Heather Munroe-Blum
  Ted Chamberlin
Susan Horton
Molly Shoichet
  Great Minds,No Walls
  Tim Rowley
Aled Edwards
  Helen Hogg
 

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Ted Chamberlin helps revive an ancient culture.

In our technology-oriented age, information about almost anything is at our fingertips ÷ with one caveat: someone, somewhere, must have written it down first. As a result, knowledge and history existing only in oral form continues to elude most of us. But Professor Ted Chamberlin, of the departments of English and Comparative Literature, hopes to change that.

With the help of a Transformative Research Grant from the university's Connaught Fund, which supports uncharted areas of research that have potential to enhance a field of knowledge, Chamberlin is exploring oral and written traditions to encourage a better balance between the two. "For many millennia, history and information were passed between people in oral form, by people just talking to each other," says Chamberlin. "Storytelling was also a chief element of their culture, their identity."

Chamberlin's work was initially inspired by a British Columbia Supreme Court judgement in an aboriginal land claim case. The Gitksan and Wet'suwet'en people, basing their claim on songs and storytelling rather than on written documents, had trouble convincing the courts that their oral history confirmed their rights to a large parcel of land in northern B.C. While the suit was ultimately unsuccessful, it raised the profile of oral traditions when the Supreme Court judge directed trial judges to recognize the oral histories of aboriginal people.

Prompted by this decision and by the confusion created in the courts by these oral traditions, Chamberlin embarked on a journey to the Kalahari desert. There, continents away from the Gitksan and Wet'suwet'en, the =Khomani San, one of South Africa's first peoples, were also fighting for ancestral land based on their oral history.

The =Khomani language played a central part in the San's land claim ÷ a language which, until two years ago, was thought to be extinct. The symbol "=" represents a click sound for which San languages are famous. The stories and songs told in the language, and the names mentioned, were the only proof that a large part of the Kalahari Gemsbok National Park had originally belonged to the San.

Drawing on his extensive work with aboriginal communities in Western Canada, Chamberlin joined the battle to help the =Khomani San recover their native land, rejuvenate their language, and recapture a culture diluted through years of dispossession, displacement and slavery.

Chamberlin was one of a large and diverse group of people who helped the =Khomani San to show that the land ownership was documented in their language, gain legal recognition for this oral history and, ultimately, reclaim their land.

This group of more than 500 people, previously scattered across the Southern Cape, returned to their homeland earlier this year. For the first time in 50 years, they were able to hear and share stories and sing songs in their native language.

This Īlost' language÷preserved by less than 20 San who can still speak it ÷ will soon be revived. With the help of Chamberlin's work, the San are developing an orthography for the =Khomani language, and creating a program of language instruction for children. Chamberlin has travelled across the globe to explore oral and written traditions, and his work has intersected with the disciplines of law, physical and cultural anthropology, religious studies, linguistics, cognitive psychology, geography, history, and cultural studies. He hopes to generate a new understanding of oral traditions that will enrich the work in these various disciplines, and encourage new ways of accepting the stories told throughout history.

- Susan Murley

 
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