Storytelling At the Heart of Aboriginal Tradition

This is a repost of an article that appeared originally at the CBC website here 

and here is the reblog posting here on Keepers of the Water at Wordpress

This article was written by Niigaanwewidam James Sinclair

BlogStorytelling at the heart of Aboriginal tradition

Detail from "Centering Anishinaabeg Studies: Understanding the World Through Stories" (University of Manitoba Press)

In receiving a gift, you are committed to a short or long term tie with responsibilities. These could involve listening, sharing, or simply passing on a gift to another.

—Niigaanwewidam James Sinclair, author

Sometimes the best way to understand is through storytelling.

The Aboriginal community knows this well - so much of their culture and history has been handed down verbally.

A new book is being launched, Centering Anishinaabeg Studies: Understanding the World Through Stories, was co-edited by Niigaanwewidam James Sinclair with Jill Doerfler and Heidi Kiiwetinepinesiik Stark. It will serve as a foundational text for understanding the field of Aboriginal Studies.

Niigaanwewidam James Sinclair (Anishinaabe) is assistant professor in the department of Native Studies at the University of Manitoba.

SCENE asked him why storytelling is so important in the Anishinaabe tradition:

In Anishinaabe (Ojibway) tradition, an offering is a gift. It's a gesture given in the hope of creating a relationship. Anishinaabeg gifts can take many forms, from asemaa (tobacco) to miijim (food) to zhooniyaa (money).

In receiving a gift, you are committed to a short or long term tie with responsibilities. These could involve listening, sharing, or simply passing on a gift to another.

In Anishinaabemowin, the word for a gift is bagijigan while the act of making an offering is bagijige. A more accurate translation is actually "to release" - to hand over the responsibility of carrying a gift to another.

I remember when I received a beautiful bagijigan: my name. Niigaan means "leading" or "at the front." A more direct translation is "future." The second half wewidam - to make a long description embarrassingly short - means "a coming sound" (like a voice or word). One translation of Niigaanwewidam therefore is: "sound that comes before speech." I'm still learning from this beautiful name. 

For thousands of years Anishinaabeg have given these kinds of offerings, in words from our beautiful language that together form stories and songs. These live through speech and breath that - among many things - honour the sacredness of the universe, illustrate dreams, and record history. Some carry such power they have even adopted English as a medium of expression.

Anishinaabeg stories tell of the famous Naanaboozhoo or other spiritual, animal, and/or human beings. They are political tales, funny anecdotes, or philosophical and scientific articulations of the world. They are as brilliant as any composed in Europe, Asia, or anywhere else. Some of them, especially in how they embody the history and geography of Turtle Island (North America), are the best narratives of this place. 

Some Anishinaabeg narratives are "published" in books but much more exist in other textual forms like petroforms, rock paintings, books, tattoos, paintings, street art, and beadwork. Some exist on sand, earth mounds, and footprints on the earth. These expressions not only carry the knowledge of a unique people but represent gifts to all; opportunities to understand a rich and resilient culture and community.

My latest book, Centering Anishinaabeg Studies: Understanding the World Through Stories is an offering that embodies and honours the spirit of gift giving in Anishinaabeg literatures. It features 24 contributors who propose that Anishinaabeg stories carry dynamic answers to questions posed within Indigenous communities, nations, and the world.

I had the privilege of bringing this collection into being by working with these brilliant Anishinaabeg and non-Anishinaabeg scholars, storytellers, and activists. Their brave words draw upon the power of Anishinaabeg culture and community and illustrate how these offerings help us understand our world in a meaningful way.

I invite you to partake in this gift, enjoy reading it, and, perhaps, pass on a few offerings of your own.
The dual launch of Centering Anishinaabeg Studies: Understanding the World Through Stories and Rainy River First Nation's Al Hunter's Beautiful Razor: love poems & other lies takes place Wednesday April 10 at 7 p.m. at McNally Robinson.

Special guest Jason Parenteau will open the event with a song and prayer, and bluesman Billy Joe Green will also make an appearance.