Sally Pomme Clayton explains why folklore is a life-or-death issue.
A little black fish was swimming along, looking for a fish-trap to be caught in. He looked out of the water and saw a house. It was not tidy. Dogs were barking and the fish-trap was full of holes. Someone came out of the house with a pot of fish stew. They spilled the stew onto the ground and the dogs fought over the bones.
"This is not the trap I want to be caught in," said the black fish, and he carried on swimming.
After a while he looked out of the water and saw another house. It was tidy. The dogs were tied up in neat rows and the traps were freshly made. Someone came out of the house with a pot of fish stew. They ladled the bones carefully into bowls.
"This is the trap I want to be caught in," said the black fish, and stopped swimming.
This is a version of a tale told by Yup'ik storyteller John Active at this year's meeting of the American Folklore Society in Anchorage. Active is a respected speaker and writer, and for him stories are not just entertainment but a way of passing on the knowledge and language of Yup'ik culture.
On my first day in Alaska thin ice covered everything. The following day it began to snow. Winter had arrived, sunlight disappeared at a rate of five minutes a day and the temperature was dropping. Yup'ik territory is on the coast of the Bering Sea, an extreme region where temperatures fall below - 40C. Yup'ik people know how to survive in these conditions thanks to detailed knowledge that is passed on through stories and dances. Active says: "Our subsistence lifestyle is our culture. Without subsistence we will not survive as a people. If our culture, our subsistence lifestyle, should disappear, we are no more and there shall not be another kind as we in the entire world."
It was the 113th meeting of the society and the first time its members had met in Alaska. The society was founded in 1888 and one of its original members was Mark Twain. The annual meeting brings together those interested in world cultural expression, including academics, folklorists, curators, artists and writers. This year's theme was "Partners in Knowledge" and focused on collaborations in folklore. Discussions centred on ways of teaching, learning and presenting knowledge, and looked in particular at the ethical practices of collaborating, collecting, translating, publishing and documenting.
The society tries to involve the scholarship and cultural groups of the region where the meeting is being held. This year, the number of local participants was the highest ever.
The scholarship among society members is very high, and many visionary projects were presented. Wanni Anderson of Brown University had collaborated with I$upiaq storytellers in a remote part of northern Alaska. Together they produced a bilingual text of stories in English and I$upiaq. Unlike many projects, this one did not end with the book. The book is a starting place for I$upiaq teachers to explore processes of teaching, discuss how stories are used to pass on I$upiaq culture and look at translation methods. The collaboration has also led to a creative writing project, with I$upiaq students writing their own stories.
The meeting was opened by the Tanqik Cup'ik Dancers and Drummers from Chevak, led by John Pingayak, who set up the Cup'ik Heritage Centre for Bilingual and Bicultural Education in Chevak, West Alaska, in 1980. The company is made up of Pingayak's senior students and performs throughout Alaska. Pingayak's aim was to develop a curriculum based on elders' knowledge and taught by a combination of traditional Cup'ik methods of learning through direct experience and western theoretical approaches.
Pingayak's curriculum has been adopted by Chevak High School, where native dance is offered as an elective. He says dancing develops alertness and promotes learning throughout the curriculum. "They have to be one beat ahead of the drum," he says of his students. "That helps us be one page ahead of the teacher!" a student adds. The songs and dances are poetic and complex. Pingayak describes how songs come from "the hussing sounds of the wind and the ocean and tell stories of our activities in nature, especially our subsistence way of life".
The gestures pass on hidden knowledge about animal behaviour, the weather and nature. "If we miss a bit of knowledge, we will not be able to survive out there in the tundra," Pingayak says.
The dances were banned by missionaries, but over the past 15 years they have gradually been remembered or relearned from recordings. New dances have been added to the repertoire by Pingayak.
The most exciting scholarship in folklore studies is currently happening in the United States, and academic studies are supported by wide public application of folklore. Every state has a state folklorist. Troyd Geist is the state folklorist of North Dakota. He develops one-to-one apprenticeship schemes where those with rare traditional skills, such as dog-sled making, can pass them on. He describes how some tradition bearers have skills that have died out in their country of origin. The Ukrainian community in North Dakota paints elaborate Easter eggs, but the art form has been lost in Ukraine. Geist enabled Ukrainians from North Dakota to return to Ukraine and re-teach egg painting. He sees folklorists' roles as validating cultural expression. This validation helps keep traditions alive, draws them into the wider community to be shared and enjoyed, and consequently makes the tradition bearers value their skills more.
Folklore studies in the United Kingdom has almost no status as an academic discipline and little public profile. The few academic courses are linked with Celtic studies and languages and cannot reflect the diverse cultural communities of contemporary Britain. Too often, publicly funded projects are short-term, functional in their outcomes and fulfil specific agendas. Tradition bearers are seldom viewed as artists practising and refining a skilled art form and there can be assumptions that traditions are easy to do. Storytelling, for example, seems deceptively simple. But tradition is not kept alive by repetition alone. Traditions have to be re-made by each generation to keep them relevant and meaningful.
The artistic processes of story-telling were discussed by Active and other native tellers. They talked about the ways in which they change their performance for non-native audiences. Active described how "stories can last for three nights" in a native context, but performances for non-native audiences were bound by time limits. Storytellers discussed their experiences of the ways in which western and native audiences listen - how western audiences expect eye contact, whereas direct eye contact is considered disrespectful in native culture.
Academic studies and public funding have allowed folklore to evolve in the US. The National Endowment for the Arts has a grant-making panel for folk and traditional arts. This is the result of Folklore Society members who lobbied to improve cultural policies, decentralise funding and create projects to reflect the wide range of cultural expression. The process of continuation and innovation within traditions is slow. Long-term support needs to be established in the UK so that Britain's diverse communities can be heard and shared. It seems we need this now more than at any other time.
I found myself participating as a partner in secret knowledge in many different ways in Alaska. Over meals and while walking, I engaged in discussions with those who have long experience of working in innovative ways with different communities. I was the beneficiary of their knowledge and received guidance and support to develop my own thinking and approaches. This seemed fitting in Alaska where elders are valued as role models and repositories of knowledge.
All the time it snowed, the snow making everything invisible. But as everything was covered up, all the really invisible things seemed to reveal themselves. Perhaps it was because I was surrounded by people who believed that stones, grass and black fish have voices and are worth listening to. Britain seems naked without snow, and the invisible things are harder to remember. Perhaps if we could create and sustain more opportunities to listen to our elders and celebrate our many traditions, we might be able to hear those invisible voices, too.
Sally Pomme Clayton is a storyteller and writer and lectures at Middlesex University on world oral traditions.