Season 2

Ep 3: Tell Me a Story: An Audio History of Oral Cultures

With Sheila Laroque, Tanya Ball and Kayla Lar-Son

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Did you ever hear the one about Tough Laroque? No? Well, have we got a story for you.

Our guests are three Métis aunties and scholars, Sheila Laroque, Tanya Ball and Kayla Lar-Son. All three are lovers of books, they even have their own podcast called Book Women or masinahikan iskwêwak. But Sheila, Tanya and Kayla are also huge proponents of oral storytelling, both because they know a lot about it and they’re pretty good at it. There is often a lot of importance placed on writing things down but, when it comes to telling stories, some may be best saved for our ears, rather than on paper.

Listen in to their conversation on Indigenous storytelling. With host Brian Tomlinson, Sheila, Tanya and Kayla will cover what makes a good story, how its lessons change depending on the storyteller and the listener. And they’ll also remind us that sometimes a good story is just a good story! So sit back and enjoy.


Sheila Laroque: Okay. So small caveat, there may or may not be a lot of truth to this, but I'm going to tell it in a way where it's a great story. So whatever, that's how storytelling is.

Brian Tomlinson: You're listening to Infernal Communication brought to you by Staffbase. I'm your host, Brian Tomlinson. Is there really anything better than hearing a good story? Sure, we've got books, podcasts, movies, graphic novels, they're all great. But I think one of my favorite ways to take in a good tale is live and in-person. What's more fun than running into a friend who tells you about some crazy thing that happened in your neighborhood or a colleague who has some big news from work? Then there are the stories our families tell us.

Like my dad always told me about my great-great-grandmother. Though she came originally from India, she ended up on a small island in the Caribbean. One day, she went out for a dip into warm Caribbean Sea and got into a wee bit of trouble. That's before the man who would become my great-great-grandfather swam out to save her.

These stories are more than just stories. They hold history. They're past experiences that carry traditions and meaning. Within Western cultures, there's a tendency to want to write everything down, to have it on record, but there's something special about keeping things in our minds, rather than on paper. Scholars generally agree that the earliest form of writing appeared almost 5,500 years ago in Mesopotamia, which is present-day Iraq. But we humans developed the ability to speak thousands of years before that. You can bet that the day we started talking was the day we started telling stories.

So in this episode, we decided to bring in three guests who hold oral storytelling near and dear to their hearts, so much so they have a podcast dedicated to it, specifically Indigenous storytelling.

Tanya Ball: It's called masinahikan iskwêwak, and that means book women. And that's to pay homage to the fact that we all met each other when we were working as librarians, and that's one of the strings that keeps us connected.

Kayla Lar-Son: It's such a badass, Indigenous, feminist podcast, and it all came together because we were really rejected from a man, being like, "No, you can't afford me, so no." And then, we were like, "Okay. Well, we'll just do it ourselves."

Tanya Ball: I have never pieced that together before.

Kayla Lar-Son: Yeah. It's basically like, "Yeah, fuck you then. We are going to just do it ourselves then."

Sheila Laroque: I think it was a respectful "Fuck you."

Brian Tomlinson: Our guests talk to Indigenous authors, tattoo artists, burlesque performers, and musicians about how they tell their stories. Sheila, Tanya, and Kayla are quite clear, they do not speak on behalf of all Indigenous people, but they've been generous enough to come on our show and speak on behalf of themselves and what they know about oral storytelling, which is a lot. So let's find out, what do we lose when we write everything down and lock our stories into place? How can we as, storytellers and communicators, look outside the mainstream to tell our stories? And how do we do all this while making sure we aren't stealing from the cultures that inspire us?

Tanya Ball: Hello, Tân'si êkwa kiya kahkiyaw. My name is Tanya Ball. I am Métis woman from Winnipeg, Manitoba, but I'm currently living in Edmonton, Amiskwacîwâskahikan, in Treaty 6 Territory. I'm a mom, partner as well, also a dog mom.

Brian Tomlinson: Professionally, Tanya is a PhD candidate and is also a sessional instructor at both Concordia University in Montreal, Quebec, and at the University of Alberta in Edmonton. She teaches in the Indigenous Studies Department.

