Benefits of Storytelling: Take-Aways from my Dissertation

As some of you know, I completed my doctoral degree at Iowa State University in 2019. As part of the process, I had to write a dissertation, a long and arduous manuscript summarizing findings from an independent research study. I wrote mine about the impact of Myaamia storytelling on living well for Myaamiaki

Group of Storytellers at the 2020 Miami Tribe of Oklahoma Winter Gathering.
Storytellers at the 2020 Miami Tribe of Oklahoma Winter Gathering
Photo by Jonathan Fox

I interviewed 15 tribal members at the 2018 Winter Gathering, when stories were fresh on their minds. If you are reading this as one of the people I interviewed (you all know who you are), I want to say mihšineewe for your insights and willingness to take the time to meet with me. This not only helped me complete my dissertation, but also provided valuable insights regarding stories and living well that can be passed down to future generations of Myaamiaki. Though I would do things differently if I could go back and do it again (important lessons were learned along the way), there were many important take-aways regarding how storytelling impacts Myaamiaki.

During the interviews, I focused predominantly on the impact of Wiihsakacaakwa stories, in particular, in order to focus the interview and because these stories are diverse yet provide many life lessons. Wiihsakacaakwa is a beloved character by many myaamiaki, a being with many powers and abilities who undertakes adventures to provide life lessons to our tribal community. I want to share some of the themes that emerged from these interviews, not as a means to tell you the lessons you should take away from the stories, but to share some of the ways Myaamiaki use these stories to help them live well in their own lives. I encourage you to do some self-reflection throughout the year on what we can learn from all our stories.

I found four primary lessons that folks take away from their musings of Wiihsakacaakwa.

Theme #1: How To Be a Good Person

The first theme that emerged from the interview data regarding how Wiihsakacaakwa stories help people to live well is regarding the life lessons about what makes a good person. People talked about this character going through many adventures, with trials and tribulations along the way and themes emerging about how to live properly. These emerge both as Wiihsakacaakwa teaching us what to do as well as what not to do (though the latter emerged as its own theme; see below). For example, one person said,

“I think inherently that teaches you, gives you a broad perspective of how to be a good person… For a night of storytelling you have the storyteller up there telling this string of Wiihsakacaakwa stories. If you listen to all of them… you are going to get a general sense… how to be a good person, or how not to be a bad person.” 

Otherwise, people spoke about community-level values that emerge from the stories. For example, people reported caring for others, respect, and obligations for family as being important life lessons learned from Wiihsakacaakwa. Another person said, “that [story] reminds us that humility is really key to living in a proper way.  That’s a key value I take.” The values that people speak of show up time and again as important values for Myaamiaki and are both explicit and implicit in our ways of interacting with others.

A tribal elder reading a story to children in the audience
Tribal elder Twila Coger telling a story at the 2020 Miami Tribe of Oklahoma Winter Gathering
Photo by Karen Baldwin

Theme #2: Reciprocity

Another important theme that emerged from the interviews was that Wiihsakacaakwa stories teach us about the importance of reciprocity. People suggested that reciprocity is taking into account the cause and effect of the actions we take as well as the give and take that naturally exists within relationships. For example, one person said,

“I think the idea of reciprocity — I guess there are a lot of instances of that kind of giving back and forth. And if you don’t do that there are repercussions for that, whether you immediately experience that or if it is somewhere — who knows how many years down the road? … When something happens, then ‘Oh it’s kind of like that story.’ That helps to inform you I guess.”

The natural world is filled with relationships and when the ways of interacting are violated within those relationships, there are repercussions. Not only did people talk about this as a theoretical understanding of the world, they talked about using this to guide their actions and to know what to do when they are in a relationship with others. They talked about relationships broadly, including between friends, family, acquaintances, with the landscape, other tribal groups, etc. This sense of reciprocity exists within all these relationships. 

