A special storytelling presentation by Richard Wagamese on November 5th at the Westin Bayshore in Vancouver kicked off the 15th Annual Provincial Conference on Aboriginal Education, jointly hosted by the First Nations Education Steering Committee, Métis BC Nation, and the BC Ministry of Education. Over 700 educators attended the conference (themed “Reconnecting the Generations”) featuring two days of workshops, informative panels, and guest speakers including Dr. E. Richard Atleo, National Chief Shawn Atleo, and Regional Chief Jody Wilson-Rayboul.
Richard Wagamese is an award-winning Ojibway columnist, author, and storyteller from Wabaseemoong First Nation in northwestern Ontario (now living in Kamloops) who has been bringing stories to life for thirty years. “The focus of my work is to bring storytelling back,” he says. “We all need stories. They inform our sense of the world, and they let us know who we are and where we came from.” His presentation of Smoked Fish, Bannock, and Indian Tea is “a 90-minute mix of theater and humour coupled with traditional and contemporary storytelling” that illustrates why storytelling is vital to healthy communities.
Stories rekindle the energy of creation and awaken a sense of wonder within us. They give us something to stand on, a reason for being who we are. A storyteller’s ability is a gift from the Creator, and Richard says, “I had to trust that gift. Then, acting on that trust, I had to start telling—to step out of my shyness and sense of inadequacy and start telling stories. The more I did that, the more I connected with that authentic voice.” An authentic voice doesn’t necessarily mean only one voice. Richard developed several characters, each with a unique speaking voice, identity, and story to share. “The characters come from the people and situations I have met in my life,” he says. “They are real, and the audience connects with them because they’ve met them too, somewhere along the road.”
Richard’s sense of humour wraps itself around serious lessons about life, love, and community. Teaching through stories is a tradition among indigenous peoples worldwide, a tradition all but lost in our “modern” world of technology-assisted communication and faceless exchange of information. We tweet and text and send e-mail, but when is the last time you felt the excitement of going to the mailbox and finding a real letter written by a real person, especially for you? When is the last time you sat with someone, just listened, and truly heard someone else’s story? In the oral tradition, stories are sacred things, and sometimes they take minutes or hours or even days to tell.
Richard’s presentation revolves around “real” stories about human beings rather than using myth/legend/animal metaphors. His performance is all about “re-igniting the fire of storytelling,” and showing real human beings learning these lessons seemed the best way to go. “We are all one great, grand story, and each of our lives is an essential thread in that tale,” Richard says. “There’s no myth in that message—it’s a spiritual truth.” He points out, “All we have is the story of our time here. That’s it. When our physical life is over, as individuals and as a species, all that will remain is the story of our journey together on this planet. That’s a crucial message.”
Film, TV, the Internet, and even print media is becoming more and more visual in its information delivery, and it seems as pictures matter more, words matter less. Storytelling has gone digital, and something is lost when the imagination is spoonfed. Social trends continue toward instant gratification and abbreviated communication, and it’s becoming harder to encourage people to value the practice of reading, writing, speaking, and listening—especially impatient youth in classrooms. “We need to talk to each other. Really talk. Not on the cell phone, not in a tweet or a text, but in real conversations about real things,” Richard says. “We need to create time in our homes that is sacred story time, where we can sit and talk and share about the events of our days, our thoughts, our imaginings, our fears.” He suggests making storytelling non-threatening and valuable for youth by using story circles in classrooms so students can share “in a formal, traditional, ceremonial way because EVERYONE has a crushing desire to be HEARD despite the technology.”
Richard believes that everyone has an authentic voice. “We were born bearing the gift of language,” he says. “When I began to learn the traditional principles of storytelling, the old ones told me that my greatest tool as a storyteller was my authentic, original voice. To learn to find it, I needed to practice principles, beginning with humility, then faith, then trust, then bravery.” Humility allows the storyteller to bring the story to life for its own sake, giving the audience or reader an opportunity to “see themselves in a story” and identify with events or characters, which in turn creates an opportunity for personal growth and awareness. Richard says, “Our youth especially really need to be able to see themselves in our storytelling, regardless of what form or medium that takes place in.”
Richard developed a pair of manuals to help storytellers discover and share their authentic voice. How to Be the Writer You Always Wanted to Be and From the Oral Tradition to the Printed Page explain how Richard learned to create spontaneous oral stories and transfer that same energy to his writing. Both are available at www.richardwagamese.com and are suitable for classroom or personal study. Richard Wagamese is available to bring his performance or a storytelling workshop anywhere people are interested in rekindling that essential creative energy. For more information, contact Richard through his website.