Oral Traditions and Intangible Cultural Heritage such as storytelling, singing, music, dance, traditional craftsmanship, visual arts, elements of social performances or rituals such as those related to life cycle and life stages naming, greetings, marriages, childbirth, traditional healing, festivals, languages, and other performance arts represent some of the oldest and most deeply-ingrained and most complexly-encoded symbolic traditions in the human experience.
Well before written language existed, myths, tales, and legends through word, song, dance, carving, crafting and other performances passed messages and lessons from generation to generation in every culture. This practice of passing traditional knowledge through language, associated art, and ritual is utilized in daily and ritual life today by all cultures and is known as ‘oral tradition.’ Oral traditions can function in a number of roles ranging from warning youngsters of poisonous flora and fauna to elders relating a culture’s creation myth, tales, language, and lifeways to future generations.
This research project will require you to identify a particular Indigenous American oral or other artistic tradition from North America through
Scholarly sources (peer-reviewed journal articles and books)
Collaborative institutions (UNECSO, universities, repositories, government partnerships, etc.)
Tribal sources (including tribal governments, cultural heritage programs, education programs, artists, public events, etc,)
Purpose of Project
in order to learn more about the group with maintains the oral tradition or other representation of intangible cultural heritage, and examine the tradition’s functions within the culture(s) applying it.
Keep in mind that you are not meant to mimic the tradition, but to instead study its role, maintenance, and aesthetic and philosophical traditions surrounding it in an attempt to better-understand the function the tradition has in day to day life.
The objective here is to provide a concise and well-structured treatment of your selected tradition. Note that oral traditions stemming from preliterate (without common writing/reading systems) eras or societies were or are oral, passed through time and generations via word of mouth, performance, or engagement in ritual. As formerly preliterate societies adopt writing/reading systems, many communities have engaged in recording oral traditions as a matter of preservation or exercising cultural sovereignty and representation through performance, maintenance and sharing of specific traditions.
Considerations in Studying Oral Traditions and Intangible Cultural Heritage
Oral traditions that have been written or recorded, even if through formal, sanctioned efforts by a group, may represent a single instance or expression of the tradition. Whereas an oral tradition may otherwise be invoked for certain reasons, occasions, or to serve a particular motif or lesson as a situation calls for, a written or recorded account of an oral tradition may effectively become a snapshot of sorts. Much like a still photo taken at a point in a film or stage performance, a written account of an oral tradition may not tell the entire story or serve the same function. As such, it is important to understand where a particular account comes from. What was the situation? Who was the keeper of knowledge? What was the intent of the oral tradition in that moment or particular performance? Questions like these are one of several reasons that sources and context of the particular expression of the oral tradition are key.
It is important to draw from trustworthy sources that provide context and are drawn through consent. As such, be sure to utilize scholarly and primary tribal sources. Do not utilize random Internet search results or sources of information that do not provide context and the consent of the community that they represent. For example, do not use random Internet websites such as general interest sites on Native American cultures and languages, encyclopedias, Wikis, etc. Stick to reliable scholarly and primary sources. See the ‘Using Sources and Library Literacy Guide’ in the ‘Assignments’ area for additional information and useful databases to help in your research.
Some oral traditions are private, while others are meant to be shared. Oral traditions (including stories, speeches, songs, dances, crafts or other art and rituals) that are owned by families, clans or lineages, for example, and that are meant to be used only in private and sacred settings should not be used. If an oral tradition has been published by scholarly or tribal sources, it is generally safe and acceptable to use.
Draw on and from scholarly ethnographic sources and/or primary tribal examples and performances of oral traditions that have been conveyed by a specific band, tribe, chiefdom, council, confederation, cultural media outlet, institution, artist or performer with the intention of having the oral tradition shared with the public. Public performances can be conducted for any number of reasons and in any number of settings, whether for rituals (like ceremonies, festivals, weddings, and gatherings) for research or education purposes, or any other format intended for indigenous and tribal representation. For example, one might look at ethnographic accounts in which anthropologists or Indigenous scholars provide insights into the tradition through consenting observation, collaborative multimedia projects, indigenous publications, indigenous cultural heritage programs, or creative arts such as indigenous films, musical performances, dances, carvings, textiles, weavings, etc. For ideas, one might peruse tribal government and education websites, the works of indigenous artists, musicians, dancers, annual festivals or exhibits, or repositories for these and other intangible heritage resources.
Be wary of and do not use pedestrian general interest and for-profit websites and search engine results including dictionaries, encyclopedias, and sites like Wikipedia, Indians.org, Warpaths2Peacepipes, LegendsofAmerica, NativeLanguages, etc. Many of these sites have incomplete or out of context information and are neither primary nor scholarly.
