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Udeghei girl in traditional dress

Udeghei girl in traditional dress; photo by Kira Van Deusen

Seals and Mountain Spirits:
Making Tri-lingual Folktales Books

Storytelling and Native Languages

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For political and economic reasons, oral storytelling has lagged behind other art forms in the Siberian cultural revival. It is evident that the deep spiritual philosophy found in ancient tales clarifies and unites viable approaches to today's political, artistic, and ecological concerns. The highly respected Tuvan scholar Mongush Kenin-Lopsan states that laws have no weight in turning his people away from destructive forces like alcohol and violence, while ancient stories and traditional philosophy do. Research on oral storytelling shows that it develops the creativity, independent thinking and problem-solving abilities necessary in forming a society capable of uniting tradition and development (Anzhiganova 2001; Fredericks 1997). Active processes of telling and listening are just as important as imagery and plots. But this power is only beginning to be used. How will storytelling regain its rightful place in Siberian society?

At the same time, most Siberian indigenous languages are considered to be threatened if not almost extinct. This loss of diversity and of the wisdom and beauty contained in language is a tragedy on a global scale. Since languages are basic to stories, perhaps revival of storytelling can go hand-in-hand with initiatives to preserve them.

In this paper I will look at what happened with storytelling and language during the Soviet period and the first decade after, and then describe two projects making tri-lingual folktale books for use in language programs and beyond.

The Soviet period
Under the Soviet system, the conditions for storytelling were broken. In most regions the home life of indigenous people changed radically, with children in boarding schools, new kinds of housing less amenable to evening gatherings, educational values focusing on reading rather than oral tradition, and a new ideology pervading public and private life. Although policies varied in different decades and regions, for the most part it was forbidden to speak a native language in schools and at work — if taught at all, it was as a "foreign" language. Radio and television changed the focus of news and entertainment — now it all came from outside the community. From its former place as the means of passing literature, history, and spiritual information, the telling of magic tales and legends was relegated to the place that it has held until recently in the west — entertainment for children — and it was Russian fairy tales the children heard, instead of their own. The kind of storytelling that emerges from simple interaction was strictly monitored.

Some people were stuck between languages, with no way to articulate their experience. Many who grew up in the 1930s remember the trauma associated with this language shift, the shame in the old language and discomfort in the new.

Public telling of epics was forbidden, since they glorified non-Russian heroes and could have encouraged separatist movements. Their artistry and literary value gave the lie to the idea of indigenous people as "primitive and naïve". (Consciously or not, many Russian translations of indigenous tales use a lower language level than the original, which confirms the idea of their primitive nature in the minds of unsuspecting readers.) In fact Turkic languages and poetry similar to the epics were written down centuries before Russian had a writing system at all. Tellers in Turkic and Mongolian regions were highly respected community leaders. As such, they were persecuted along with shamans, who opposed communism and its violation of spiritual and ecological values.

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True, many tales were collected in the Soviet Union, beginning in the 1920s, but the government had a right to everything, and most of the work disappeared into archives. The researchers also acted as "missionaries" for communism, and had to produce a certain amount of report material daily, some of which was used politically to map populations and locate those opposed to the regime. During the last half of the twentieth century stories, and in some cases even their performance, became static artifacts to be kept in text and sound archives, as opposed to living beings in mouths of tellers and ears of listeners. One of the difficulties in moving away from this stance is that even the tellers, the "carriers of culture" are sometimes treated by cultural workers as commodities, who are brought out to perform for researchers. Meanwhile many western anthropologists, themselves brought up largely outside an oral tradition, tend to lump magic tales, legends, and epics together with "narrative" of all sorts, again undervaluing their place as the literature, history, and textbooks of a people. It is rather like putting a rambling tale heard in the pub in the same category with Shakespeare.

The decade of the 1990s
After the end of communism, activists turned first to politics and ecology, as well as shamanism and the revival of certain rituals. They also developed culture in tangible form: music performance, (with the possibility of travel,) art work which can be sold — things whose appeal does not depend on language. Ensembles and other formats were already in place from the Houses of Culture of the Soviet period, which had been set up so that native arts could be presented in a way that preserved some aspects of culture while creating no nationalistic threat. The format also facilitated gatherings for political and teaching purposes. In the transformation from communism to the "market economy," certain ideologically foreign elements from that period were retained, like inappropriate Russian dance choreography, and a focus on ethnographic and visual interest at the expense of the spiritual, ecological, or political. Stories, when told publicly at all, are usually introduced as showing "how people used to live." While it is true that ethnographic material can be gleaned from stories, it is far from the whole picture.

