Oral Tradition: The Key To Unlocking the Truth of Our Past

Ancient Wisdom  |  03/01/2017

In this episode we present oral tradition: The oldest form of human communication, which despite significant worldwide advances in literacy remains the dominant means of communication today.

Oral tradition involves the recording and conveyance of knowledge critical to the survival and continuation of societies from generation to generation. Throughout human history people have used oral tradition to transmit everything from creation myth to hygiene. The most common method employed to pass this knowledge is storytelling. The breadth of stories told and situational contexts for sharing them is extremely complex and diverse.

Some stories are told for the family, presumably passing knowledge related to ancestral lineage. Others acknowledging authority and or responsibilities are told at more formal gatherings such as potlatches. Some stories are seasonal like the kachina dances performed by pueblo cultures, some told at specific times and places. Clan histories and similar stories specific to phatries or certain groups are only told within those groups. Creation and migration legends are shared with the entire society so they would never forget where they came from. Many stories revolve around a society’s place in the universe and/or environment, and direct members on how to interact with the cosmos and nature.

Bertram Tsavadawa Shares Oral Tradition
Bertram Tsavadawa Shares Hopi Corn Clan Oral Tradition with Dave

Some critics of oral tradition see it as nothing more than people talking to one another to pass information, but this short-sighted view suffers from Western perspective. As defined by Britannica.com, “Far more than ‘just talking,’ oral tradition refers to a dynamic and highly diverse oral-aural medium for evolving, storing, and transmitting knowledge, art, and ideas. It is typically contrasted with literacy, with which it can and does interact in myriad ways, and also with literature, which it dwarfs in size, diversity, and social function.” While oral tradition is often considered less accurate than the written word and a likely candidate to fall victim to the inaccuracy of the telephone game, this couldn’t be further from the truth.

Transmitting oral tradition is critical to a society’s ability to keep order and maintain itself, and is therefore not taken lightly. Members of oral societies are trained for many years to recount very specific stories in very specific ways to maintain the integrity of the information passed. Such individuals are tasked with preserving the society’s historical record and ensuring its survival, and they don’t have textbooks to fall back on. For instance, we recently had the pleasure to meet Malava, the last of the nine Hopi elders of the nine kivas of First Mesa. He was approached by elders at a very young age, chosen to carry and pass knowledge critical to his people. After he was chosen he was tested for more than 50 years to ensure his ability to convey this knowledge. You may be able to cram for a Western quiz after which all related information is forgotten, but there’s no way you can get through 50 years of testing without actually living the knowledge that you are tasked to carry on.

Janice Day, Hopi Bear Strap Clan
Janice Day, Hopi Bear Strap Clan

Perhaps the integrity of oral tradition is the reason that indigenous peoples of North America such as the Lakota and Hopi continue passing it despite high literacy rates. To ensure thorough conveyance of tradition, societies employ complex and sophisticated methods to compliment storytelling including music, dancing and drumming. Tradition is conveyed in art and music, and as Bertram Tsavadawa exemplifies in this episode it is also encoded in architecture. Tradition surrounds and consumes the everyday lives of those living in oral societies – it is far more than learned, it is a part of them. Good luck finding a book that can do that.

Brain science has indicated that humans retain approximately 10% of what we see/read, 30% to 40% of what we see and hear, and 90% of what we see, hear, and do. Despite this many academics continue to promote written literature as a more accurate source of historical information than oral tradition, which employs sight, sound and activity. While Western society is quick to assume the authors of written words as authorities and quick to accept printed information as truth, the printed word is far more susceptible to bias and fallacy than oral tradition. You don’t need to look far for examples.

The Bible, originally oral accounts, was canonized at a series of councils held by wealthy white men who decided that 52 books weren’t important enough to include. These 52 books comprising the so-called “gnostic gospels” tell quite a different tale that would balance the Bible’s existing books and perhaps provide some context and clarity for readers. How can anyone properly analyze let alone adhere-to a partial story?

The Smithsonian: Where Artifacts Disappear
The Smithsonian: Where Artifacts Disappear

The Smithsonian is a common target, and rightfully so. Despite handwritten accounts from field agents confirming finding at least 17 very large and revered beings in U.S. burial mounds, the Smithsonian reduced measurements and altered these notes for its final report. The agency also changed the size and shape of contiguous earthworks, presumably to make the indigenous population appear unintelligent and ripe for manifest destiny. Just like that our history was altered and millions of lives changed, and we are just now beginning to see this more than 100 years later.  But this is just one example, and there are many more recent ones of note.