***Note that this assignment and its methods and scope have been a matter of consultation over many years and in keeping with the spirit of representation, education and prioritizing tribal sovereignty in the practice of anthropology. WSU and its Human Subjects Research terms, the IRB and our Tribal Memorandums of Understanding (MOU) prohibit WSU staff, faculty and students from publicly representing, reproducing, or sharing knowledge, images, and accounts of Tribes that are not generalizable knowledge without informed consent and consultation with affected Tribes, as well as review by the WSU IRB. So, it is important that your projects are not accessible to or reproduced for the general public. It is fine to create web-based presentations, but those must be shareable only to this class.
If you select an oral tradition that is written in print, provide a full reference and copy of the tradition. If the tradition was found in videos or online, include an Internet hyperlink with your full reference in your presentation. Whenever possible, highlight and share relevant tribal sources and illustrative examples of your selected oral tradition. Do not conduct fieldwork such as interviews, photography or video recordings, even of public performances.
Your presentation must be based on a North American Indigenous oral tradition and must include, but is not limited to, the following elements:
Introduce the oral tradition as well as the context in which it is told by drawing on scholarly sources and/or Indigenous-produced examples or performances. Your presentation should not be you repeating or creating a copy of the oral tradition, but instead share open source examples and then invest your efforts in helping others to better-understand the elements, functions, role and associated traditions of the oral tradition in ritual or everyday life.
Include a link or complete reference to the source of your oral tradition that affords others to see it whenever possible.
Provide cultural contexts with an ethnographic overview – introduce the class to the culture that created and maintains this tradition. Be sure to include descriptions of geography, environment, economy, political organization, spiritual and religious organization, kinship, gender roles, historic and contemporary issues, etc.
Address the maintenance and ritual treatment of the oral tradition. How is it passed from generation to generation or person to person? How is it taught and to whom in terms of performance? What specific rules or practices, if any, are involved in ensuring the oral tradition is preserved?
Identify key components of the tradition as well as rituals associated with its telling. Keeping in mind what we discuss in class regarding the life of an oral tradition, identify and address any common variations of the oral tradition – did you find different variations or representations of it? Is the same tradition maintained by other groups? If so, who and how is the oral tradition similar or different in terms of function, aesthetics, or treatment?
Elaborate on the functional elements of this tradition – What role does this oral tradition have on the culture’s spirituality, philosophies of art, kinship system, gender identities, economy, political organization, subsistence, wellness, etc..? In other words, what, specifically, does this oral tradition do for traditional and contemporary Indigenous peoples in the culture?
Identify any observed similarities between this oral tradition and others within other cultures – what elements, if any, are similar and to what effect? What similar oral traditions do you find in your own culture? In terms of contemporary use in daily or ritual life, is this oral tradition still in use? How might it have changed, if at all?
Prior to your presentation, submit a proposal via Dropbox (not email) for feedback, which should briefly describe [in one to two paragraphs] the specific culture group, oral tradition(s), and medium of your presentation. You should also include some sample sources from which you plan to draw reliable information. The proposal is a formal step in the project and should be specific in its focus. See the Course Schedule for proposal due date.
Past projects have included featuring indigenous art sculptures, indigenous photography projects, audio recordings, video performances, and various other forms of artistic expression, so you are encouraged to include artistic and creative indigenous works and examples in the presentation of your research on the tradition. Again, you are not expected to repeat or produce a version of the oral tradition. Instead, find and share Indigenous examples and focus your energies on helping to share and foster a better understanding of the significance of the tradition as it relates to lifeways and worldviews of the group(s) that maintain it.
Keep in mind, oral traditions are a formalized and artistic form of storytelling – such being the case, you must make an effort to avoid common pitfalls. In other words, this is not an exercise in perpetuating a stereotype. Reading a story while speaking in pidgin like Tonto from the Lone Ranger is not an acceptable or worthwhile manner of presenting the information. The objective is to convey the cultural contexts, functions and aesthetic philosophies involved in the oral tradition – not to impersonate an orator.
You may choose to do this piece as a multimedia presentation/short lecture with the use of graphics and narrative (5-7 minutes) on the selected oral tradition (imagine standing in front of the class and giving a lesson for 5-7 minutes). Your presentation format should allow for feedback from the class. You have access to resources such as Voice Thread or Panopto through WSU, so feel free to take advantage of those or other services. Alternatively, if for some reason you are unable to prepare a 5-7 minute presentation, you may choose to write a 5-7 page, double-spaced paper (not including cover page, images, and references). In that case, be sure to notify me via proposal so we can arrange the final project submission.