Kayla Lar-Son: Tân'si. Good morning, everyone. My name's Kayla Lar-Son. I'm originally from Treaty 6 Territory, Amisk Wuche or the Beaver Hills. Métis woman, but I got a little bit of Ukrainian in me. And currently, I am living on the unceded traditional territory of the hən̓q̓əmin̓əm̓-speaking Musqueam community out here on Point Grey in Vancouver. The big thing about me is I like being outside a lot.

Brian Tomlinson: Kayla is the Indigenous Programs and Services Librarian for the X̱wi7x̱wa Library at the University of British Columbia.

Sheila Laroque: Tân'si êkwa kiya kahkiyaw. Hello, how are you? My name is Sheila Laroque. I also am a Métis woman. My Métis heritage comes on my father's side. So he is originally from Duck Lake, Saskatchewan, and my mom is originally from southwestern Ontario.

Brian Tomlinson: Sheila is a librarian at the University of Saskatchewan, where she takes care of Indigenous studies and government information. All three of our guests today are Métis women, or Métis aunties, as they call themselves. Just in case you aren't all that familiar with the Métis people, here's a little history. In French, the word "Métis" refers to someone with mixed ancestry.

In Canada, the word has been used to describe people with mixed Indigenous and European ancestry. But aside from having mixed heritage, the Métis people also have their own distinct customs and a distinct way of life. They have a rich history, but more than we can cover here today, if we're going to talk about storytelling. The Métis story is fascinating, tragic, infuriating, and inspiring. I urge you to learn more about it. But let's not pretend the Métis exists only in the long ago past. Here's Sheila with a story.

Sheila Laroque: Okay, so small caveat, there may or may not be a lot of truth to this, but I'm going to tell it in a way where it's a great story. So whatever, that's how storytelling is.

Brian Tomlinson: This story was told to her by her mother, who had just moved to Prince George, British Columbia.

Sheila Laroque: There was this guy, Tough Laroque, known around town as a troublemaker and a drinker. And I guess one of the big hotels in Prince George, I've never actually been, it's called The Spruce, and it's got these great big wooden doors. And one day, the bars were all closed, but Tough Laroque wasn't done drinking. So he took his chainsaw out from the back of his truck and opened the bar. And then, they found him the next morning, passed out at the bar.

Brian Tomlinson: Tough Laroque, what a name. So the next chapter opens on Sheila's mother, now working as a respiratory therapist just a few provinces over, in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan.

Sheila Laroque: So she started working at City Hospital, and Wes Laroque, my uncle, was her boss. And she was like, "Oh, yeah, I've never really met any Laroques, except for there's this once guy out in Prince George. He was known as Tough Laroque." My uncle was like, "Oh, yeah, that's our cousin."

Brian Tomlinson: For some reason, this wasn't enough to scare Sheila's mother away. So the next thing you know...

Sheila Laroque: My uncle knew that she didn't know anybody in Saskatoon, so he's like, “Oh, well, come play cards with me after work." And then, oh, there was this single man there, weird, and it was my dad.

Tanya Ball: I love that meet cute so much. So Sheila's saying that it's a story and that's how the story goes, less than five minutes ago, that is a lot about storytelling. That's a very impactful statement that she made. Because for us, it's about the story. If I can quote Richard Van Camp, "The story's the boss." The story is always the boss, and you want to tell it in a way that makes most sense to you, and that makes a good story.

Brian Tomlinson: Richard Van Camp is an influential Tłı̨ chǫ Dene writer from Fort Smith in the Northwest Territories. He's written over 27 books in the past three decades. He talks about how he might adapt a story or shape it, depending on what's going on in his life, but the story is always the boss.

Tanya Ball: I get told all the time, "You're just being dramatic." I'm like, "No, there was like a million people there!" We like to embellish our stories. And that's okay, that's part of the responsibility of a storyteller is you're imparting your own self and your own things that you like and dislike and your own personality traits into said story. So you're attaching your personality a little bit to it. As a storyteller, it's your responsibility to impart your belief systems into said story. You do it automatically, and it's just an unspoken thing. I don't want to say it's a lot of responsibility, because at the end of the day, it's just fun. It's really fun to share your life and share your stories and be vulnerable. It's just a part of relationality, and a part of becoming empathetic and vulnerable is sharing your own stories and your own experiences with other people.

