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."
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
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