Multiculturalism Through Stories and Myths



                                                                                                                           by  Marilyn Kinsella



As librarians you are aware of the variety of ways to introduce other cultures.  My focus, however, will be on the stories, myths, legends in the 398.2 section from Native American and Afro-American sources. The stories I tell from these two cultures are only a part of the many stories I tell from around the world.  I call myself a universal storyteller.  My mission as a teller is clearly quoted from a book called "Multicultural Teaching" by Pamela Tiedt on p. 30

"After students have read (or have been told) a series of folktales from one culture or region, they will be ready to abstract concepts of human values and behavior from their study and apply them to a comparison of the other culture and their own.  How did the people in the story behave?  What kinds of problems did they face?  ...What can we learn from the problems and solutions in these stories that we could apply to our own lives?..."

 It is my belief that through stories we as librarians and educators can tap into universal mores and values.  When we hear stories from other cultures, we see that the old adage is true - once we hear another manís story, we can never hate that person. We realize that we all have the same hopes and dreams... the same capacity for love. And we all have our troubles. These stories have messages for conflict resolution and dire consequences for foolishly ignoring the wisdom of the ages.

It is important to try as best one can to involve the whole culture not just one aspect.  As a librarian you must do some research on the culture from which you are borrowing.  Not everything you learn has to presented to the class, but you will have some working knowledge of that country.  It is important in telling their stories, because without it, you might miss the significance of a symbol or action or, worse, misinterpret it.

Yes, I realize that this is extra work for already over-worked librarians, but the effort is worth it.

I'd like to address an issue about telling stories from other cultures.  Some people will say that stories should only be told by a person from that certain ethnic background.  My answer is "yes and no".  If you follow the simple suggestions already presented, you will do a fine job in telling the stories.

However, it is true that there are "holders of stories" within some cultures.  It is their mission to teach, preserve, and perpetuate their stories within the context of their culture. There may be only certain times of the year or day that a story can be told.  A holder of stories respects these and other traditions and taboos dealing with storytelling. To hear a story told by such a person is a great honor.  It would show disrespect to tell their stories or make a tape, and not have been given permission by the teller. It would be disrespectful to dress up in a native costume and assume the position of story holder just because one knows ten stories from that culture. 

 I am not a Native American nor Afro-American.  I am a storyteller with a whole body of stories from many countries including Native America and Africa. It is my mission to teach, also.  But my main thrust is to perpetuate a global view of the world through stories.  To not tell some of these stories would leave holes in my universal fabric of storytelling.


                                                                                   Native American Storytelling


Since the 1980's there has been a lot written about the people who inhabited the Western Hemisphere before 1492.  A plethora of books on every aspect of their lives has been explored. The Indian society is very much alive in America.  It is not a thing of the past, and therefore it has to be accorded a little more care than when telling stories from other cultures of a long time ago.  I am no expert on Indian life.  However, there are some pitfalls regarding storytelling that I can share.

bullet  Try not to this unit in September to November.  Everyone else is, and books and materials easily become scarce.
bullet  Watch the language presented in books - especially anything earlier than 1980.  Inadvertently, many words which may have seemed harmless in the old days can now open old wounds.  Ex. - braves, squaw, primitive, pagan, godless, redskins, etc..
bullet  Don't change any characters, objects or numbers in the story.  Often these are symbols for deeper meanings.  Ex.- owl portents death, stones carry stories, the numbers 4 and 7 are powerful numbers.
bullet  Try to tell something about the tribe before telling the story.
bullet  Try to get permission from the tribe or a person from that tribe.  As a school librarian, you don't need to worry about this as much a person who is a paid storyteller.  But just because you heard a Native American storyteller tell a story , it doesn't mean that you automatically have permission to tell it.
bullet Just because a story was found in an old collection doesn't always make it correct.  In fact, during the late 1800's, when collecting Native American stories was popular, some authors took poetic license with the stories or combined story parts or changed the endings of the stories.  This can be a real roadblock to learning a story.  This is what I do.  As I learn the story, I find out as much about the story and its people as I can.  If, later, someone comes up to me and says that something is not correct, I humbly apologize.  Then I re-research the disputed part.  My sources could be wrong or, since each tribe is unique, there are times when one tribe's version is different than another. Yes, it gets confusing.  But I just plow through trying to do my best and be willing to change, if it is called for.
bullet  All stories are sacred.  These are not stories in which one can make parodies or fracture.  That is not to say that these stories aren't fun to tell - because they are.  You just don't have the freedom to improvise and make it your own as you do with other folk tales.
bullet  Not all of their stories are cute animal tales.  Their stories cover a wide range of the human experience.  Some of their humor is bawdy and full of sexual innuendo. I prefer not to tell these stories from any culture, but that is just a sign of my comfort range.
bullet  There is a tendency to over-romanticize the Native American population.  They had and have their faults, their wars, and their family problems just as every other society does.  As a rule they lived in harmony with nature, but at times, they did not.  The stories and myths tried to teach what would happen if certain rules weren't followed.  And, as in any culture, there were those who did not follow the rules.

