Wednesday, April 21, 2010

What Does New Media Mean for Oral Traditions?

Listen to Mary Linklater describe women’s work in the Mushkegowuk Cree community:

Women’s work - Path of the Elders

Or listen to Gilbert Faries recount a Cree myth:

Why the squirrel has red eyes - Path of the Elders

Video and audio clips are just one of the ways On the Path of the Elders seeks to reinforce the Aboriginal tradition of oral history.

In addition to the extensive video and audio collection, On the Path of the Elders’ role-playing game (RPG) encourages players to learn from their Elders through conversations and observation. Furthermore, the difference between the government and the Aboriginal’s view of the spoken word is highlighted in the Negotiating Game, where the player renegotiates the signing of Treaty no. 9.

Through each of its features, On the Path of the Elders is committed to celebrating the oral tradition. Indeed, one of the site’s original purposes was to provide a familiar space where youths could listen to and learn from their Elders. 

But what does it mean that we’re blending oral tradition with new media?

The chosen method of transmitting knowledge throughout generations reflects a community’s fundamental values and beliefs.

In the oral tradition, the individual becomes an integral part of the transmission of culture. Each time a story or legend is told, it changes. The tone, the facial expressions, the potential for interruptions, the physical interaction between speaker and listener – these are ever-changing variables that affects the story’s essence.

Conversely, a society based on the written word is one that values stability and facts. In a book, the words are static, unchanging. Readers can gain new knowledge, and they can contribute their own writings, but the author and the reader cannot have the same relationship as the speaker and the listener.

So where do videos, audio clips, and role-playing games fit?

Is new media breaking down this spoken/written word dichotomy?

On one hand, websites, online games, and multimedia displays reinforce the importance of the individual’s narrative.In the video and audio clips on, Elders recount their memories and stories while passing on vital cultural knowledge and history. You can watch their facial expressions, and you can listen to their natural cadences and turns of phrase. You are immersed in the moment, listening to the speaker share his or her life.

On the other hand, these videos and audio clips are frozen in time. They will always play the same way, repeating the same intonations and gestures. You cannot ask questions, and you are physically separated from the Elders by a screen. 

And there are other factors in play:

  • Perhaps the video and audio clips are unchanging, but they are also teaching the act of storytelling, encouraging today’s youths to pass on this knowledge to their children in the future.
  • Likewise, the role-playing game teaches youths a method of learning based on talking with and listening to the Elders.
  • As the urban population increases, sites like On the Path of the Elders encourage the transmission of cultural skills and knowledge even when Aboriginal youths are no longer living in their communities.

What’s the future of oral histories?

There’s no neat conclusion to this post, only questions:

  • How is new media affecting the transmission of knowledge and culture?
  • How can we draw boundaries around what constitutes oral tradition?
  • Do we need to redefine what it means to be a speaker? A listener? A reader?
  • What types of beliefs and values are reflected in this mode of transmitting history?
  • Is new technology an extension or alteration of the oral tradition?

As we continue to adapt new technologies and discover new forms of communication, these are just some of the questions that we need to keep in the back of the minds.

On the Path of the Elders is one attempt at exploring the oral tradition through a new medium.

What do you think the future looks like? 

Collette Jackson, Content and Marketing Specialist at BlackCherry Digital Media, is writing on behalf of On the Path of the Elders, a free online educational resource that explores Cree and Ojibway history and culture, and the signing of Treaty No. 9.

Check out On the Path of the Elders at

For more information, email us at

Created in partnership with BlackCherry Digital Media, Archives Deschâtelets, the Doug Ellis Collection at Carleton University, Our Incredible World (Pinegrove Productions), the Mushkegowuk Council, Neh Naak Ko, the Archives of St. Paul University, Carleton University, and Wendy Campbell, Educational Consultant (Learning Methods Group).

This project was made possible with the support of the Department of Canadian Heritage through the Canadian Culture Online Strategy. Created with additional financial assistance from Indian and Northern Affairs Canada and the Inukshuk Fund.

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