Competition has remained as a motivation, rather than cooperation. As an example, a couple of years ago I was asked at a conference for suggestions on cultural revitalization. After getting over the initial shock of what seemed a strange thing to ask a foreigner, I mentioned storytelling festivals, citing how successful they have been in Canada for similar purposes, as well as encouraging intercultural communication and understanding. "Good idea!" said the questioner. "We'll have a competition!" All my protestations that the value of a storytelling festival lies precisely in its non-competitive, cooperative aspects, fell on deaf ears. Part of the explanation for this lies in the fact that people have experienced "cooperation" as meaning giving up everything of one's own to a purported greater good, while another part is simple habit B this is the way cultural events are organized, with control staying at the top, and content predictable.

All over Siberia people have worked with great dedication on political and ecological questions, as they build indigenous republics, hunters unions, and the Association of Native Peoples on both national and regional levels. The larger republics have national theatres. There has been a big focus on work with children, combining cultural and health programs, as people understand that hope for the future lies in that direction. Most of this work does emphasize spiritual as well as material values, but bucks the powerful tide of commercialism.

Khakassian sociologist Larisa Anzhiganova points out several tensions that arose during the 1990s. She came to realize that the inward and protective stance that helps preserve a culture may hinder further development. Further, while some people desire to return to a more traditional lifestyle, there is less and poorer land available to them because of increased population, industry, and specific policies directed against them. In the year 2002 things had become even worse, as the republic's government appropriated farming equipment and land where native Khakassians live. The governor has said publicly that the republic would be better off without them. New federal language laws overturn local laws and make the entire nation officially mono-lingual.

There is also a conflict of values within the community. Widely accepted western liberal values include the rights of the individual, sanctity of private property, scientific-technical progress, civil society and the rule of law. These diverge sharply from traditional values of living harmoniously with the land (as opposed to owning and conquering it), collective solidarity (as opposed to individual achievement,) reverence, and personal responsibility to life (as opposed to law) (Anzhiganova 2001b). Besides finding resolutions to these tensions, people are faced with problems of rampant consumerism, and an influx of foreign religious sects. Older communist ideas recur in new structuresBideas like the control which rests in keeping culture and politics separate. That tension not just about the ways art addresses political realities. The younger people also have the sense that new political forms should spring from the same levels of spirituality that create art and culture.

The process of storytelling and listening activates creativity and independent thinking, which may be part of why storytelling was squashed under totalitarianism. Both the images and values in ancient sacred tales and the processes of telling and listening reveal and strengthen the spiritual underpinning for new developments in art, politics and ecology, bringing a sense of self-esteem and well-being. While stories have been consciously used in Canada in this way for years, and even have stood up in court while First Nations people were negotiating land claims, they are only starting to be used in this way in Siberia. The Buriat epic "Geser" and legends like the Khakass "Tadar khan" give people courage and strengthen a sense of identity, while other tales point the way to creative and possible ways of living. New legends emerge in the process.

Floating bridge at the village of Gvasyugi

Floating bridge at the village of Gvasyugi; photo by Kira Van Deusen

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The Projects
My own involvement with storytelling over the last ten years has been very different in Russia and at home in Canada. In Russia I have conducted research, recording stories and publishing them primarily in English. From 1993 until recently, I have been trying to record elders while they were still alive. I have performed only very rarely in Russian schools, theaters and on the radio. In Canada I am a professional storyteller, active in local and national organizations. People are likely to hear me first and then read my publications. Clearly I have been involved in a process of preservation in Russia, and of dissemination and practical use of story at home, where I am increasingly interested in healing and community development.

By the end of the 1990s I sensed that it was time for this dichotomy of focus to change. I would like to contribute to the revival of oral storytelling, and to the preservation and learning of native languages in Russia. And I felt a simple desire to give back something concrete to those who have given so much to me in sharing their lives and their information. Since I was unable to spend long months in Russia, I got the idea of making publications that would be useful in native language teaching, and later thought of using them in a program to revitalize storytelling. My indigenous colleagues supported these ideas but didn=t have the time or resources to initiate them.