But as a story listener, your job is to listen to the story and pull out things that are relevant to you at that specific time in your life. You can listen to the same story a billion times, but depending on where you are in your life and what you've experienced, your reaction to it and the things that interest you and that you pull out are going to be relevant to you at different times. So I guess the best example is, when I was pregnant, pregnant women were everywhere. They were everywhere. But it's not that they weren't there before, we weren't paying attention to it before, if that's making sense.

Kayla Lar-Son: Yeah, it does. And I think, even when you're talking about the relational aspect of it, mountains, the forest, or other relatives that are not humans can also tell us stories, and we can interpret those stories in different times that we need to interpret those stories. When I go into the mountains or into the forest, it's constantly changing. Mountains fall, glaciers erode, trees fall, things change. So those are just stories that are being told. So I think, when it comes to Indigenous storytelling, it goes beyond, and it makes things interesting and unique and beautiful and complex too.

Brian Tomlinson: I love this deep way of thinking about story, how stories are more than just words. There are stories that are also sitting quietly, part of the environment just waiting to be noticed, connections waiting to be made, and that our ability to notice a story in our surroundings is as important or even more important than our ability to write it down.

Kayla Lar-Son: Indigenous storytelling can be as simple or complex as you want it to be, and I think that's the beauty of it.

Tanya Ball: It's like exposing the complexities of seemingly simple things, right?

Sheila Laroque: Yeah. It's like interesting storytelling, the first assumption within that is there is a relationship with the land and all beings and things in it, and trying to explain that to other people who don't necessarily come to things with that experience. When I was living in Toronto and people always seemed puzzled by that like, "What do you mean relationship with the land?We live in Toronto. We don't have a relationship with the land." Okay, well, we do. But I was like, "Well, do you ever check the weather?" And they were like, "Oh, yeah, I guess. I guess I do." I'm like, "Okay, well then, you have a relationship with the land." "Oh, well, in that way." But the sky tells us what's going on right now. In Saskatoon, it's cloudy and rainy, which is fine, because it has been really smoky due to forest fires that are not in our territory, but are still connecting to us with people in another territory.

We all are connected and we are all creating a story, and past characters within that story of past bad behavior that have wrecked our environment to the point now, where August is just like wildfire season. And now, here we are in this space, where it's like, oh yeah, this time, when we're evacuated, it seems like we're repeating ourselves and repeating the same story. But I think, when we have yet to learn and listen to this teachings and meanings behind past stories, then we're going to have to repeat them until we get it.

Brian Tomlinson: When we had this conversation, countries like Canada, Greece, Spain, and parts of the US endured a record smashing wildfire season. Climate change caused hot, dry, windy conditions, that fueled the summer's record breaking fires. As Sheila said, sometimes we have to listen to a story more than once until we get it. Maybe listening more closely to the story of mass evacuations and dangerous air quality will help us change. I sure hope so. But part of the beauty of oral storytelling is that it leaves room for the story itself to change.

Tanya Ball: So when you think of a story, I'm going to say westernized, but more like mainstream Canadian society, I'll say, your brain automatically goes to books, but it's not like that. For us, a story isn't a book. It's not even just words. It's its own living thing, because a story in itself, it changes and evolves, just as we do as human beings. So we need to respect that story and the fact that it's going to change over time, and that's why oral stories are actually really good. Because then, it allows the storyteller to imprint themselves onto the story, and it allows it to change with the times.

When you put down an oral story into a piece of paper, and I'm saying this as a trained librarian, it's not always the best thing to do to write it down, because when you're writing it down, that's basically saying that, number one, the story is dead, so it's not alive. So it needs to be preserved in almost like a funeral home or something. It just seems so bizarre and weird to me to put it into a lock and key, where it's not going to change or do anything, and it feeds into that stereotype that we, as Indigenous peoples, are static and not moving and stuck in the old times, right?