 I do not mean to put a great burden on anyone who wishes to tell these stories. They have personally given me great joy in the listening and the telling of their stories. After all, if your heart is in the right place, I believe it will all come together. But like I said before, the Native American in many respects are still practicing the Indian way.  It is alive, and, as such, we need to demonstrate respect.

 To conclude I'd like to share with you some thoughts a folklorist told me at a conference I attended ages ago.  I found his words to be very helpful.  He said that there are 5 levels to telling stories outside one's culture. These apply to Native American stories. 

 1.  We all are storytellers.  We tell and share stories everyday.  Telling about our escapades is one of life's delights.

 2.  Teaching tales.  These often appear in the form of a myth.  They explain how or why something became the way it is. EX.- How Possum Got His Tail.  These stories are easy, have great characters, and have wonderful morals and teachings hidden inside them.

 3.  Creation Myths - Anything celestial or dealing with the beginning of time are creation myths.  You need to pay close attention to these stories and tell them as close to the original story as you can.

 4.  Negative energy stories - witches, giants, vampires, windigo, etc.  These stories conjure negative powers and must be treated with great respect.  You, the storyteller, must understand the implications of the story and the power they hold.

 5.  What you, the storyteller, say comes true.  They're called shamans among the Indians.  We also call them prophets, seers and holy ones. They are the ones who have the ability to foresee events.

There are many fine Native American Storytellers who tell to their people. Many never leave their tribal grounds. Others have taken their talents to the main stages around the United States and internationally.

bullet Joseph Bruchac - Abenaki Storyteller and Author
bullet Kevin Locke - Northern Plains Indian - Native American flute player, hoop dancer and storyteller
bullet Dovie Thomason - Lakota/Kiowa Apache storyteller and cultural educator.
bullet Vi Hilbert - Upper Scagit tribe storyteller and author
bullet Johnny Moses - Tulalip Native American Storyteller and Author
bullet Gayle Ross - A Cherokee Teller and author
bullet Debra Morningstar - an Oneida storyteller and workshop presenter


Many organizations dedicate themselves to preserving the Native American way of life. Still, much focus is on the past of the Native American people. If we share the rich culture and deep love Native American's have for mother earth, we can ensure a future as well. Please visit



My favorite Native American books include:

 Joe Bruchac - personal favorite:

Children of the Longhouse, The Boy Who Lived with Bears, Dog People, Eagle Song, The Earth under Sky Bearís Feet, The First Strawberries, Flying with the Eagle, Four Ancestors, Fox Song, The Girl Who Married the Moon, Gluskabe and the Four Wishes, Gluskabe stories, The Great Ball Game, Iroquois Stories: Heroes and Heroines, Native American Animal Stories Native American Stories, Native Plant Stories, Return of the Sun, The Story of the Milky Way, Thirteen Moons on Turtleís Back, Turtle Meat and other Stories and The Keepers of the Earth (series with Michael Caduto).

Paul Goble - well researched stories plus original pictures:

Adopted by Eagles, Beyond the Ridge, Buffalo Woman, Crow Chief, Dream Wolf, The Friendly Wolf, The Gift of the Sacred Dog, Her Seven Brothers, I Sing for the Animals, Iktomi (series), Remaking the Earth: a Creation Story, The Return of the Buffaloes, Star Boy

Terry Cohlene - Good stories with cultural background:

Clamshell Boy, Dancing drum, Ka-ha-si, Little Firefly, Quillworker, Turquoise Boy.

Good Collections:

Skunny Wundy by Arthur Parker, Tonweya and the Eagles by Yellow Robe, Spirits, Heroes and Hunters by Marion Wood, The Whistling Skeleton by George Bird Grinnell, The Woman in the Moon by James Riordan, Legends of the Great Chiefs by Emerson Matson, and Longhouse Legends by Emerson Matson.



                                                                 AFRICAN AND AFRO-AMERICAN STORIES





                                                                           MARILYN KINSELLA



As with the Native American culture, the tendency is to group all black people from the "country" of Africa as one.  Africa is a continent with a wide variety of cultures.  Language, tribal dress, music, etc. differ from one country to the next.  And, of course, the stories are different.  However, like the Native American stories, these stories traveled around Africa changing as they passed from one culture to the next.  Probably the biggest change came when they were brought to the U.S. There were no longer any leopards or elephants.  So, many of the stories took on the animals of the Americas - fox, bear, and rabbit.  These then became the Br'er (or brother) Rabbit stories.  Other stories, like Anansi the spider, became "Aunt Nancy" stories.  Other African stories traveled to the Caribbean Islands.  As the stories mixed with those of the native people, new versions were spawned.

Most of the pitfalls that I wrote about in telling Native American stories can be applied to Afro-American stories.  But there are a few others that need to be addressed.


