Legends and oral traditions

An elder told us:

I remember when I was very young, that the spoken word had great importance in my tribe.  It was the only means of communication that was used between all of the members.

I remember that, when it was winter, every evening my grandparents got up at midnight exactly to sit around the fire with other elders camping in the neighbourhood.  They drank tea and ate lightly.  Even though they spoke in low voices, like a whisper, so as not to waken the children, at times I saw and heard them.  This custom, which was only practis ed in the woods, was repeated as a sort of ritual.

Thus assembled, the elders spoke to their ancestors, of their trapping land, of their exploits, and their know-how.  They related old narrative stories that conveyed the mythical legends.  These legends transmitted from mouth to ear were translated into a philosophy of life showing behaviour that always explained the facts, the beings and things.  Since that time, I have not forgotten them or the elders who were questioned.

On leaving the elders … all declared that they had difficulty remembering these legends since they had ceased to tell them for a long time.  But conscious of their role in preserving this part of their cultural heritage, their tongues were loosened.  All of the legends speak of human activities associated with magic and mysterious phenomena.

The name « Manitou » is given to all nature, good or bad, superior to man.   Characters are individualised and very often given a setting.  The spirits which reside in the water, plants, noises, birds, animals, winds, stars, etc. are manitous of equal power.  The greatest of the spirits, the Supreme Being, is Kitche Manito and the shaman or sorcerer is the intermediary to whom the ancestors referred in order to overcome an adversary or misfortune.  (Noël et Siméon, 1997, p. 65-66.)

In societies with an oral tradition, perpetuating and perfecting the collective thought is continued by stories and narratives transmitted from mouth to ear.

It is important to specify that the legend is a narrative putting on stage people and facts testified to by a past generation.  These narratives are transmitted as faithfully as possible from generation to generation; however they may be personalised according to the tellers.  They star the animal players above all, crafty people and events which provide information on the order of things.

The Pekuakamiulnuatsh remember their lives in the forest.  They know numerous stories transmitted by their ancestors.  They have been told over generations for thousands of years.  These legends are always repeated as faithfully as possible, never invented.

The legends are stories that come to us from the past and are normally told by an elder.  They often contain a moral or the explanation of a natural or historical phenomenon.

The spoken word remains the prime method for expressing these narratives.  Each storyteller has his or her own personality.  From the same story or legend, it is possible to find slightly different versions from one to the other.  From this comes the richness of the oral tradition.  One storyteller may remember one passage while it has been forgotten by another.  These stories are intended to be told, not read, revealing a universe far from reality.

To really appreciate a story or a legend, one must pay attention to the different episodes and the sounds:  the singing of the birds, the beating of the wings, etc.  The stories and legends teach us through simple words.  The aim is to transmit the culture, to teach values and communicate spiritual messages.