Though science backs the notion of the wisdom of the ages, the learnings and insights of generations past aren’t always easily tapped, especially for Canada’s First Nations people. Their history was all but erased over decades of initiatives deemed by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to amount to cultural genocide. Under the residential school system, much of the languages and traditions of Canada’s Indigenous people were virtually wiped out, putting the longevity of First Nations cultures at risk.

But a project funded with a grant from AGE-WELL, a network dedicated to the use of technology to improve the lives of aging Canadians and their caregivers, not only sought to preserve the traditional ways of the life of Northern British Columbia’s Nak’azdli Whut’en people, but also to deepen ties between young and older community members and to re-engage the tribe’s elders within their society. It’s a steep goal, and it’s one that all hinged on the power of storytelling.

Stories are generally seen as a medium for entertainment. For First Nations communities, who have long relied on oral traditions to transfer knowledge, storytelling has long been a primary channel for teaching younger generations about cultural beliefs, rituals and even the skills required to survive, such as fishing and preserving seasonal foods. For the Nak’azdli people, the term “Elder” doesn’t merely refer to age, but to those who hold the knowledge upon which cultural preservation rests.

Storytelling is an important tool for passing traditions to the next generation. Photo: https://nakazdli.wordpress.com

Called the Lha’hutit’en Project – “we work together, we help one another,” in the Dakelh language – the project was a collaboration between 13 Elders from the Nak’azdli and surrounding First Nations communities and 31 grade six and seven students at Nak’al Bun Elementary School. Over bannock and Labrador tea, the elders told the students about traditional medicine, making “Indian ice cream” out of dried blackberries and bear grease, learning how to set trap lines, personal stories and other aspects of their lives.

“It’s fun because I get to hear about my grandmother, and I get to know a bit more about how her family was a long time ago and how she used to do things a long time ago,” said one young participant in a summary paper for AGE-WELL. After three storytelling sessions, all recorded on video, the students then spent nearly six months transforming the seniors’ words into full multimedia productions, using software that allowed them to layer in sounds and music and to bring the stories to life with photos and video. The videos were then showcased at a community event attended by all of the participants, their families and other community members.

Keeping traditional skills, like moccasin making, helps to keep the culture strong. Photo: https://nakazdli.wordpress.com

While the students already learn about culture and the Dakelh language in school, researchers at the Nak’azdli Health Centre, which facilitated the project, believed their lessons would be far more meaningful coming from firsthand sources. They found the benefits ran far deeper than those the classroom usually provides.

“My eldest grandmother – she was 93 at the time – phoned me every week to ask when I was picking her up because she was so excited to go to the school and share her knowledge and stories of the past and how she lived,” says Cerry Nash, Nak’azdli Health Centre’s administrative assistant and a project facilitator, who was tasked with finding and enlisting the older participants.

“This is something we’ve done for generations and generations and it’s very important for us to teach our younger ones about what we did in the past.
This is survival for us.”

In their summary paper, Nash and the program’s other facilitators also noted that as the sessions progressed, the seniors became more open and candid – one volunteered midway to be recorded while drumming and singing traditional songs – and that they reported benefits that surpassed their new connections with the younger community members. Participants, the researchers said, reported greater connections with each other and the community, and also feelings of satisfaction and success.

But according to Nash, for the Nak’azdli, the project’s greatest potential lies in the long-term community benefit. “It’s still the most important thing that we teach the kids our language and our culture,” she says. “This is the first step to preserving our language, to make sure that it is always going to be there.” But while there is a new imperative on such initiatives, she notes that storytelling is how her people have always given the younger generations the tools they need.

“It’s just natural. This is something we’ve done for generations and generations and it’s very important for us to teach our younger ones about what we did in the past. This is survival for us.”