First Nations peoples have extremely diverse cultures that are connected to their region and their own history. Their sacred rituals, shrouded in the mists of time, reflect an understanding of the universe in which their own origins are explained through Creation stories. These stories feature three main themes: a being emerges from the Earth's womb; an animal rises from the depths of the Earth's waters to form America (Turtle Island); and the skies are created. The Creation stories of each First Nations people express the way they see the world around them and their relationship with it, as well as their traditional values.
In the past, fictional tales and real-life accounts were used to pass on traditional knowledge about various skills, survival techniques, plants and medicine, and to share knowledge about the weather, the environment, animals and their habits, etc. First Nations also used stories to describe and commit to memory their history and relationships with other peoples, to recall clans' genealogy and, of course, to tell their Creation story. They organized their gatherings during very specific times of the year, when most of the members of their community would be together, in order to pass along this knowledge to as many people as possible. These periods varied depending on their customs. For example, First Nations whose way of life was based on the seasons, such as those in the Maritimes, held their largest gatherings in the summer when the abundance of fish brought all the clans together at the mouth of the rivers and along the coastlines. It was a time to renew ties with other members of the community, celebrate alliances, listen to stories and share knowledge: the Elders were seen as tremendous sources of information. The inhabitants of Canada's West Coast, who lived in more permanent villages, usually held these kinds of ceremonies in winter when the cold made it difficult to pursue other activities. These ritual ceremonies, which often involved dances and stories, also helped to pass on knowledge and spiritual values. (Read Legend of the Fin-Back Whale Crest of the Haïdas and The Raven Steals the Light.) The Plains dwellers held their large gatherings mainly in early summer during sun dance ceremonies. (Read The Talking Stone.)
Historical or climatological indicators show that some of the stories are very old. Archaeological or geological research later confirmed these indicators.
The supernatural is always part of the stories, making them more exciting and easier to memorize. It is as if the stories have many compartments that conceal a body of knowledge or historical events, and "hidden" concepts that reveal themselves, like a Russian doll, as the story progresses. (Read Song of the Hermit Thrush.)
As settlers came to America from Europe, which had a predominantly written culture, many stories from the Aboriginal oral tradition were lost over time, but others were preserved in writing. This is true for two Mi'kmaq stories that were considered lost but were recently rediscovered. In 1847, Silas Rand had collected and written down the tales, as told in their original version by Susan Barss.
A number of Aboriginal authors also put their stories down on paper. In 1870, Peter Dooyentate Clarke, a Wyandot, published Origin and Traditional History of the Wyandotts, and Sketches of Other Indian Tribes of North America: True Traditional Stories of Tecumseh and His League, in the Years 1811 and 1812, to publicize his version of historical events involving his people and his views on their culture. (Read The White Panther-A Legend.)
Library and Archives Canada has preserved the papers of geologist Robert Bell, which include dozens of traditional stories transcribed during approximately the last quarter of the 19th century.