Oral Tradition, First Nations Culture & Implications for Speech Therapy

Indigenous peoples are traditionally storytellers.  Oral traditions are historical accounts, teachings, lessons and explanations that have been passed down for centuries, from one generation to the next.  Indigenous peoples have existed historically as an oral language people.  However, Native oral tradition is difficult to write about academically, appropriately or accurately.  Traditionally, it is taboo in Native culture to write down oral traditions.  Finding accurate unbiased literature about Native culture, particularly Native oral tradition, is difficult at best because it has not been written down.  The true body of information on oral tradition is in the heads and on the lips of Natives.

The culture of the Indigenous peoples of North America is rich in history and traditions.  Many of these practices have been passed down for centuries, although at certain periods they were not practiced.  Oral tradition has kept native cultural traditions alive, when dominant society tried to eradicate the culture with assimilation.

Can you find young Ndnspeechmom?

For example, Indian Residential Schools in Canada were run either by the Anglican or Catholic Churches and utilized various practices to educate and “help” native children fit into western society.  Residential schools separated children from their families and made it impossible for them to hear stories about the old ways and to observe and learn how to do traditional things.  Residential Schools employed forced attendance and tried to erode native culture and assimilate native children into the dominant Anglo-European culture.  Students at these schools were severely punished for speaking their native language, having braids, wearing native clothes and for participating in anything deemed “Indian”. Many native people think that missionaries only made these schools to “take their children away” and to break their culture.

Oral tradition is tantamount to the survival of the culture and traditions of the native peoples of this continent.  Traditionally the only way Natives can know about their past is by what they have been told.  Without oral tradition, knowledge and culture would be lost.  Oral traditions are an essential component to the survival of all native cultures.  They include elements of kinship responsibility, identity, a sense of belonging and responsibility.  Passing on oral traditions is a responsibility.  There is an understanding among native peoples that they will give back by passing these stories on thus keeping the stories and culture alive.  Oral traditions shape Natives from the time of childhood and makes the individual who they are.

Traditionally, there was no need for the written word; therefore, within Native culture, oral traditions are more important than the written word.  Many native cultures have no written histories and some native languages have no written forms.  In general, written versions of oral traditions are often not accurate and often not credited to the source.  This is because research and writing about native people is dominated by non-natives.  Currently, as in the past, some traditional Native people do not write down their stories because they have been taught that stories should be spoken aloud and not read.  From a traditional viewpoint, to write down a story degrades it, cheapens it and lessens it.

Oral traditions are the native way of teaching and are the historical records of Native culture.  Value and acceptance of the legitimacy of the value of native oral tradition is necessary. Oral traditions are not merely stories but are often true historical accounts; and therefore, need to be respected as such.  There are many elements of native oral tradition that are similar across different tribes, these include:

  1. Storytelling is done at a certain time of year, generally winter, when there is more time to relax, absorb teachings and when plants are not growing.  Traditionally, it is believed that stories are so powerful that even the plants will stop growing so they can listen.
  2. The performance is as important as the story itself.  Native peoples are very dramatic.  A story is not simply retold but relived for the audience.  Even ancient stories are told as though they have just happened.
  3. Stories can be a possession and “belong” to a storyteller.  As such, they are passed down but not everyone that hears a story has the privilege to retell it.
  4. Audiences are privileged and may be carefully selected, therefore it is not appropriate to the culture’s traditions to have these stories written.  This also indicates that being told a story is being “gifted” with it.  The storyteller has chosen to “give” their story to the listener for personal reasons.
  5. Stories are not to be written down.  They are oral traditions that have survived for generations.  All of the culture’s knowledge, history and beliefs are entwined into these stories.
  6. Oral traditions often features elements of nature, whereby, respect for the natural environment and a highlighted sense of humanity is taught.
  7. Stories are used as tools to foster good discipline, listening skills and responsible behavior, particularly in the young.
  8. Often stories stress a moral lesson that is to be applied to everyday life.  Stories are meant to be brought into your life, and not merely enjoyed as entertainment.

Natives are very different from the rest of western society.  They are taught as children to be active listeners as opposed to being taught to actively participate in discussions.  Traditionally Native children are taught to observe and understand a situation before actively participating and that listening is more important than questioning.  Most traditional teachings are passed on to children by having them watch and listen. Researchers have found that the learning styles of Natives show strengths in holistic processing, visual memory and visual-spatial activities.  Clearly, native traditional childrearing practices have stimulated the development of certain skills, notably those of observation and imitation.

Guess what dad is feeding me…

Indigenous peoples are active listeners.  Often, they know or think things but do not say them.  There is an idea that it is impossible to listen with an open mouth.  Native peoples learn and think differently from the current dominant society, but do not see themselves as inferior.  Europeans brought with them methods of memorization and categorization to measure intelligence, excellence and education, however, these methods were alien to natives.  The teachings that have survived centuries and been the backbone to innumerable cultures are simply not valued in western society.

