SASKATOON – Jessica Generoux knows that traditional storytelling takes place in person and in small gatherings, making it an exciting and intimate experience for anyone hearing the knowledge and stories passed down by elders.
Library Services to Indigenous Saskatchewan people have supported schools, libraries and other cultural organizations with annual Aboriginal Storytelling Month, which began last week.
Generoux, the coordinator of the Aboriginal Storytelling Project in Saskatchewan, said it has been difficult for them over the past two years since the pandemic began, but they have managed to adapt, school-age children and all the culture of Indigenous peoples to bring close.
Despite the challenges posed by the pandemic, they pushed the project forward and rescheduled some of the storytelling events across various online platforms such as Zoom video conferencing, Facebook and YouTube.
“We have some difficulties because storytelling traditionally takes place with smaller large gatherings of local people. And the personal closeness makes the storytelling more intimate. People come together, they gather around the fire; There’s no six-foot distance or social distancing, no masks or whether you’re vaccinated or not,” Generoux told SASKTODAY.ca.
She added that one of the benefits of using online platforms during the pandemic is that they reach a wider audience, rather than having a small group from each school.
“We’ve been working under this pandemic for the last two years and the virtual programs have allowed us to connect with many more people than usual; ranges from up to 15,000 to 30,000. With the virtual tools we have, the librarians have had to use them to provide programs. For example, we can reach 600 people with Facebook Live storytelling,” said Geroux.
“Compare that with the storyteller speaking in a gymnasium in one of the schools – like in Canora or Humboldt – which is only suitable for at least 60 people. So, that’s the positive side of it, but there’s also the negative side and that we miss the intimacy and connection that storytelling brings when we have people together. This personal aspect sometimes doesn’t have the feeling of the human aspect. You don’t feel that in the virtual world.”
The cancellation of storytelling events is another challenge, with some schools canceling the event at the last minute due to a positive case and the facility having to close.
Still, Generoux said, they have prevailed to organize the virtual storytelling events to educate the children about these Indigenous tales of heroism and poetry, cooking classes, musical performances and other cultural lessons that were banned decades ago during the school system’s heyday.
“There are many challenges that we have faced as a society and we have overcome them together, but we just keep going. We have continued to support each other and we keep those connections alive every day by reaching out and finding meaning in what we do and what we share,” she added.
The storytelling project started 19 years ago [LSSAP] by a committee composed of indigenous librarians from various libraries in the province.
“The program has now been running for almost two decades and we are working to raise public awareness of our work and its importance. We will continue to do whatever is necessary to build partnerships within our society,” said Geroux.
More than 60 storytellers from across Saskatchewan participate in the program, including artist Darwin Atcheynum and Solomon Ratt, an associate professor at the First Nations University of Canada who teaches Cree courses.
Generoux added that they are trying to help other provinces organize similar events with committee member Lindsay Baker of Wapiti Regional Library in Prince Albert sharing the information and have discussed their own Ontario Aboriginal storytelling project to take it up statewide promote level.
“There are other provinces with similar programs that are also working to preserve the tradition of indigenous storytelling,” Geroux said.