Our lives are woven from stories, and most of the stories of our times are not found in books or even online, but float between us over coffee and shared meals. As Saskatchewan Aboriginal Storytelling month draws to a close in the midst of public protests and Indigenous activism, it may be important to talk about the ethics of telling each other’s stories.
“The biggest lie of all is the story you think you already know.”
― Anna-Marie McLemore
The old people that share stories with me always do so after explaining the pedigree of the story, to whom the story belongs, how they came to hear it and why they are sharing it with me. This is the way it has always been done, it helps us connect to the context of the story, but most importantly, it is a practice rooted in respect. In all the stories told in the past and in all the stories we tell now, people generally play a prominent role, and people are unique individuals with specific circumstance. Respect for and kindness towards one another is paramount in the relationships within a community, and that is where the stories live as well, in the truth of relationships and communities. I cannot always be present to share my story when it is needed or relevant so I rely strongly on my allies to share for me. Alternatively, I occasionally find myself in a position where someone else’s story is the right one to share. In both of theses cases, authenticity and relationship must come first.
“you have to be careful with the stories you tell. And you have to watch out for the stories that you are told.” – Thomas King, The Truth about Stories.
Authenticity in story is not just about the story but includes the storyteller as well as the medium in which it is being shared. In today’s spaces we share stories in so many ways that they can often be hard to keep track of and just as often, seem disconnected from reality. I would say this is precisely why we must be careful with the stories we tell. We use stories to make sense of the world and to communicate that meaning with others. If our tales are cautionary, they must be true, if they are celebratory, they must be true and if they are history they must always be true. But if the truth is not our own, there is danger in the re-telling. If the lesson has no pedigree, owner or context, how do we know it is authentic for everyone?
“Enemies are people who’s story you haven’t heard, or who’s face you haven’t seen.”
― Irene Butter
While it is important to help others see how you connect to a story, it is even more important to know how you connect to the storyteller. Relationship is our litmus test for the stories we can tell. Irene Butter says that “enemies are people who’s story you haven’t heard”, but I think enemies are more likely the people who’s story you can’t relate to. When you can relate to a story or its characters, motives become understandable, and ultimately, actions become necessary. Story without relationship can result in othering, a well-known psychological concept where a group of people is made to seem fundamentally different, even to the point of making that group seem less than human. In reality, the differences we ‘see’ in people are more created than real and relationships are the antithesis of othering. When we relate to the stories that we tell, we tell them differently, we have a vested interest in their veracity, and a sense of ownership. And as Brene Brown says, “when you own [a] story, you get to write the ending”. So ethically, finding a way to relate to ‘others’ before we tell their stories prevents us from re-writing the ending, and this is relationship.
Finally, as Thomas King says, “the truth about stories is, that’s all we are”, so in the midst of public protests and Indigenous activism, let’s find ourselves in each other’s stories and try to move forward in authentic relationship.