Native peoples suffer barriers to success in western society.  They are separate from other ethnic groups in regards to history, culture and image.  There is a definite lack of communication between Natives and the dominant populations of the Americas.  Communication between these groups is necessary because the attitudes of Native people are deep seeded and historical and, therefore, need to be acknowledged and respected.  Many Native values are not shared by western society and conversely some Natives do not appreciate the values of mainstream middle class society.  Generally to achieve “success” native people are forced to adapt to the dominant society, while striving to maintain their cultural heritage.  The value placed on oral traditions is one of the things that has survived in native culture.

An individual who is going to be working with this population needs to be open minded and willing to learn about a culture that may be very different from his/her own.  Traditional beliefs color all aspects of native life, and include great respect for family, community, tribal ways and the individual.   A Speech Pathologist  who is open and nonthreatening would be a great asset in the Native community.  Native peoples do not expect non-natives to know the details of their culture and are willing to provide information, but only if the person seeking the knowledge does so in the proper way.  Knowledge is the greatest gift a Native has to give; therefore, the telling of oral traditions involves trust and mutual respect.  The storyteller needs to trust the listener to take away the proper message and should respect them for listening to their story.  The listener must respect the storyteller and not interrupt with questions that may be interpreted as impertinent or questioning.

The most important thing to remember when working with Native peoples is respect.  Respect our traditions and teachings, they may not be the ways of western society but they are the native way.  These traditions have survived generations and deserve respect; understanding is not required.


Almeida, D.A., (1997).  The hidden half: a history of Native American women’s education.  Harvard Educational Review, 67, 4, 757-771.

Browne, D.B. & Bordeaux, L., (1991).  How South Dakota teachers see learning style differences.  Tribal College, II, 4, 24-29.

Celi, A., Boiero,  M.C., (2002).  The heritage of stories: a tradition of wisdom.  American Studies International, 40, 2, 57-73.

Garrett, J.T. and Garrett, Michael T.  (1994). The path of good medicine: understanding and counseling Native American Indians.  Journal of Multicultural Counseling & Development, 22, 3, 134-45.

Herring, R.D., (1992).  Seeking a New Paradigm: counseling Native Americans.  Journal of Multicultural Counseling & Development, 20, 1, 35-43.

Herring, R.D., (1990).  Understanding Native-American values: process and content concerns for counselors. Counseling & Values, 34, 2, 134-138.

Hirschfelder, A.B., (1993).  Native American literature for children and young adults.  Library Trends, 41, 3, 414-437.

Hunter, E. & Karpinski, B., (1999).  Introductory Cree Part I.  School of Native Studies – University of Alberta, Canada.

Hunter, E. & Karpinski, B., (1999).  Introductory Cree Part II.  School of Native Studies – University of Alberta, Canada.

Kinsella, W.P.  (1990).  Two Spirits Soar.  Stoddart Publishing Co. Limited.

Olson, M.J., (2003).  Counselor understanding of Native American spiritual loss.  Counseling and Values, 47, 1, 109-117.

Rodriguez, R., (1997).  Learning to live a warrior’s life: institute seeks to improve Native American education. Black Issues in Higher Education, 14, 20, 38-40.

Treaty 7 Elders and Tribal Council with Hildebrandt, W., First Rider, D. & Carter, S., (1996).  The True Spirit and Original Intent of Treaty 7.  McGill-Queen’s University Press.

Williams, R., Natural Intelligence: recognizing the wisdom, intelligence and creativity of Indian people.  Tribal College, 14, 2, 50-52.

Wilson, A.C., (1996).  Grandmother to granddaughter: generations of oral history in a Dakota family.  The American Indian Quarterly, 20, 1, 7-14.

Yellowbird, P., (2002).  I saw that when people worked together great things could happen.  Native Americas, XIX, 3&4, 114-120.


Ok, I have to stop writing so seriously because I am making my head hurt.  This post is a bit of a departure from my usual content, and I hope it didn’t come across as hokey or old-fashioned.  I am by no means a Native “expert” but I am a Cree woman who was raised with her cultural traditions around her.  I am thankful for the teachings and experiences that i have been fortunate enough to receive.

I was going to write about my experiences as a First Nations SLP working in FN communities.  Truthfully my only experience in working with non-native speech and language clients was while I was in graduate school so sometimes it is difficult for me to see the differences between my caseload and a “normal SLP” caseload.  I’m sure my experiences are very different, or maybe they are the same…I would love to hear your stories.  I think I need a cup of hot tea and a cuddle with my Diego, so I will save the ndnspeechmom professional tales for another post.  (If I can’t sleep though I may write them later tonight since I don’t have to work tomorrow.)


To my non-SLPeep readers – don’t worry I’m sure this blog will return to its usual silly randomness tomorrow.  Hope I didn’t lose (one of my 6) readers.