The Social Life of Stories: Narrative and Knowledge in the Yukon Territory

The Social Life of Stories: Narrative and Knowledge in the Yukon Territory

The Social Life of Stories: Narrative and Knowledge in the Yukon Territory

The Social Life of Stories: Narrative and Knowledge in the Yukon Territory


In this theoretically sophisticated study of indigenous oral narratives, Julie Cruikshank moves beyond the text to explore the social significance of storytelling. Circumpolar Native peoples today experience strikingly different and often competing systems of narrative and knowledge. These systems include traditional oral stories; the authoritative, literate voice of the modern state; and the narrative forms used by academic disciplines to represent them to outsiders. Pressured by other systems of narrative and truth, how do Native peoples use their stories and find them still meaningful in the late twentieth century? Why does storytelling continue to thrive? What can anthropologists learn from the structure and performance of indigenous narratives to become better academic storytellers themselves?

Cruikshank addresses these questions by deftly blending the stories gathered from her own fieldwork with interdisciplinary theoretical perspectives on dialogue and storytelling, including the insights of Walter Benjamin, Mikhail Bakhtin, and Harold Innis. Her analysis reveals the many ways in which the artistry and structure of storytelling mediate between social action and local knowledge in indigenous northern communities.


How do scholars see beyond the norms they use to frame the experiences of others unless those norms are interrupted and exposed so that scholars are vulnerable, seeing what they believe as possibly wrong, or at least limited?

Greg Sarris, Keeping Slug Woman Alive

Well, I have no money to leave to my grandchildren. My stories are my wealth.

Angela Sidney, Tagish, March 1974

During the past two decades, I have spent considerable time thinking about stories and about how their meanings shift as tellers address different audiences, situations, and historical contexts. From the early 1970s until 1984, I lived in the Yukon Territory and had the good fortune to work closely with elders engaged in the project, of recording their life stories. They and their families wanted to see accounts written in their own words describing memories and experiences spanning almost a century. Ongoing discussions about how these words should be recorded, transcribed, and circulated were central to the procedures we followed in trying to develop shared ethnographic authority.

Then, in the mid-1980s, I returned to the university as a student after fifteen years’ absence, hoping to learn more about how varieties of knowledge passed on in oral narrative are enlarging scholarly understanding in anthropology and history. There I encountered literature from Africa, Europe, North and South America, New Zealand, Australia, Asia, and the South Pacific addressing questions similar to those absorbing us in the Yukon: questions about oral tradition’s potential for translating distinctive cultural meanings to diverse audiences. Both these educational processes— in northern communities and in southern libraries—provided me with . . .

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