In collaboration with Udeghe and Khakassian folklorists and cultural activists, I began working on tri-lingual publication of tales in the indigenous, Russian, and English languages. My colleagues provide the stories in the indigenous language and Russian along with explanations of symbols and contexts, while I contribute English translation, computer skills, and printing in what so far are very small numbers of copies.

For my colleagues the pleasure seems to come from seeing their stories appear in new languages and more attractive editions than those of the past, as well as giving their people a higher profile internationally. In this sense my earlier book of Tuvan folk tales published in English only may serve the same purpose. Since many young people are studying English, a subsidiary goal is to infuse some of their own traditional culture into that study. I have not encountered questions of cultural appropriation or of ownership of stories.

Issues that have come up in this project include questions of format, selection, language levels, transliteration and translation, and supplementary materials.

Format: Many people working with aboriginal languages in Canada have decided to bypass the book stage and go directly to websites. This makes learning attractive to children, and also available, since most northern schools are connected to the internet. It saves the costs of printing, and facilitates making changes and corrections. A similar approach has been used by German anthropologist Erich Kasten in Kamchatka, who uses a CD-Rom. He points out that while traditional knowledge is vital for global survival, there is still a tendency on the part of both local people and foreigners to view it as "backward," so that using modern technology is a good way to give it more of the prestige it deserves (Kasten 1998).

Unfortunately this is not an option yet in the areas where I have worked. The Udeghe village of my acquaintance has no telephone and only sporadic electricity, and computers are certainly not readily available in Khakassian villages either. Clearly this was to be primarily a book project. And it would need to be inexpensively produced at least at first. The number of stories included in each volume is determined by practical considerations of the length of time necessary to prepare them for printing, and the cost. Illustrations are black and white drawings by local artists. I am still experimenting with the ways of lining three languages up on the page, and how this aids or hinders readability.

Selection of stories: I'll go into questions of how the stories were chosen when discussing the individual projects. We discussed whether to have themes or to focus on a reading level, what sources to use, and issues of copyright.

Language issues: These include target age and linguistic ability; elementary school for the Udeghe and secondary to university levels in Khakassia. There are implications in the choice of alphabet and transcription/transliteration systems. There is no single system of transcription of Udeghe, while in Khakassia there was a suggestion to use the Latin alphabet developed in the early twentieth century instead of Cyrillic. (This would now be illegal under the new language laws.) People throughout Siberia have expressed their preference for the older Latin-based alphabets for their languages. This may be because the Latin alphabet is more flexible, (if more confusing,) in not dictating a single pronunciation possibility, and it may simply have to do with broader global identification, rather than Russian. The Latin alphabet recalls a brief time when native languages held a higher status, while ironically the use of Cyrillic corresponds with the time when policies against the use of native languages came into effect. In the end it proved impossible for us to use the Latin because of my lack of knowledge of the older system, questions about whether it would still be the system of choice today, and whether it would pique readers= curiosity or put them off. As far as translation goes, word for word can be more useful for language learning while a more literary approach reveals a story's impact and is more useful to storytellers. We all agreed that we wanted to stories to read smoothly in each language, which means that what results is in part a retelling in each new language. It also explains why we did not use anything like the Tedlock system, which reproduces a teller’s intonations as well as word choices. This would be useful in reproducing a teller’s style in the same language but makes for awkward translation.

Supplementary materials: These will demystify symbolism, show up some of the Soviet ideology still left in people's thinking, and give ideas for the use of oral storytelling in the classroom and community. It is a part of the project not yet touched in the Udeghe work, and just begun with an introduction, glossary, and notes, (in English,) to individual stories in the Khakass one. Since most young people and even a lot of their teachers were not raised in a traditional setting, knowledge that was clearly understood a couple of generations back needs to be elucidated for today's readers. Demystification of imagery, removing the "lessons" added by Soviet ideology in older editions are an important start, and need to be done or at least steadily overseen by my indigenous colleagues.

Further, I would like to develop a project using the books in conjunction with visits to the schools or other gathering places by indigenous storytellers, and develop workshops for teachers, as well as translating some western materials on storytelling in classrooms and on storytelling's effects on healing, creativity, and brain development.