There are some words in which the Afro-Americans take offense.  At this point in history it is best to avoid using  - mammy, boy (when referring to a man), or any dated names for this population.  Many of you are aware of the controversy over using the "N" word in Huck Finn.  This was a perfectly acceptable term a hundred years ago, but not any longer.


Getting a bad rap!  In our desire to right a grievous wrong our society tends to "throw the baby out with the bath water".  Let's take a look at the case of "Little Black Sambo."  First, the story is from India (tigers don't come from Africa).  But, because the family names are Sambo, Mambo, and Jumbo, many people think it is an African story.  Secondly, the child is called "black" throughout the story.  Now, this gives a nice cadence to the phrase - little black Sambo.  But we don't go around calling Jack - little white Jack.  The color of this child should make no difference.  Yet, the story is a great story!  In my 15 years as a teller, I have never heard anyone tell "Little Black Sambo" or even a variation of it because it has such a bad rap.


 Br'er Rabbit stories also got a bum deal.  These stories have direct roots in Africa.  They are delightful renditions of the "how and why" stories.  So, what happened?  Joel Chandler Harris collected these stories in the 1800's.  He wrote them down using the thick dialect of the time.  People reading those stories today think, "Black people don't talk like that."  And today, they don't.  Reading Chandler's version to today's children might be construed as making fun of the blacks.  Further, Harris framed the stories by introducing an Uncle Tom character, who was telling the stories to white children.  And, perhaps, that is exactly what he experienced as he wrote.  But, first, it took the stories out of the context in which they were usually told.  And, secondly, the kindly, submissive Uncle Tom was derided as being a white man's version of what slave and slavery was like. Uncle Remus became a stereotype because he became a symbol of slavery and a later justification for it.

But again, the stories themselves are priceless - full of wit and humor, colorful language, and the wisdom of the ages.  At least with these stories, others did not give up on them.  There are new collections coming out all the time.  My favorites are by Julius Lester.  They are written without dialect, but kept the colorful language.  They are also updated so they don't sound as if they were written a hundred years ago.  Julius Lester says that he calls his writing "a modified contemporary southern black English, a combination of standard English and black English where sound is as important as meaning."  My right brain becomes overactive when I read that last phrase - where sound is as important as meaning. Yes!


 Accents - The Afro-American language is rich - full of metaphor, cadence, rhythm, and expression.  To tell these stories without some of these characteristics would be to rob it of its richness.  However, one has to be very careful.  If it is misused or exaggerated, some people might take offense.  So, this is what I do.

 African stories:  My voice pattern is affected with a "lilt."  It has a different rhythm to it - without it trying to sound like I'm doing a bad imitation of an accent from another country.  I also use some common expressions or word patterns. Ex.- saying a word or phrase three times for emphasis.  I also use certain African words (as found in many of Aardema's books) when I can tell them fluently and correctly.

Afro-American stories:  Again, my versions of these stories have a different energy than other stories I tell.  I avoid using an "accent" until a character is actually speaking.  And then my accent is just a hint of one.  But to use the colorful phrases and expressions without it leaves it flat.   This is a controversial issue and some disagree with the way I tell.  Others find it delightful. You have to find your own comfort zone and what is comfortable to your audience.  Be flexible and open to change.


Many African stories talk about Nyame, the Sky God - just as Native American stories talk about the Great Spirit (s).  I would never refer to their God as a false god or pagan god.  But, I would remind the children that other cultures have different names for God.  We all pray to the same spirit of God.



                                                          My favorite Afro-American and African stories include:

Easy picture books:

Verna Aardema - Anansi Does the Impossible, Whoís in Rabbits House, Why Mosquitoes Buzz in Peopleís Ears, Anansi Finds a Fool, Bimwili and the Zimwili, Princess gorilla, The Vigananee.

Eric Kimmel - Anansi and the Moss-covered Rock, Anansi and the talking Melons, Anansi Goes Fishing.

Gerald McDermott - Anansi the Spider, The Magic Tree, Zomo the Rabbit.

Gail Haley - A Story, A Story

Pete Seeger - Abiyoyo

Linda Goss - The Baby Leopard



Julius Lester - Tales of Uncle Remus (series), The Knee-high Man, How Many Spots Does a Leopard Have.

Virginia Hamilton - The People Could Fly

Verna Aardema - Mioso





                                                              My favorite Stories from Around the World include:

Easy picture books:

C.W. Hunter - The Green Gourd

Grimm - "Rumpelstilskin"

Heather Forest - A Bakerís Dozen and The Woman Who Flummoxed the Fairies

Tomie De Paola - Legend of the Blue Bonnet, Strega Nona



Heather Forest - Wisdom Tales From Around the World and Wonder Tales from Around the World,

David Holt - Ready-to-tell Tales

Pleasant DeSpain - Pleasant Journeys I, II

Shari Lewis - One-Minute favorite Fairy Tales (these are not great retellings, but they are almost to the bare bones of the stories)

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