English student learns value of native oral traditions

Like most North American children, Sandra Stephens would have grown up with classic fables such as The Tortoise and the Hare and The Boy Who Cried Wolf.

How the Crow Became Black was a new one on her. A fourth-year English major with a minor in anthropology, Stephens came across two variations of the tale this summer while she was researching First Nations oral traditions on the Wasauksing Ojibwe reserve near Parry Sound, Ontario.

“In both stories the creator determined that the crow would be black because of its behaviour,” explained Stephens, who grew up in nearby Essex.

Stephens has an aunt who lives on the reserve and she often went there for shorter seasonal visits. However this year she landed a summer job doing clerical work at a nearby land registry office and planned to spend the entire season there. She also has plans to go on to graduate school, and while discussing them with Katherine Quinsey, head of English Language, Literature and Creative Writing, it was suggested she turn her opportunity into an academic exercise. She contacted Karl Jirgens, with whom she had taken a class on native literature and culture, and the English professor enthusiastically agreed to supervise the project.

“He was the ideal mentor for guiding me through this adventure,” said Stephens.

Over the course of the summer, she spent countless hours recording interviews with six participants—four women and two men ranging in age from their mid-20s to their 70s. Her object was to gather stories based on oral traditions in indigenous culture and she found her subjects more than willing to share the tales that have been passed down to them over countless generations.

“I heard a lot of their stories, but how they learned the story was just as important as the story itself,” she said. “They wanted to explain the stories so that I could understand rather than just hear them. I feel really honoured that they would share so much.”

The biggest differences she discovered between fables such as Aesop’s and those from native culture, was that the latter place a great deal more faith in the inherent interpretive abilities of the listener to figure out the lesson, and spiritual values are very often part of the message.

“They give you the credit of your own intelligence,” she said. “In Aesop’s fables, the morals are always very obvious, but not so much in native culture.”

Stephens said she’s still processing the experience in her own mind, but is already 34 pages into a paper she’s writing about it. She wants it to be an objective representation of her participants’ beliefs and how they’re shared through story-telling, without too much of her own subjective interpretation of them.

The entire experience was a rich, fulfilling one, but ironically left Stephens feeling something missing on a more personal level.

“I was a little jealous that I couldn’t be in their shoes,” she said. “They have so much tradition and history. It made me want to learn more about my own roots.”

Editor's note: this is one of a series of articles about students from across campus who were engaged in cool research projects and other activities during the summer.

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