texts, values and musical concepts, which carry “ideas about the origins and sources of music, as well as musical ownership, creativity, transmission, and aesthetics.” The purpose of singing can include invoking spirits, healing those who are sick, expressing love, or putting children to down to sleep – genres that are familiar to people all around the world. In terms of copyrights or ownership of music, each Indigenous culture has its own rules: in some cultures, songs are perceived as the property of their owners that can be given or inherited, whereas, in others, songs are the collective repertoire of their communities. There are songs that are not supposed to be performed by outsiders, and there are ritual repertoires that are considered gifts from the Creator and are never supposed to have new compositions added by humans.
The list can go on and on. Apart from stories and songs, there is also oral poetry, ritual drama, oral laws and medicine. In cultures that thrive based on collective memories and oral traditions, knowledge keepers serve as breathing libraries. As discussed on our Language Advocacy Day panel, it is essential to acknowledge and inform the community influencers when sharing critical information since their words carry more weight and are highly valued by those around them. It’s the same for Indigenous peoples. Knowledge keepers’ words and experiences can help to build trust towards vaccines in their communities, and vice versa. By vaccinating them, we are saving languages and cultures with long and glorious pasts from being gone.