Brian Tomlinson: This idea of a story being somehow dead the second we write it down is fascinating to me. And it's true, if you think about it. That's why advertising jingles get old, for example, or why copy from the 1950s can feel dated. (Singing)

Kayla Lar-Son: It fixes it in a time and place and doesn't allow it to morph and evolve like oral storytelling does. And I also think, when we read books, we change the story in our minds. When characters are talking, we hear them the way that we want to hear them, but when we're doing oral storytelling, it's up to the storyteller to speak how somebody would be speaking or to tell the story in a certain way. They can take something that's maybe supposed to be a scary story and turn it into something completely hilarious. Whereas, when it's fixed within a book, it's a little bit different, because you're interpreting that. You're not having it interpreted to you. But when the story is being interpreted to you by a storyteller, you can still do your own interpreting on what the message is or what the meaning is, or if there even is a meaning. It could just be a funny story.

Brian Tomlinson: I find this super interesting, the point that, when a story gets told out loud, it's more open to interpretation, by both the speaker and the listener. There's the opportunity to layer on a whole new meaning, add some irony, or put your own spin on things.

Kayla Lar-Son: You don't have to be learning from everything. And I think that's also one of the misconceptions about Indigenous storytelling is that there's always a meaning to it or it's always a life lesson. In some cases, it's just a story, it's just entertainment. And then, in other cases, yeah, there's probably some good life lesson out of it about how to behave as a good community member or just don't do things that are going to kill you kind of things.

Tanya Ball: Or all of our stories tend to be traumatic. That's also a really big misconception. The real thing behind that is the only stories that we're able and allowed to publish right now are trauma-focused stories, because our mainstream society is not as accepting of Indigenous humour or how stupid our stories can be and how wild they can be. So it's almost like mainstream society's even dictating, "We're only going to accept your trauma stories, so we can feel better about ourselves."

Sheila Laroque: I think, also, when we share our stories, like our stories, ourselves personally, it really is more intimate than lending a pal a book, for example.

Tanya Ball: So this is another point of friction between Indigenous cultures and mainstream society, and this is something that Kayla and I always used to tell our students when we taught together is that, in Indigenous communities, knowledge isn't openly shared. In mainstream society, everyone is striving to be open. "I want to be an open book, I need to be open with everybody." But it's not like that, right? It's not like that in our communities. In our communities, knowledge is always earned. And that's the same thing for our intimate stories and personal stories too. You got to earn somebody's trust, and that takes time. And no one's expected to tell their personal stories right away. And sometimes, personal stories and traumatic stories don't even get told at all, because really, it's up to the storyteller, if they want to even share.

Brian Tomlinson: The idea here is that, unlike with our always on content obsessed online world, you're not automatically entitled to every story. The good stories must be earned, because they're based on relationships.

Tanya Ball: So with personal stories, there's a totally different protocol associated with it, because it's more about accountability, as opposed to, I don't know, anything else. It's, "This story is about me," or, "This story is about my relative or someone that I care about. How do I show them that care and trust by not spewing it off?"

Sheila Laroque: Or not portraying someone in your story how you interpreted them. That's a thing I'm really struggling with is, oh, okay, well, when I tell a story about what happened, I interject how I felt about that person. But to understand that stories can both build up, but also, like, ooh, you know there's some people that, if they told certain stories about you, record scratch, "Don't tell that story."

Tanya Ball: Yeah.

Kayla Lar-Son: Well, I think, when you're storytelling, it's also to build relationships. You have to entrust the person that you're telling the story. So if I tell Sheila and Tanya a story, it's because I trust them. Even by us sitting here and talking with you today, we're building relationships, we're becoming kin. We're entrusting you with our stories, and we're laughing and telling you about our lives and building that wider relationship.

Tanya Ball: I'm thinking about building kin, because I'm just holding this one, this little beaded guy.

Brian Tomlinson: Just for the record, Tanya is holding up a little toy ghost.

Tanya Ball: One of my students gave that to me. Ah, it's a ghost. I'm going to connect it. It'll make sense, believe me. Okay? We were talking earlier about connecting to the land, but we're also connecting to our ancestors as well. So a lot of our family stories, I know of, but I haven't even met my auntie, Wendy. I haven't seen her for more than 30 years, but I know about her life. I know her story, I know how she died. I know all of these different things, because we're still talking about it and we're still reconnecting with our family members.