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The Udeghe Project
I have worked in conjunction with Udeghe storyteller and cultural activist Valentina Kyalundzyuga, until recently head of administration in the village of Gvasyugi in the Khabarovsk Territory, and with linguist Mikhail Simonov (now deceased,) of the Academy of Sciences in Novosibirsk. Valentina and I decided to start with short simple stories for the early grades, although her idea of simple stories turned out to be far more complex than mine. She was not thinking in terms of simplifying grammar or vocabulary for beginners — it was not necessary to her that the children know every word or structure to enjoy and learn from the story. (She had already published a new primer, which provides materials for elementary language teaching.) We began with texts she recorded 20-30 years ago, as reworked with the linguist to achieve consistency in spelling, and arrived at fairly literal translations. The six stories all come from one dialect.

We tried to include some stories not represented in a recent comprehensive bilingual scholarly edition (Simonov and Kyalundzyuga 1998). Although it's unlikely the two books would be used in the same situations, there is a desire to publish as many stories as possible overall.

As yet there is no unanimity about how to write Udeghe, and a large proportion of the very small number of speakers, (possibly as few as 50,) are not accustomed to reading the language at all. The system we used required many diacritical marks, which help in pronunciation. I'm not sure if they ultimately help or hinder fluent reading. All the typing and translation was checked by Simonov, who fortunately spoke all three languages. A preliminary version, with illustrations by a student, is now in use in the schools of Gvasyugi, and a more attractive edition is being produced in Khabarovsk, under the direction of Valentina Kyalundzyuga.

One selection issue that came up involved a story in which a man has two wives, one smart and hardworking and the other slovenly and lazy. The man dies early in the story. The lazy wife steals the son of the smart one and runs away. Time passes, the boy grows up poorly cared for. One day while hunting he finds his real mother, who tells him to go back and ask why his "mother" is deformed, with bugged out eyes, a flat chest, oddly bent legs, and only four fingers. The answer is that the husband beat her because she was lazy and had chased after other men, and so it seems in the story that she deserves her fate. She has literally turned into a frog, which is Udeghe story shorthand for a woman like this one, an inept housekeeper and seamstress.

Although I am not opposed to all violence in storytelling, I worried that in a time when domestic violence is prevalent, this story would give young boys the message that wife beating is acceptable. Valentina told me that nobody would take such a story seriouslyBit was full of humour and would be taken as a joke. It is one of many stories that laugh at laziness. Added to this was the fact that this story had never before appeared in print. The result of our disagreement is that the story did not find its way into the first edition but will be included in the second.

An example of story lessons that need to be rethought from the Soviet times and clarified for today's students is in a tale of the good/bad hunter. This young man was so successful at killing animals that his elderly parents got sick and tired of dragging the take home, and decided to kill the boy and send his body down the river in a coffin! The first response of many listeners today is to laugh at the foolishness of these parents who kill the goose that laid the golden egg, and to be horrified at the evidence of poor parenting. But before the days when hunters depleted their lands in order to pay tribute to the Tsars, and before Soviet policies brought the idea of producing the maximum possible at all costs, it was understood that a hunter must not take more than he needed. The land and its resources needed to stay in balance. The boy had to be stopped from his obsessive killing. It’s also possible that his return to life was included in the idea of their putting him in the coffin, since the concept of death does not contain the finality it does in European languages. On his way down the river in the coffin, a young woman eventually pulls the boy to shore and brings him back to life by rocking and singing to his little finger bone — all that is left of him by this time. After that he becomes a wiser hunter. The story's text is worded in such a way that either interpretation is possible — and what people take from it is in the emphasis provided orally by the storyteller, and in the realm of what "goes without saying" in a particular society.

Today's teachers have the necessary background to work with the stories, but I hope we will be able to produce a teacher's guide and sound recording for those who come after.

The Khakass Project
In Khakassia the idea of a tri-lingual book began with sociologist Larissa Anzhiganova, who saw its potential in the process of ethnic renewal. The idea was enthusiastically picked up by the head of the Khakass Writer's Union, Galina Kazachinova. We three discussed various ideas for a theme to unite the stories chosen; considering stories about music, shamans, women heroes, and at last about mountain spirits.

