1997 was a good year for storytelling in North America.
Delgamuukw v. British Columbia was brought to the Supreme Court of Canada in 1997, six years after the Supreme Court of British Columbia ruled that the intricate oral histories performed by Gitksan and Wet'suwet'en chiefs did not constitute legal proof that the tribes had a right to their land. The highest court in the nation disagreed, ruling that "equal footing" must be given to written and oral traditions.
That same year, a not-for-profit organisation focused on the art of storytelling came to life in New York. The Moth brings enthusiastic newbies and practiced raconteurs alike onstage to tell true, personal tales. Storytellers are not permitted notes – that thin slip of paper could just as easily be a concrete wall, given the way it hinders intimacy with an audience, and the oral tradition depends on establishing a connection.
For this, storytellers must be so familiar with their tales that they can relate them slightly differently each time; the silhouettes of their narratives are etched somewhere deep within their psyches. Although storytellers may allow details to surface, sink, or even change depending on the moods of performers and audiences, the essence is always authentic.
There is a special ingredient that makes the oral tradition so powerful, despite the potential impermanence of a story that has not been recorded for posterity (although, in a nod to the realities of the age, The Moth offers audio files online and has even published a book): as The Moth explains, "your eloquent musings... look pretty on the page but unless you can make them gripping and set up stakes, they won't work... ."
Storytellers narrate tales in which they face a real and imminent possibility of losing or gaining something crucial to their very identities. For those gracing stages across the United States, the stakes are high: at the time of writing, the most popular story on The Moth's website is Cindy Chupack's wryly funny Till Death or Homosexuality Do Us Part, a story about her husband questioning his sexuality. For the chiefs who told their tales to the Supreme Court, those stakes accumulated over generations and became their claim to an ancestral home. Storytellers are driven to share the events that have shaped their identities, in a way that resonates with the sum of human experience. Thanks in part to modern takes on an ancient way of life, the oral tradition continues to breathe fire into personal histories, transforming them into universal ones.