Storytelling represents one of the most basic human activities. The human brain has evolved to naturally form stories from nearly any sensory input. Every community in the Fifth World has a rich oral tradition that preserves their unique history alongside a wealth of knowledge about dwelling in their particular territory, but to see these stories as only or even primarily concerned with transmitting data would mean fundamentally misunderstanding their purpose. Stories create relationships, both between humans and between humans and the more-than-human world.
The notion that a story needs a beginning, a middle, and an end arose with literacy and the artifacts of writing. The written word appears in a visual field, and thus has edges and boundaries. A book or a scroll forces words to fit into the model of a beginning, a middle, and an end; even a webpage, which might link off to other topics, scrolls down, presenting words in a particular sequence.
For oral people, like people in the Fifth World, stories live in a vast, growing network. They don't have a middle or an end, but connections to other stories. Like a vast shared universe, characters weave in and out of different stories. What appears to a literate reader as the endless digressions of the Iliad, the Odyssey, or Beowulf actually shows the points where the original oral story connected to the rest of the oral tradition, which the writer had to abandon to fit the poem into a written format. Storytellers can likewise expand or contract stories by following those threads as they wish, or as time allows, or as the audience demands.
Storytelling deals first and foremost with images — realistic or fantastic (or simply unusual). A single story produces a narrative by patterning images in a particular rhythm, pairing different images alongside one another. In this it resembles music, albeit with images instead of sounds. As music begins with different themes and melodies that not seem related at first and then plays with them until it reaches a harmony, so too does story place images next to each in a rhythmic, artful way, creating a relationship between them. In this it mirrors quite directly the way that the human brain learns anything new, by creating new routes by connecting neurons previously unconnected.
Stories preserve history and knowledge, making them easier to remember, and so we can look at an oral tradition as a sort of encyclopedia, encoding enormous amounts of specialized information. With these stories, a person living in the Fifth World commands deep ethnobotanical, zoological, ecological, climatological, and other scientific knowledge specific to her family's territory.
However, stories provide more than just that. Stories connect images, and so fundamentally create relationships. In a very real sense stories create communities. Stories also bind a human community to its territory. Stories can create kinship. The shift from literacy to orality shifts one's focus from classification to relationship, and stories have everything to do with how human beings create and sustain relationships, making stories most of the important parts of human life — including in the Fifth World.
As animists, people in the Fifth World recognize the personhood of some stories. Stories can speak to you, give you gifts (like courage, or entertainment, or inspiration), receive gifts in return (like a skillful telling or representation in art), and even participate in religious rituals (most rituals involve reference to stories, and frequently even their recitation). A person can clearly have a powerful relationship with a story. Stories can comfort us or possess us, inspire us or drive us mad.
The officials claimed the land for the government. The natives were astonished by the claim. They couldn’t understand what these relative newcomers were talking about. Finally one of the elders put what was bothering them in the form of a question. ‘If this is your land,’ he asked, ‘where are your stories?’ J. Edward Chamberlin, If This is Your Land, Where are Your Stories?