There are many new legends going around today involving mountain and other spirits — the way they appear to contemporary people and the messages they impart. They give warnings about ecology and the necessity to return sacred stone figures to their rightful places, and on the down side, have been known to encourage teenagers to hang themselves. The fact that these spirits are so much a part of today's reality, for better or for worse, is why we finally settled on mountain spirit legends of the past for our collection, to balance current legends with their historical sources. In the older stories, mountain spirits bring people gifts of music and/or wealth, which often have problematical consequences socially. Refusal of the gift is even worse. The tales are chosen from the collections of the Khakassian ethnographer N.F. Katanov, and Galina Kazachinova's own collections. Thus they represent two time periods, late nineteenth century and mid twentieth, as well as several dialects.

The stories may help to re-pin traditional knowledge with modern problems — like suicide and the need to care for the environment. Khakassians are looking for the ways ancient tales connect to spiritual and political development, and in so doing are willing to look at the dark, mysterious and confusing, as well as the bright and humourous side often put forward in folk tale editions. Both in terms of content and language, this book is aimed for secondary schools and higher educational institutions, and for adults.

Perhaps partly because it was the second time around, the process of getting the stories into the computer was a bit easier, (although not much faster, as several manuscripts got lost in the mail!) This time the correspondence of the three languages was checked by linguist Victor Atknine of the Institute of Linguistics, St. Petersburg. The resulting translations are more literary, since we want them to stand as beautiful in each language, and hope they may be used in English classes as well as Khakass.

There are some differences in writing systems between the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, but not as extreme as with the Udeghe, as writing is much more established. (We updated Katanov's system to match what is accepted today.) Illustrations are by a fine Khakassian artist, Alexander Kotozhekov, who also plays an active role in the republic's social and political development. It is interesting to see his choices B which scenes and characters he picks. For example, he often illustrates human beings, and leaves the spirits to our imagination, most likely out of a sense that making visual representations of dangerous spirits would be dangerous in itself. Human beings are frequently portrayed in thoughtful moments. There is some disagreement in the community about his style and details.

We reached the conclusion that to avoid shipping it will be easier to print the books in Abakan, but meanwhile a version of sixteen stories in English and Khakassian with introduction, notes and glossary in English has been published in Canada (Kazachinova-Van Deusen 2003.) Russian will appear on the internet at and later on a Khakassian site as well.

One of the new legends, not exactly of a mountain spirit, was told to me by the musical instrument maker Petr Topoev, describing his own experience. "Once I had made a new drum. My brother played it and said it would be a warrior's drum. I went up a mountain to consecrate it. I came to a place where I could see five peaks and there I began to play. Beside one of the peaks I saw a huge warrior sleeping and another one trying to wake him. I stopped playing and they disappeared, and when I began to play again they reappeared. I was frightened and ran away!"

His story relates to an old legend about a sleeping warrior of the past, which is frequently recounted today. In the sixteenth century a great Khakass hero named Tadar khan was defeated by the Mongols and went away to sleep in the mountains. Legend says that he will come to life when the time is right, and save the people.

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Anzhiganova, Larisa. 2001a. Khakasy vo vremeni i prostranstve [Khakass People in Time and Space]. Abakan

______2001b. "Etnicheskoe vozrozhdenie khakasov" ["Ethnic renaissance of the Khakass"] Unpublished manuscript.

______2001c. Model= mira v traditzionnon i sovremennom mirovozzrenii khakasov. [Model of the world in traditional and contemporary Khakass world-view.] Unpublished manuscript.

Cruikshank Julie 1990 Life Lived Like a Story. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press.

Fredericks, Linda. 1997. (summer) "Why Children Need Stories: Storytelling and Resiliency" Resiliency in Action. pp. 26-29.

Kasten, Erich. 1998. "Handling Ethnicities and/or Securing Cultural Diversities: Indigenous and Global Views on Maintaining Traditional Knowledge" in Kasten, E., ed. Bicultural Education in the North: Ways of Preserving and Enhancing Indigenous Peoples= Languages and Traditional Knowledge. Munster/NY: Waxman.

Kazachinova, Galina, and Kira Van Deusen. 2003. Tag Eeleri – Mountain Spirits. Vancouver: Udagan Books.

Krauss, Michael. 1992. "The World's Language in Crisis" Language 68(1): 4-10

Simonov, Mikhail and Valentina Kyazlundzyuga. 1998. Fol’klor Udegeitsev, Nimanku, Telungu, Ekhe. [Udegei Folklore, Nimanku, Telungu, Ekhe.] Novosibirsk: Russian Academy of Sciences.

Cree and Dene stories [dead link; can this be replaced?]
Endangered languages

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