Tuesday, September 1, 2009

The Rememberers by Jane Gannon, Associate

The other day as I was pursuing my newly found passion of canning homegrown, vine-ripened tomatoes, I was thinking about my grandmother and how canning fruits and vegetables was part of her summer routine. Not being interested in learning this skill from her when I was a child forced me recently to seek out a friend to teach me how to can. Now as I filled glass jars with plump, juicy tomatoes, I was mindlessly listening to the radio when Katherine Paddack, the clan leader of the Tlingit Tribe of Alaska, started talking about a gathering of her tribe happening here in the Bay Area. 

Paddack spoke of her Tlingit tribe’s history and how they learned to work with the white explorers who came to Alaska rather then become a victim of the white conquest. Due to its harsh geography, white explorers depended on the Tlingit Tribe, and so the tribe itself survived and prospered, and its identity is still in tact. Even though the Tlingit’s lost many members due to diseases brought by white explorers; they did not lose their culture.  

Upon “white contact,” many other Native American tribes lost their leaders and people to disease and genocide. Many tribes were destroyed and lost their stories, their ways of life and their culture because tribes had an oral rather than written history. One of the ways the Tlingit Tribe was able to maintain its identity is through the role and discipline of the rememberers.  

Rememberers are those who hold and pass on the stories of the tribe. They carry the history and traditions and tell them to other members of the tribe orally. As they sit around the circle one of the rememberers will begin telling a story of the tribe. As he or she talks, others listen. If the storyteller gets something wrong in the story, another rememberer in the group will take over telling the story and correct the mistake, to the agreement of all the rememberers present. The first rememberer will then pick up where he or she left off, and continue telling the story. In that way, the members of the tribe all continue to learn the same history, through the collaborative and oral wisdom of the rememberers.  

According to the Journal of American Indian Education, “One of the sacred duties of certain elders of the tribes was the handing down of these histories to their successors. As they repeated them, they impressed upon the hearer the importance of remembering the stories precisely as told, and of telling them again exactly as he had received them, neither adding nor taking away anything.”

The rememberer is an honored person in her tribe like a shaman or healer, she is held in high esteem by others in the tribe. The rememberer is the history. He is the living record of all the stories of the tribe, telling the stories and tales that would be lost forever without them. As a result of the contact, conquest, and settlement of white explorers and pioneers, many tribes lost their rememberers and thus lost their memories and cultural histories. 

Many of you have heard Lanny talk about creating a “knowledge-creation and codification commons,” a human system of sharing what it is we know so as to enable the learning of what we don’t know. This is an essential and possibly the central element in Toyota’s innovation management system. 

We are struck with the how the role of the rememberer in the Tlingit tribe describes and offers a role and discipline for our organizations that may be necessary in building a sustainable innovation system. Rememberers can help us avoid re-learning and, by keeping the history, point us in the direction of where what we are learning may be applied to creating value. 

While I remember my grandmother so well, my memory is now hazy and it seems like such a long time ago those summer days spent in her kitchen. I wish I could see her again. I wonder what story she would tell me?  

This article was originally published in Innovating Perspectives in October 2008. For this and other back issues of our newsletter, please visit our website at innovationsthatwork.com or call (415) 387-1270.

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