Where Some Ideas Are Stranger Than Others...
Tell Me a Story...
Most public libraries have books of translated stories from various Indigenous peoples, collected by anthropologists over the last hundred years or so with varying levels of accuracy. The tales collected are mainly teaching stories, usually described as similar in purpose to european and euro-canadian "fairytales" (they aren't, we'll come back to that), and like fairytales, they often seem to fall flat today. More than a few commentators on "modern culture" have attributed this to the loss of a tradition of oral storytelling. While it's true that the tradition of older people telling teaching stories to the young has taken quite a beating over the last while, we often unwittingly show that oral storytelling in general is still well established, and why those collected stories so often seem "flat."
Hockey has become such a fundamental of canadian culture that even people who don't care to watch it unconsciously use hockey metaphors. My favourite is from a friend who went shopping for a specific tool one day. "Did you get what you wanted?" I asked when she got back. "Nah, I got shut out," she answered. If you think back over one of the stories you heard or shared over drinks with friends about something like a hockey game, and consider how the person told it, you might be a little surprised. The story was probably brief, and told in almost a verbal shorthand. Yet the story was more than those chosen words. Those words reminded you of other related events and stories. Those reminders helped add to the story and make it vivid and enjoyable, even for those who may not be much interested in hockey.
The cover of Thomas King's massey lectures published in book form in 2005.
How do you think a hockey story would turn out if in order to tell it to someone from somalia, we translated it into swahili? We'd have to hope we definitely got somebody from somalia who spoke swahili, for one thing – seriously unlikely, the major languages there are somali and arabic with a smattering of english. Then we'd have to somehow briefly explain a game where a bunch of grown men strap sharp blades on their feet to slide around on ice and smack a chunk of frozen rubber around, and so on. Matters would be even trickier for actual teaching stories, because they may be intended for quite different audiences. A few skilled inflections will direct a story more for children, or more for adults, or for a specific person.
Paula Gunn Allen, a prominent Indigenous scholar who passed away just a few years ago, wrote about storytelling in native cultures in order to show why she feels the stories often shouldn't be translated, and why it is important to preserve Indigenous languages. She described how every major word in a story takes its meaning from its use in other stories, and how that meaning is not absolutely fixed. To really understand one story, it is necessary to hear others. In a real sense, Gunn Allen explains, Indigenous stories are impossible to translate, whether or not people wish to share them. To the chagrin of hard working dictionary makers everywhere, this isn't just a feature of Indigenous stories or Indigenous languages. It's true of every culture and language, because except for a few types of words, like conjunctions, there are no single root meanings. We actually speak in metaphors.
Which is not to say there never were any single meanings for words. There might have been, before Coyote came along. Being a trickster and generally up to no good, I wouldn't be surprised if it all started in the americas with him making up a new word, and giving everybody he used it with a different meaning for it when they asked. Then when those folks began discovering they all thought the word meant something different, there was no way to pick one as "The Meaning." So they developed explanations – stories – to reconcile all the various things Coyote came up with. Which turned out to be rather fun and easy to remember, like a pop song on the radio, and spread all over just as fast. According to linguists studying other languages, there were no tricksters playing with words in asia or africa. But I'm not so sure. Take the word 'loony' (or 'loonie') it actually comes from a latin word for the Moon. But in Greece it means "holiday," and in canadian englishes it has come to mean "crazy," "a species of waterbird," and of course the ever-present dollar coin – exactly the sort of grab bag of meanings a trickster would come up with.
To take this back to why european fairytales often seem to fall flat nowadays, it has much less to do with the supposed loss of an oral tradition or children supposedly being obsessed with video games and television and/or not reading. The stories fall flat now because while they may have some ties to the cultures of at least some of those kids, they still have little connection with their lives now. Worse yet, thanks to the decisions various compilers made to edit and whittle down the number of fairytales, they have become like a set of carefully chosen, carefully trimmed blooms, each set in its own vase. Then the blooms got spray lacquered, so they can't change on their own, and if you think you're going to repaint them or replace them with brand new blooms, forget it. That's against the rules and wrong. So those fairytales don't form part of a living web of stories anymore. A dead thing can't help but fall flat.