Many Indigenous children learn how to access wisdom through stories from an extremely young age, so using stories to learn will likely be familiar to First Nations, Inuit, and Métis students (Alphonse & Charles, 2018). In contrast, teachings that come with attending university may be new and can therefore be overwhelming (Alphonse, 2018). During your time as a student, you will learn new stories, as well as new ways to tell them, and that knowledge will be essential to knowing more about yourself and your studies.
Elder Elmer Seniemten George (2018) verbally shared this teaching from the Songhees Nation6:
There was a man who was kind of useless – he couldn’t hunt or fish so he couldn’t support himself. The Chief told him to go up into the mountain and stay here. The man said, “but I might die!”, and the Chief told him that’s what they wanted because they couldn’t support him anymore.
The man went up the mountain and was sitting by a tree. He was starting to die because he couldn’t hunt or fish. Wolves came by and were going to eat him, but they realized that he was still alive. The wolves instead took him to where they lived. When they arrived, they took off their skins and were people. They kept him for two to three years and helped him. An old man helped to scrape the skin off his feet to make him strong, and they taught him how to hunt.
Eventually, the wolves told him that they couldn’t keep him, but before he went back home, they gave him a flat rock and some eagle feathers. They told him that when he went back, he should put the rock in a tub of water and that it wouldn’t sink. Also, he should stand the feathers on the rock. When he did this, people feared him, and because they were afraid of him, they gave him everything he needed.
There was a gathering of healers at the Big House, which didn’t have any seats, just the floor, and the healers were showing what they could do. The man put the rock in the tub of water to show them that the rock didn’t sink and the feathers were spinning. The healers said that was an easy thing and tried to do it but they couldn’t. After that, people recognized that the man had special powers, and instead of being treated as useless, he came back highly respected.
Stories are central to Indigenous communities because,
oral traditions are distinct ways of knowing and the means by which knowledge is reproduced, preserved and conveyed from generation to generation. Oral traditions form the foundation of Aboriginal societies, connecting speaker and listener in communal experience and uniting past and present in memory. (Hulan & Eigenbrod, 2008, p. 7)
While it may seem that there are few connections between oral teachings and academic writing, both tell a story and explain why the story is important. For example, Elders share teachings to help listeners learn specific information (Alphonse & Charles, 2018), and your academic writing will explain what you think about a topic, which is a story that only you can tell. Also, both oral teachings and academic writing aim to increase their audiences’ understanding. Each time an Elder shares a teaching, listeners have new opportunities to learn by adding information to knowledge gained from previous teachings (Alphonse & Charles, 2018). Similarly, your academic writing will help readers increase their knowledge by reading your discussion. Finally, in both oral teachings and academic writing, the audience’s familiarity with the topic determines what information will be shared. For instance, in First Nations’ culture, there is a shared understanding of Traditional Knowledge, though each family has their own teachings or family laws that incorporate Traditional Knowledge (Alphonse & Charles, 2018). For example, Traditional Knowledge emphasizes manners, but each family may have a slightly different understanding of which manners are important (Alphonse & Charles, 2018). Family laws are understood as Traditional Knowledge, so people who are familiar with Traditional Knowledge would recognize the importance of the family laws and would not need their importance explained (Alphonse & Charles, 2018). However, people from other cultures may not have the same understanding, so they would need the connections between family laws and Traditional Knowledge to be explained to ensure a correct interpretation (Alphonse & Charles, 2018). In a similar way, your intended audience will determine how much explanation you provide to readers. If you are writing for a specialized audience, you likely will not need to provide detailed explanations. However, if you cannot guarantee what knowledge, understanding, or perspective your readers already possess, you may instead focus readers’ attention on the significant information in your work by demonstrating the relationships between details, such as how research evidence supports a claim in a paragraph. By making the connections clear to readers, you can ensure readers correctly understand the key messages.
Every essay has a story that leads the reader through the discussion. To help identify the story of your essay, think about how you would verbally explain your focus to someone who is not familiar with your topic. What is the beginning, middle, and end of the story that is the focus of your essay? Once the story is in place, consider what information you can provide to help your reader understand the story and why it’s important, even if they don’t share your background knowledge. Filling in those details will highlight the relationships between ideas and give you the opportunity to demonstrate your critical thinking on your topic.
We hope the Four Feathers Writing Guide will help you to learn more about academic writing, including how to shape the story of your work. For more information regarding the importance of the oral tradition in First Nations’ cultures, please visit Oral Traditions (First Nations & Indigenous Studies, University of British Columbia). For information on the typical expectations of academic writing, please watch Qualities of Academic Writing, which is an 8:02 section of the Introduction to Academic Writing video.
6 The teachings and approaches to learning in this guide are shared with permission. The ownership of the Traditional Knowledge remains in perpetuity with the appropriate Nation; accordingly, the information should not be re-used without explicit permission.