Just 2 years ago representative Dan Fisher of Oklahoma passed a bill to alter Advanced Placement (AP) history courses to add more “American Exceptionalism,” whatever that is. Oklahoma wasn’t alone, joined by Georgia and Texas in the assault on history. The Jefferson County school district in Colorado went one step further, promoting that all materials include “patriotism” and “respect for authority,” and “should not encourage or condone civil disorder.” Propaganda anyone? Consider our journalistic community, enlisted to be the “watchdog” of the public. Journalism has become so irresponsibly attached to special interests that society has recently coined the term “fake news.” When you have to appease politicians for access and advertisers for existence, your ability to remain unbiased is inherently compromised. This has been valid since the first days of radio and television, and how it is not obvious to all is somewhat perplexing to say the least.

Reporters are far more susceptible to conveying bias and subjectivity than those maintaining oral tradition, largely because they face few checks and balances on the way to publishing. Adding one’s opinion or perspective when passing oral tradition is simply not an option. Whereas writers sit isolated penning their opus in a bubble, oral tradition is a group endeavor and everyone has input. Elders will get into arguments lasting hours, days, weeks and longer regarding the integrity of their oral tradition, where a writer or reporter may get questioned briefly by an editor. In today’s rampant rush to be the first with “news,” editorial checks and balances have all but disappeared.

CNN's Amber Lyon Confirms CNN Bias
CNN’s Amber Lyon Confirms Network Bias

This has given the corporate world the grounds to attack any “news” or “media” outlets that promote news these businesses determine to be “fake.” The problem with this mandate is that it leaves entities like Facebook and Google to fill your newsfeed with whatever they want you to find. Google’s recent delisting of “Natural News” may be yet another sign of corporate influence over the news you receive, though Google defends this action as a webmaster violation. Regardless, with single profit-driven corporate entities like Google and Facebook in powerful positions to determine which news is actually “news,” we have essentially given corporations the responsibility of censoring the information we use to form our realities. While this censorship has always occurred via the mass media appeasing advertisers, it is now preventing us from finding the news we want to find on the Internet. How can we feel secure that these corporations are censoring the right information, and doing so without serving their profit-driven interests?

Unlike information gleaned from reading written text, oral tradition isn’t open to such bias. Furthermore, it doesn’t require literacy, a key component to the equation that is often overlooked. Every literate population throughout history has contained an illiterate minority. This has never been more true than it is today, where in the United States we have a whopping 32 million people who are functionally illiterate. That’s about 14% of our adult population that is basically rendered ineffectual in a society that places the ability to acquire wealth and influence almost entirely on the ability to read and write. Whereas everyone is included in oral societies, vast percentages of populations are left out of literate societies. It should be no surprise that the inability to read and write is connected to socioeconomic background and contributes to crime, creating a self-sustaining cycle and ensuring future generations of poor to drive the hamster wheel at the bottom tier of our society.

Book Burning: A Time-Tested Means of Control
Nazis and Catholics: Control via Destruction of Knowledge

Another issue with the written word is its susceptibility to being destroyed. Remember the library of Alexandria? As Hitler and many religious zealots have taught us over time, books can be destroyed in a number of ways for a number of reasons. Thanks to the Romans we know very little of the folks who settled the U.K. and frequented Stonehenge prior to the Druids. Thanks to the Catholics we have only four remaining Maya codices. Our recent rush to digitize everything is making it very easy for an EMP or malfunctioning server to wipe out volumes. Perhaps this is why our ancestors maintain oral tradition and employ symbology in rock art, to help balance oral histories and convey truths over generations using a medium they knew would stand the test of time.

We are beginning to learn just how accurate oral tradition can be, as science continues to validate oral accounts. Scientific studies have recently confirmed the oral accounts provided by the Bearstrap clan of the Hopi and the Apache which tell of a violent end of occupation at Montezuma Castle in Northern Arizona. Archaeologists had previously claimed a peaceful diaspora from the site despite these stories. Similarly, DNA studies have concluded that the Metlakatla people of British Columbia have lived in the region for thousands of years, confirming Metlakatla oral tradition and defying the academic party line. Science is also confirming what is understood as the oldest-known continually passed oral tradition: The Dreamtime stories of the Aboriginal peoples of Australia, which have been passed for more than 10,000 years. Aboriginal accounts of sea levels rising have been validated by scientists to accurately coincide with the end of the last ice age.

As we forge into the next chapter of human existence during this time of great change, we would be wise to acknowledge oral traditions and try to learn from them before it’s too late. The indigenous oral cultures that we have attempted to supplant with our unsustainable Western ways understand how to live with the earth and ensure the continuation of the human species. All we need to do is reach out to them, and listen.