Red Lake, Oral Tradition, and Other Forms of Cultural Information Transmission
Have you ever played the game “Telephone”? You gather a bunch of people in a circle and the first person whispers a phrase to the next person and so on until the phrase comes around to the first person again. The rules are you can only whisper the phrase once and once you’ve heard the phrase you have to whisper what you think you heard as correctly as you can to the next person in line.
Afterwards, it is great fun to compare what each person heard to what was actually said and how the phrase became mangled as it went around the circuit.
Telephone is instructive in what is good and bad about oral tradition. The good things are: 1) Oral content is best shared among everyone (like at the end of the game). 2) In the end, the community with its designated cultural gatekeepers should be able to verify and reconcile the different accounts of its members.
The bad things are: If the sharing involved only one person relaying the information to another (during the course of the game), error creeps in. People die before they are able to pass on the information or when communities were isolated from each other and where local leaders were not able to compare notes regionally, local variations of the cultural information crept in. That’s why there are for example, alternate names for Nanabozhu, like Winabozhu, or Manabozhu.
By itself, “Telephone” does not take into account other historical artifacts impacting oral tradition. Oral tradition is often paired with other mnemonic devices to insure accurate symbolic transmission, repetition and persistence of cultural information over time. For example, the Navajos have their sand paintings when performing their songs and chants of the Mountain way, Blessing way, and Shooting way ceremonies. In addition, a group of medicine people (each one of which) is responsible for teaching a part of each ceremony to the initiate. The Micmac used logograms as mnemonic aids at least during the 17th to 19th centuries, and of course the Red Lake Midewiwin, have their Birch bark origin and other scrolls.
What we can deduce from these examples is that oral tradition and alternate forms of information transmission including writing, need not be an either/or proposition. During noted Ethnomusicologist Francis Densmores’ time, wax rolls were created which enabled some Red Lake people to record their voices providing a snapshot of the songs and practices of the people at the time.
However, there is a problem with snapshots as well. While you can go to a wedding and take one photo or movie, you have a snapshot that is worth a thousand words. This record can last hundreds of years, but gives only a small glimpse of an event or culture. If you had a photo album of the wedding, you would have a much better overall collage of the event. If each guest took their own pictures of the wedding and had their own photo albums or films, you would have the best overall understanding of the event or culture.
Densmore’s wax rolls became records and tapes, and now digital media. Thus enabling cultures to preserve oral tradition as well as wed it to modern technology. Just look at Michael Barrett’s prodigious use of the internet to record and preserve Red Lake audio and visual cultural and other news events.
I don’t think Midewiwin scrolls contained everything about Red Lake culture at the time. Their information was partial to the origin of the people and information that related to entry into and elevation within the Mide society among other things, but this partiality left gaps in the transmission of other cultural information. In addition, at the time I believe it was meant primarily for members of the Midewiwin.
In order for Red Lake culture to flourish, cultural information must meet four requirements.
First: The information must be available to everyone in the culture
Second: The culture must have a formal mechanism/gatekeepers to vet and approve the information obtained.
Third: The information must be free.
Fourth: The information must persist unchanged through time, in order for Red Lakers to compare it with cultural practices they wish to change.
The question becomes, what forms can we incorporate in the present to insure cultural transmission of information over long periods? Digital audio and video over the internet comes to mind, but the caveat is the material is only as good as the medium on which it is stored. CDs and DVDs only last for a few years and don’t last as long as tapes which can last for roughly a hundred years.
In addition, with the rapid advance of technology, even if we still had the medium such as hard drives, the machines on which the medium plays rapidly become obsolete. Secondarily, if the server on which the information rests is destroyed, or its company went out of business, the information can be lost as well.
The caveat is that most information storage systems don’t last as long as two that have been around for a long time already. Acid free paper which stored in the right climatic conditions can last for hundreds of years, and baked clay tablets in the same well-preserved climate, can last for thousands of years. These are still good mediums for information transmission but can be fragile and require a great deal of work and special climates to maintain.
Probably the best medium on which information could be stored and audio/visual accounts replayed would be on laser etched gold or platinum disks. This is because these two materials are most resistant to oxidation over thousands of years.
The second part of the problem is where we would need to preserve the information. At present, publishing and copyrighting a book or audio media gives a person or entity exclusive usage rights to the information for 79 years. However, this is good only if the company that publishes it can stay in business for that long. After that time it becomes part of the public domain, which is good if there are individuals in the public domain who want to maintain the information.
However, we still need to put that cultural information someplace where it is retrieved when it is needed for much longer periods than that. That best place would be the Library of Congress, where written materials have been preserved for as long as the library has been in existence, (which is around two hundred years).
We have a medium on which we can preserve traditions both oral and visual for thousands of years. We also have institutions where we can preserve them. Given these, we can only hope that the countries (Red Lake and the U. S.) which would preserve them will be around for so long.