The Santee Dakota of the Oceti Sakowin (Great Sioux Nation) have a history of using petroglyphs. Pictured here is the Jeffers Petroglyph in southwest Minnesota
Image courtesy of MNHS

Speaking in Unison

The colonial gaze has long discounted oral tradition as primitive, writes Atmos columnist Ruth H. Robertson. But like the written word, oral tradition preserves knowledge, history, and the memory of an entire populace. 

I come from an Indigenous group of Peoples who practice oral tradition. That is to say, for as long as we can remember, we transmitted information—be it history, knowledge, stories, or ideas—through the spoken word. 


The western world will go so far as to tell you that my People had no written language in precolonial times. This is not entirely true. My ancestors drew star charts and documented events through winter counts. Our ranks were filled with artisans who took note of their environment and circumstance. 


You’ve surely seen petroglyphs, which are written forms of communication, that were carved into stone by Indigenous ancients. The Santee Dakota of the Oceti Sakowin (Great Sioux Nation), of which I am a part, have a history of using petroglyphs. The petroglyphs at Pipestone National Monument in Minnesota, located within our ancestral homelands, date from 200 AD-1150 BC. At least 79 petroglyphs on 35 slabs of Sioux quartzite were acknowledged at one time. Sadly, a number of them have been damaged or stolen from the site. 


And they aren’t just rock doodles and basic symbols. In fact, some petroglyphs have been revealed to depict gestures used in Universal Native Sign Language. Others are actual records of important occasions, ceremonial instructions, or even family trees—and just as we read aloud from books today, these petroglyphs were often used as a framework for storytelling. 


We passed down oral knowledge not just through speech, but through song, ritual, performance, and dance as well. These means of communication often overlapped. Prayer songs are accompanied by ritualistic movements. Legends and historical accounts documented by petroglyphs or winter counts were acted out as they were vocalized. 


Like the written word, oral tradition preserves knowledge, history, and the memory of individuals, as well as an entire populace. Besides preservation, some stories taught moral lessons that warned listeners about the dangers of carrying on adverse behaviors or exerted pressure on wrongdoers without calling them out separately and embarrassing them publicly. 


Oral tradition developed in parallel with the culture of my People. We are relational by nature, and rely on kinship and connection as a key element of our identity. Storytelling is a collaboration between the teller and their listeners. The storyteller is a vessel who not only draws upon their own lived experience, but the collective recall of everyone who conveyed the story before them. In so doing, storytelling within an oral tradition signifies the shared reality of all People. 


While certain individuals within a Tribe were acknowledged as storytellers gifted with creative skill in speaking, singing, and improvisation, anyone could tell stories. The stories of a People belonged to each and every one of them. They were all considered valid. 


The colonial gaze has long discounted oral tradition as primitive, with western science interpreting our oral histories as little more than myths meant to entertain. Only in recent years have they started to realize that many of their latest “discoveries” were actually mentioned in tales told by Indigenous Peoples many millennia ago. 


While my People have suffered the loss of culture, language, and history under colonial domination and attempted genocide, oral tradition has persisted.

While my People have suffered the loss of culture, language, and history under colonial domination and attempted genocide, oral tradition has persisted. Even if our grandmothers were forced to pass down knowledge through hushed tones away from the purview of priests, government agents, and turncoats, it happened nonetheless. 


Thankfully, Tribes now have access to technology that enables us to protect and conserve our oral tradition. I’ve been a part of projects where elders have been given the time and space needed to openly share cultural and historical information with us. With permission, this knowledge is being recorded for posterity. All of the elders that I worked with on these projects have since passed on and now walk the spirit road in the stars with our ancestors. It makes my heart glad, knowing their voices will be heard, and their stories will be heeded, by future generations of Oceti Sakowin, some of whom have not been born yet. This data now belongs to the Tribe as a whole, just as it did in the days of old. 


While the oral tradition is exercised by all ages among my People, the knowledge attained by elders is the most sought after. As a kid, I had this perception of elders as being infallible, even though they were physically fragile and aged. I thought they were so wizened, so erudite and transcendent, that they had achieved a kind of perfection in human form. 


Then something happened. I got older. As the years passed, the elders I grew up with died. I began to ask younger folks who their family was when I met them, because I thought they looked like someone I once knew who I would then discover was their parent or grandparent. People started asking me questions about our Native community, Tribal history, culture, or ceremonial practices. I then remember what I was told by elders and shown by those who came before me—and I share it with them. 


After a while, it dawned on me that the elders I so revered were perhaps not perfect at all, and that they were probably once like I am now. They may have become wise because they made mistakes and learned better. They knew things because they had listened to the elders that came before them, and hid it in their hearts like I did. They knew the ways because they were taught them, and had practiced them for years, with love and dedication. They too were once seekers. They earned elderhood through struggle, persistence, and making good choices—and perchance, on a few occasions, they were just lucky. 


When elders would punctuate stories with caveats that they were merely sharing what they had been taught, and that they were not the “end-all be-all” of Tribal knowledge, I just thought they were being humble. As it turns out, they were simply being honest. 


I don’t consider myself an elder yet, even though someone my age has statistically reached the life expectancy of my Native Nation. It’s a strange and lonely place to find yourself in, realizing that while the outside modern world brackets you as middle age, the majority of people you grew up with are in the spirit world. Nevertheless, I count myself as blessed to carry this mantle the best I can, passing it on to those who follow. I am one of many, going all the way back to the beginning, to the Source. We are one voice, speaking in unison. Until I take my place among the ancestors.


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