Stories are everywhere. Thomas King wrote a wonderful book “The Truth About Stories” based on his 2003 Massey Lectures, which told the Indigenous story after Contact through Coyote stories, federal legislation and personal stories. On Friday, April 15, 2011, Darrell Dennis presented the keynote address at the BCTF Social Justice Conference, telling the story of the Native Canadian experience in schooling through the personal experiences of his growing up, relating back through the history and connecting to the now.
I was fortunate enough to have the honour of introducing him, and it was only after, that I realized what I had done in the introduction (I was up there longer than I needed to be to read a short bio and say “Here he is!”): I told a story. I talked about getting the text from a colleague informing me that I would be introducing Dennis, followed up by the curt, texted command “Be Funny”. I talked about my crazy week and how hard it was to be funny on command. How I sat up, in an admittedly uncomfortable bed, and struggled with the idea of being funny when I’m not, by nature a funny fellow, especially when I was bringing up a noted entertainer and comedian like Darrell onto the stage.
And while Darrell was making everyone laugh and opening their eyes to the history of schooling of Aboriginal people, I sort of tuned him out. Not intentionally, mind you, I was struck at how similar our stories were, but because I was thinking. My comments had turned serious while I introduced Darrell and I was dwelling on the implications, and reflecting on their meaning. What had I done when I spoke at the Bargaining Conference? I told a story about the impact the current system had on me, on that Aboriginal doctor and on Guu’jaw. What had I ever done in BC First Nations Studies 12 or Social Studies 11, when I introduced a new concept or discussed a bit of legislation? I told a story about its impact on me or someone I knew, exploring the history while firmly planting it in the now. I taught about the residential school system by sharing how it affected me, my mother and my grandparents. I shared that I cried when I heard the apology, because it came after my Grandpa had passed away. I shared the meaninglessness of the apology because it changed nothing for anybody because the words, while having some power, did not change anything for anybody. Words have power and meaning, as I have written here before, but they can also have power in their meaninglessness.
Stories are who we are. They are our truths, even when they aren’t explicitly about us, as in King’s Coyote stories, or any of the Trickster tales that are out there. They are how we come to understand our past, where we have been. They tell us who we are and they tell us who we can be.
There has been a lamenting the loss of the story in many Aboriginal cultures, but I am not convinced it is lost. Stories, like culture, like history, are not static. They evolve and grow and change, just like the storyteller who tells the story. Today, he or she is finding new ways to tell stories, using film, using music, using art, writing, the list is endless. I’ve told you about my students who write their own music telling the story of their lives and sharing their truths. Darrell is an entertainer, he wrote plays, films, tv and Revision Quest on CBC Radio. My brother makes movies. I am bragging here, I have a tv show (with my brother and sister) that tells the story of youth reconnecting to the land and understanding who they are. I teach. My friend Starleigh teaches. She writes. She also shares her world through her blog. Joseph Boyden’s novels are trickster tales set in the modern or near-modern world, without a visible trickster necessarily.
Don’t let that creative need to tell a story be stymied by the fact that you don’t recognize the story as a traditional story, or something telling you how we used to be. Our stories, in whatever form they take, are the stories of who we are. A reminder to you and ourselves, that we exist and that we are still worthy of a story.
And yes, because I know you are wondering, of course I was funny. There were Native women in the room and when there is another Native male in the room, you have to be funnier than him. It’s hardwired in our DNA to get these women to laugh.
What? I heard it in a story once.