The Importance of Storytelling within Indigenous Culture

Storytelling is the beating heart of Indigenous culture as it is the primary way in which their history has been recorded. For millennia, First Nations’ history, educational stories, and the stories of country, creation and tradition have been passed down through the generations (QCAA, 2018). Today, the practice of storytelling sustains communities, validates experiences, nurtures relationships and serves as a form of important cultural continuation for Indigenous peoples (Iseke, 2013).

Storytelling through traditional sand paintings. Image sourced from ABC.

Oral forms of communication within Indigenous culture go beyond just language - song, dance, art and craft traditions also communicate important messages and record significant events (QCAA, 2018). In many cases, it is the role of elders within communities to pass on their knowledge and wisdom to the younger generations through storytelling. Some stories are mythical or sacred, some are pedagogical tools used to teach stories about life and some serve as sources of strength and spirituality. The life lessons taught through these stories provide an essential way of young people being able to make sense of the world and establish personal values, relationships and cultural beliefs.

The consistency of facts carried through these stories from generation to generation have proved to be incredibly accurate. An example of this are the Indigenous stories that talk of the dramatic sea level rises that took place across Australia more than 7000 years ago. Marine geographer Partick Nunn and Linguist Nicholas Reid believe that 21 of these stories from across Australia accurately record these events. It is truly astonishing that 300 generations could pass these stories down without the facts fundamentally changing at some point. Some stories are straight factual accounts while other older stories tell the facts through narratives about country, animals and moral stories. A feature of Indigenous storytelling culture is a unique “cross-generational cross-checking” process. Through this process, elders ensure that stories are continued through the generations with incredible consistency (Robertson, 2015).

“When you have three generations constantly in the know, and tasked with checking as a cultural responsibility, that creates the kind of mechanism that could explain why Indigenous Australians seem to have done something that hasn’t been achieved elsewhere in the world: telling stories for 10,000 years.” - Nicholas Reid , 2015

Yarn partner artist Alicia Close’s NAIDOC 2020 artwork “Our Beautiful Country” also tells the story of this significant event. The painting portrays the many different areas where the stories came from including Alicia’s home country, Quandamooka Country. The lines in between connect the stories and the people. This artwork shows how storytelling connects people and country.

“Our Beautiful Country” by Alicia Close (partner artist)

In contemporary times the practice of storytelling has continued within Indigenous communities and also the broader Australian populous. Technology has introduced many new possibilities for both the telling of stories across a larger and more diverse audience. With the world's addition to technology, telling stories digitally has become a necessary way of preserving culture and reaching the younger generation.

There are many creatives and companies that are now doing just this - telling important Indigenous stories in digital form. One such group is Bangarra, an Indigenous contemporary dance company that shares a diverse range of stories through their productions. In 2019, to celebrate their 30th anniversary they held an exhibition at Carriageworks, Sydney called “Knowledge Ground.” The immersive installation took viewers through a series of thematic worlds created from elements of Bangarra’s productions. These included set, costume, artefacts, AV projection, language recordings and film footage. The installation explored themes that are at the core of Bangarra’s work, country, language, kinship and history all through the art of storytelling (Sebag-Montefiore, 2019).

Knowledge Ground Installation 2019. Image sourced from Carriageworks Sydney.

“It’s in our Indigenous DNA to use oral stories ... to carry culture.” - Stephen Page creative director of Bangarra Dance Company.

Another example of a group who shares stories in digital form are Bilbie Virtual Labs who have created “Virtual Songlines” a virtual reality experience that allows viewers to be a part of stories and even participate in games and quests. The platform was created as a way of engaging a broader audience and preserving Indigenous culture and tradition.

Storytelling through technology also has its challenges. Through creating digital forms of stories, these stories become accessible to thousands of people online, which can often be seen as an invasion of privacy. There are many Indigenous stories which are sacred and are only meant to be shared with certain people. We have to strike a balance between sharing and privacy when it comes to storytelling.

By working closely with our partner artists, we are able to achieve this balance. At Yarn, we share the stories that they want to share with the world, stories that are important to them and also educate our customers. We share First Nations’ artwork and stories as a way of educating and cultivating appreciation for Indigenous arts and culture. Most importantly, we hope that the tradition of storytelling can continue to flourish and serve an essential form of cultural continuation for First Nations people.