Kayla Lar-Son: I tell stories about my parents all the time, because they passed away many years ago, so that other folks remember Rick and Linda, even though they've been gone for a really long time. And I hold those stories about them, and they will be passed down to generations and generations. And I think that's the accountability of storytelling. We as Indigenous women are accountable to pass down the stories and to be the matriarchs that will continue to pass these down to future generations, whether or not they're family stories or stories about life or stories about medicine and the mountains and things like that. It all kind of is holistic and circular. Now, I get why you showed the little ghostie. For a moment, I was like, “Where are you going with this? You're just holding up a ghost.” Now, I get it. Ancestors.

Tanya Ball: Ghostie ancestors.

Brian Tomlinson: And speaking about the accountability of storytelling, this is something I think people like me who work in comms need to remember. There are times when we really need to think more about context.

Kayla Lar-Son: Some stories are just stories, but then, there's actually stories that have traditional teachings with protocols that come with it.

Brian Tomlinson: For instance, Kayla told us that she wanted to tell a story with Métis teachings on her podcast, but it was a story that is supposed to be told at a particular time of year, a story that's connected with cultural values and seasonal practices, a story that does not exist in a vacuum, but it's a good story. More people should hear it. So what do you do? Well, Kayla asked an elder, because she wanted to treat the story with the proper care and respect that it deserved, and because some stories just need to be treated differently than others.

Kayla Lar-Son: I think those are the stories that, for myself, when thinking about sovereignty, cultural sovereignty, knowledge sovereignty, those are the ones that have to be protected, because then, when we take stories that aren't meant to be shared or that are community owned and you share them inappropriately, they can be misrepresented, misinterpreted, commodified, used inappropriately for money. So really, it's all about getting permission to tell stories. So if communities give you permission to tell stories, then you have their permission. But just do it in a good way. Be a good relative, and be a good ally and only share what you're allowed to share.

Tanya Ball: Yeah. Cultural appropriation too, just to broaden the conversation out even further, it's about power. It's all about power. So cultural appropriation happens when there is a dominant culture and then, more of an underrepresented culture. So clearly, within our Canadian society, Indigenous folks, and especially Métis people, we are not the dominant society. In fact, we are on the very outlier of the chart. So that sense of power of taking from cultures that are underrepresented and using and presenting them as if they're your own, and also making money off of it, it's very unethical in our culture, right?

And I think it's unethical for a lot of non-Indigenous peoples as well. You need to differentiate between cultural appropriation, cultural exchange, and all of those different things. Métis, we've always had lots of cultural exchange with First Nations and Inuit. They're our relatives, they've been our relatives for a long time, but we have that exchange where neither of us is in a position of power.

Brian Tomlinson: It is a question of power. Who came up with a story? For what purpose? And under what conditions? Where are you planning to share it? All these things matter. So as storytellers, the people who work in the slippery medium of words, it's up to each of us to remember the power we hold. And never forget the story is the real boss. It can have a life of its own, so make it good, have a bit of fun with it, sure, but treat it with respect.

And remember too that stories spoken out loud can hit differently at different times. There's nothing wrong with molding what you have to say to fit the situation. Stories told orally are alive. They have the added beauty of flexibility, and they're extra powerful, because they're experienced both by the speaker and by the ears and hearts of the listeners. Today, our wonderful guests were Sheila Laroque, Kayla Lar-Son, and Tanya Ball.

You'll find a link to their podcast in the show notes. I'm Brian Tomlinson, and this is Infernal Communication, brought to you by Staffbase, with production support from JAR Audio.

Join us next time when we take a peek behind the curtain into the inner workings of algorithms. We'll talk to an expert about what to watch out for, and an artist who learned to beat the system.

Gretchen Andrew: We would never let 60% of our living room have advertisements in it, but that's what we allow for our Instagram feed. And most of the time, when we're sitting on our sofas at home, we're on our phones anyway.

Brian Tomlinson: If you enjoyed the show, tell your friends, tell your parents, tell your dog even, and you could follow us on your favorite podcast app and definitely leave a review. We'd love to know what you think. Until next time.

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