Understanding & Information Sharing in an Oral Tradition LO29328

From: Heidi and Dan Chay (chay@alaska.com)
Date: 10/16/02

Replying to LO29296 --


This excerpt leapt out at me while reading about Benjamin Franklin and
the Iroquois at
http://www.ratical.org/many_worlds/6Nations/FFchp5.html :

Franklin showed

"an appreciation of the Indian councils, which he had written were
superior in some ways to the British Parliament. "Having frequent
Occasion to hold public Councils, they have acquired great Order and
Decency in conducting them. . . . The women . . . are the Records of the
Council . . . who take exact notice of what passes and imprint it in
their Memories, to communicate it to their Children." Franklin also
showed appreciation of the sharpness of memory fostered by reliance on
oral communication: "They preserve traditions of Stipulations in
Treaties 100 Years back; which, when we compare with our writings, we
always find exact."

Reading Franklin's observation about information-sharing among the
Iroquois reminded me of "The Walking People: A Native American Oral
History," by Paula Underwood. This book/song/poem/history/learning (803
pages), is quite beautiful, a learning-oriented history that goes back
eons. Franklin's observations above suggest to me an interesting
corroborative resonance.

Here is how Underwood describes learning the "ancient learning" in her
introduction. Note their emphasis on understanding in information-sharing.

 ----- begin quoted material -----
This is an oral history transmitted in the ancient way.

As with many other oral traditions and histories, extensive testing and
training are necessary before you are even invited to hear what you may
one day have responsibility for.

>From my earliest days my father tested and trained my memory. This
involved acts as simple as turning me away from where I had been looking
and asking me what I had seen. This would be repeated again and again
without warning until you did - or did not - learn the art of taking
mental pictures of anything you looked at and the art of recalling that
image as if you looked at it anew.

This was never done as a pass/fail test, nor was any pressure at all put
on me to succeed. If I was not appropriate to this task, why would he
want to rest it on my shoulders? Yet, neither was it a game. It was a
learning -- an opportunity to understand life better.

When he was reasonably sure I had the developable capacity to learn at
least much of this history, I began to hear small "snippets and sections"
-- much like the teasers you see of "coming attractions" in movie theaters
-- enough to whet the appetite. To learn the whole story, certain other
things were necessary first -- like showing the ability to listen with
absolute attention, like staying awake concentrating on one thing for a
day and a night, like memorizing other things.. Songs or poems, like
demonstrating an ability to understand.

When my father was reasonably sure I had some small skills in each of
these areas, I began to hear the full length of the history, one small
part at a time, still testing for understanding. As I thought I had
learned any section, I was encouraged to "give it back", but never in the
same way it was given to me. This taught me two things. First, not to be
to hasty in assuming I had already learned it. Second, hearing something
-- and understanding it -- are two different steps.

When it finally seemed to me that I might risk "giving back" one whole
section to my father, I learned something new. I was asked to give it
back to him three times -- in three different ways -- no one of which
could be the way in which my father presented it to me.

I should be able, you see, to demonstrate an absolute understanding so
sure that I could restate it in any contemporary language, so that it
might be more understood than "wondered at." As my father pointed out,
language changes! Many people did not even understand the language of
Shakespeare which his mother often read out loud. Little value in a
history so couched.

Knowing as I do how many patient years are spent in this learning, I have
a profound respect for the probable accuracy of all I learned from him.
As suggested in the foreword, I have indeed found and seen many of the
possibilities described herein. Many things I was told were impossible or
non-existent when I was a child -- or as recently as five years ago -- I
have now walked through.. Or found in some more recent research. I have a
profound respect for the probable accuracy of all I learned from my

Yet, where did my father learn such things?

Five generations ago, a young woman, growing in wisdom, took up and was
given responsibility for all this ancient learning. She was Oneida, one
of the Five first Nations of the Iroquois Confederacy. Her Clan was
Turtle. She was my grandfather's grandmother. She saw all this Ancient
Wisdom disappearing around her and grew determined it should not die, but
be perpetuated down the generations, until a new generation learned to

She took her learning west to Illinois, where my grandfather learned it
from her. It was he who finally taught it to my father on their Nebraska
farm. In my turn, in the house my father built in Los Angeles, I took up
this responsibility with very willing hands, learning the nature of
dedication from all these Ancient Tellings, accepting the further
responsibility to write them down in English, the language of this broader

This lineal transmission into written form was decided on nearly 200 years
ago, as between my grandfather's grandmother and the Keeper of the Old
Things from whom she learned. This specific responsibility to enable the
Ancient Keeper to speak through us to the Seventh Generation hence was
accepted at that time and in every generation since.

As it was then agreed, so it has been done.

Whether this ever was the history of the Iroquois -- or of one group who
joined them -- I do not know. But I am certain it is the history of my
ancestors, who -- in a direct line down uncounted generations -- never
forgot to remember.

On behalf of them, and of the five most recent generations, I give it to
you now as it was intended, a gift.. For listening ears.

Kind thoughts come..
 ----- end of quoted material -----


Dan Chay

[Host's Note: Paula Underwood's stories are remarkable! I had the great
pleasure of hearing her speak on several occastions. Paula passed away in
December 2000. ..Rick]


"Heidi and Dan Chay" <chay@alaska.com>

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