Theme #3: What Not to Do

Fascinatingly, people talk about learning vicariously through the actions of Wiihsakacaakwa and know what not to do because of the faults of this character. They identified that even though these stories are often meant to be entertaining and depicting the character’s foolish antics, there are often nuggets of gold containing information on how not to behave. For example, one person said,

“Yeah. I still associate him — not wholly but still a large part of me still associates him with doing stupid [things] and maybe after doing something stupid I’ll be like, ‘Aw, it’s probably something Wiihsakacaakwa would have done and I probably shouldn’t have done that.’ ”

Again, we not only see the theoretical understanding, but the application of this concept to people’s lived experiences. We can see ourselves within the character and, good or bad, use that as a marker against which we can judge the merits of our behavior.

Haley Shea telling a story at the 2020 New Year's event
Haley Shea telling a story at the 2020 New Year’s event hosted by the Cultural Resources Extension Office in Fort Wayne, Indiana
Photo by Jonathan Fox

Within the larger theme of learning what not to do from these stories, there were three sub-themes. People report that Wiihsakacaakwa teaches them not to be arrogant, selfish, and foolish in their behaviors. Wiihsakacaakwa possesses many of these traits at different points throughout the stories and they often result in negative interpersonal relationships, loss of resources, or even loss of life. For example, one person said,

“I think throughout Wiihsakacaakwa, he’s always thinking almost like about himself in how he interacts with other people. But he, for the most part, has himself in the forefront. So if the people — I’m not saying that to be conceited or arrogant or anything like that, but if they are concerned with themselves and how their body is and making sure that everything that they need is met, then they can usually live out their life — whereas putting others first all the time, it can sometimes be a drain on your wellbeing.”

This person recognized the balance between arrogance/selfishness and also being able to prioritize the self. Most of these life lessons aren’t all-or-nothing messages and the stories can use humor to demonstrate these lessons. 

Theme #4: Mental Health

The final theme that emerged was that these stories help people with their overall mental health. More specifically, stories help them with mindfulness, happiness, and tolerating ambiguity. People reported that the act of storytelling helps to keep them in the present moment, but that the story content also teaches them that they need to be aware of their own and others’ reactions to the environment in order to create a safe and supportive atmosphere. For example, one person said,

“It means paying attention to it as you’re going through your life. I think it’s part of it, that when you reflect on Wiihsakacaakwa as this cultural hero/trickster kind of person, you can’t go through life absentmindedly either. You need to pay attention to the people around you and be conscious that not everybody necessarily feels safe, secure and respected.”

Regarding happiness, people indicated that Wiihsakacaakwa is always having to go about problem solving within the situations the character exists in, but also always has fun while doing it. Many people identify that being happy and having fun on a daily basis are an important component of living well. 

Finally, people talked about the stories helping them to recognize their ability to tolerate ambiguity or complexity in life. In particular, the difficulties with defining the character of Wiihsakaxaakwa makes them feel frustrated, but they quickly recognize both that this goes against the point of the stories and this is a normal part of life. For example, one person said,

“Also, at least initially I thought he was complicated, but now as I’m realizing more and more he’s not complicated, he’s just human, or a reflection of human.  Okay he’s just whatever the storyteller wants him to be.  That’s not complicated but we don’t know what to expect, which is the fun part of it.  That helped me with oh how do I put my finger on Wiihsakacaakwa?  How do I say this is who he is?  What does he look like?  What does he do?  It’s like no, he’s whatever you need him to be.”

This struggle to define and understand the character could then be applied to the things they struggle to define or understand in their everyday lives. The stories help people to recognize that good and bad can exist simultaneously and we don’t have to fully understand something in order to accept or be at peace with it.

A view of the audience on the floor and in chairs at the 2019 Miami Tribe of Oklahoma Winter Gathering Storytelling event
The Myaamia community listening to stories at the 2019 Miami Tribe of Oklahoma Winter Gathering
Photo by Karen Baldwin

So, imagine that you could live your daily life knowing how to be a good person, with a sense of reciprocity, knowing what not to do, and feeling mindful, happy, and tolerant of ambiguity. This sounds pretty nice, right? If you are anything like me, the messages I hear out of these stories differ based on where I am at and what I need when I hear them. However, if you are looking for or need any of the above messages, turning to stories for guidance might just be a good route to take.

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