Tales of Biocultural Diversity

J-ach’ix ak’pon yu’un martoma (Muchacha sirviendo incienso para el Mayordomo) (Young woman serving incense to the chief) Photo by: Petul Hernández Guzmán

Petul and I had just finished recording a Tzeltal Maya elder, Don Antonio, who was telling us some of the old stories about people, plants, places, and spirits. The man had been talking for hours, showing no sign of getting tired, in spite of his age. Petul and I, instead, were exhausted. As we sat back, taking a rest, I asked him—my invaluable collaborator through two years of doctoral fieldwork in the highlands of Chiapas, Mexico, in the early 1990s: “Well, Petul, I guess this is what you folks normally do at night, sit around with the elders telling stories?”

From the puzzled look on Petul’s face, I figured that something wasn’t exactly as I had imagined. “Huh—said Petul after a moment of reflection—actually, that was the way it used to be… But now, you see, the kids are going to school, and when they come back at the end of the day (if the school is close enough that they can come back daily at all), they have homework to do. So that’s what happens at night: they sit at the table under the light bulb and do the homework. Some of the people, also, now have TV, so they sit around and watch TV at night. We don’t spend that much time visiting one another and listening to stories anymore. The kids often think that the old stories are weird, anyway, because of what they learn at school, or see on TV…”

He paused, and I saw he was thinking. We had been working together for several months now. Going around with an anthropologist interested in the “old ways” had made him keenly aware of how things had changed. He had started asking himself questions about why things had changed the way they had, and whether things were better or worse for that. A turning point had come for him, earlier on, when he realized that a plant he had pulled out as a weed from the milpa (corn field) he had inherited from his traditional healer father actually was a widely used and effective traditional remedy for gastrointestinal illness among the Tzeltal Maya. Because Petul, himself, had gone to school—and the missionaries had told him that traditional medicine was mumbo jumbo—he had not sought to learn his father’s knowledge. Then his father had died, and his knowledge of medicinal plants had gone with him. Ironically, that knowledge had only come back to Petul through the work he was doing with a team of ethnobiologists interested in the traditional Mayan medical system…

“You know what?—Petul resumed after a while—I think I’m going to start a circle of stories. I see that we’re losing a lot from not telling stories anymore. I’ll invite Don Antonio and other elders like him to come to my house on Saturdays, when the kids are home free, and tell the neighbors to join us. This should be good!” And so it went, and—at least in one household in the Chiapas Highlands—stories began to be told again.

Petul himself then went on to become an ethnographer and photographer, and gathered stories and photos in a book about his own community. He now teaches Tzeltal Maya at a local university, and still works as a photographer. Through the work he has been doing, not all the old stories and their lived context have been lost…

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For millennia, people have sat around the fire and told stories. From origin stories to stories about supernatural beings, ancestors, key events from past history, places of special significance, and the relationship between humans and the natural world, to morality tales, educational tales, humorous tales, and just plain old gossip, storytelling has had a fundamental role in human lives. It has tied people together, connected generations, established cultural identity, grounded people in place, and helped transmit cultural values, beliefs, knowledge, practices, and languages. In other words, storytelling has had a fundamental role in sustaining the biocultural diversity of life.

But the forces that are threatening biocultural diversity are also threatening storytelling. Community members, parents and children, elders and youth are spending less time together—and, as my experience in Chiapas shows, this is the case not only in busy urban environments, but also in indigenous and local communities. More and more, throughout the world, people gather around the TV rather than around the fire, inside rather than outside. Children hear other kinds of stories, and the old stories often begin to sound outlandish—or at least uninteresting and irrelevant—to them. The knowledge and values the old stories convey, the languages in which they are told, and the intimate relations between people and nature that the old stories so often portray, all begin to lose their meaning. In this way, the loss of storytelling contributes to the loss of intergenerational transmission of language, culture, and the links between people and nature.

We still need stories, and we need storytelling back—in indigenous and local communities rooted in place, as well as in our placeless, globalized world, to remind us of our inextricable, and inescapable, links to the natural world. That is why this page of our portal is devoted to stories of and about biocultural diversity. Stories you know from your own background, stories you’ve heard through your work, and stories about your “real-life” experiences and lessons learned working for biocultural diversity conservation. So let the storytelling flow!

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Maya Jiro Mithe

A folk tale from the Great Andamanese tribe that explains why birds are conserved in the Andaman Islands. The last speaker of the Bo language, the late Boa Sr., who died in February 2010, was seen talking to birds, as she believed that birds of Andaman understood her language. This is a story of a boy who belonged to the Jero tribe and lived near the seashore. Other tribes who lived near the seashore were Khora, Bo, and Sare. The protagonist of the story is swallowed by a Bol fish and then all the rescuers become birds. The tribes thus believe that birds are their ancestors.