Oral Traditions

For most oral cultures, stories, songs and dances are used to record and pass on to future generations the history of the people. These stories can offer rationales for the existing order of the world (like why there are seasons) or record specific events in the past (for example certain natural disasters like floods). Specific stories can explain how each group of people emerged and took their place in the world. First Nations groups often related these tales in special rituals or ceremonies.

For many First Nations, family wealth is not held or measured in the form of material items but in their family's own dances, songs, and stories. These stories, songs, and dances are often very private, unique to each family, and are held in very high regard.

The following are examples of different types of stories. One is a creation story from a coastal people and the other an explanatory story from an interior people.


The Beginning of the Haida Gwaii World

"In the beginning, before the creation of the world, the earth was completely covered by a vast ocean and the sky was all gray clouds. The cloud kingdom was ruled by the great Sha-lana. Sha-lana's Chief servant was Raven."

"One day Raven enraged his master and was cast out into the ocean world. He flew over the ocean for a long period of time until he became weary. Unable to find a place to rest, Raven became angry. He began to beat his wings upon the water until the water rose up and touched the clouds around him."

"When the water receded back into the ocean there appeared rocks upon which Raven rested. These rocks grew and stretched across the ocean. The rocks turned into sand and after a short period of time trees began to grow on the sand. After many moons the sand had turned into beautiful islands, which we know today as the Queen Charlotte Islands (Haida Gwaii)."

"Raven enjoyed his kingdom, yet he became bored and lonely. He decided he needed someone to help him. So one day he gathered two large piles of clam shells upon the beach and transformed them into two human females. These two women complained saying that they should not have both been created as women. So to make them happy Raven threw limpet shells at one and turned her into a man, creating the Haida Gwaii people."

Clark, E., Indian Legends of Canada, McClelland and Stewart: Toronto, 1991.


How the Animals and Birds Got Their Names [told by Charlie Mack]

"This a legend about what happened after the Great Flood. There were only a few people who survived. Most of the animals and birds perished. The chief told the people, 'We are going to try to revive all the animals and birds. I am ordering you to tell this to all those who are not here'.

"The wolf was a person at this time. The chief said to him, 'You must go out and gather the people and tell them what we are going to do'. So the wolf went around to the people and did what the chief asked. He told the people that they would have to bring back the deer and all the other animals and birds."

"When the wolf had done what he could, there were still some people on the other side of the mountain who hadn't heard the plan. The chief sent his sons up the mountain because he thought that they were the only ones who could make it through the fresh snow there. They tried but they couldn't make it."

"The chief said to the porcupine, who was also a person at this time, 'You are the oldest brother we have. You better go up over the mountain and get those other people'. He replied, 'Chief, you have tried all the strong men. So you think that I could do it? Alright, I'll go and get those people'. So the porcupine started to climb, taking his time, ploughing through the snow. He got to the top of the mountain and rolled down to the bottom. He climbed up again, but once at the top, he rolled down again."

"When the porcupine finally reached the other people he said, 'We are having a big meeting and the chief wants everyone to come and listen. The rest of the people are over there waiting'. 'Alright,', said the people, 'are you going to take us back with you? You know the way'. The porcupine said that he would, 'Follow me, we will go down there'.

"There was a good trail where the porcupine had rolled down earlier. He cleared the way by curling into a ball and rolling down through the snow. The people followed him and rolled down the deep, fresh snow. He got all the people down."

"The chief was pleased that the porcupine had brought all the people down. 'We are going to have a special gathering', he said, 'tonight we will sing in the big underground house'."

"The chief gathered all the people, 'My dear people, I have been thinking. Now there are no animals and birds. We are going to try to revive them. We were saved because we were able to float around until the flood waters went down. All the animals and birds died; they couldn't make it. Everything that we lived on, died.' They all began to sing their guardian spirit songs. Everyone sang. One person said, 'I am going to be a bluejay,' and he made the noise of a bluejay. The people said that he could be Bluejay."

"Another person made the sound of a magpie. The chief and the people said that he could be Magpie, as they had a lot of use for that bird."

"Another person became a woodpecker. He made the noise of this bird. The chief agreed that he could be Woodpecker."

"There were a lot of people at the special gathering and they all turned into animals and birds. The porcupine said, 'I am the oldest brother; I am going to be Porcupine.' Then he sang Porcupine's song."

Lillooet Stories, Sound Heritage, Volume VI, Number 1: Provincial Archives of British Columbia, Victoria, 1977