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Adapting Environmental Stories

(c) 2006 Kevin Strauss


If you can’t find appropriate environmental stories to tell, you can draw from the nature story resources of the world to create new versions of traditional stories. Adapting is more work than simply finding and learning a story. But if you take the time to adapt a traditional story that you truly love, you will be able to tell that story much more effectively than a mediocre story that you learned and told simply because it had local animals or plants in it. What’s more, many traditional stories are already time-tested by generations of storytellers, sometimes in many countries, making those stories much easier to work with than any original tale that a teller might create.

Adapting traditional stories

For thousands of years, storytellers who immigrated to new lands took their stories with them and adapted them to new environments. For instance, many African-American folktales are similar to tales from Ghana (West Africa) but the newer American stories include animals found in North America, but not in Africa, like the blue jay or the black bear.

As a general rule I feel comfortable changing the setting of a story and changing the animal characters. Historically, stories were often told as if they “happened” right where the storyteller was standing and included animals, plants or people from that region. That geographic connection helped the audience connect with the tale and the lessons that it taught. In adapting a story, I often leave the plot events of the story unchanged. The “events” are the heart of any story and I don't want to mess with a story's heart.

When I choose to change the animal characters in a story fro another country, I always try to use similar animals in North America in the tale. The story “Turtle Wins At Tug Of War” (K22 in the Stith-Thompson motif index) is found in both the African-American culture and the nation of Nigeria. When I was adapting the Nigerian story, I changed the elephant into a bear (they are both big land animals) and the hippopotamus into a moose (they are both big animals who spend a lot of time in the water). Turtle stayed the same. When I later found the African-American version of the story, I realized that a storyteller had done the same thing with a story involving Brer Terrapin two hundred years before I did. This just reinforced my belief that adapting stories to the place you live is a part of the storytelling tradition.

Dangers of adapting stories

I think that as long as storytellers are respectful of the stories that we adapt and we are honest about what we are doing, then we are operating within the long tradition of storytelling. But when adapting stories, we need to be careful. I don't feel comfortable adapting another culture's religious stories or taking a traditional story from one country and adapting it so it sounds like a traditional story from another country (i.e. taking a traditional Russian story with a witch and turning it into a traditional-sounding Irish story with a leprechaun).

Generally speaking, animal stories are less likely to have religious connotations in many cultures. But in the over 400 native cultures of North America, many animal stories are religious stories. While I don’t have an answer to the question of “Can white people tell Native American stores?” I do have an answer to a much more important question for environmental storytellers: “Do you need to tell Native American stories to tell environmental stories or North American animal tales?” The answer to that question is “no.” Many cultures tell stories about the importance of caring for the environment because people are part of the environment. What’s more, by adapting stories from other countries to North America, a teller can perform stories about local animals while sidestepping the debate about telling Native American stories.

How do you know if a story is religious? Ask someone from that culture. Do some research in the library or on the Internet. It is simply not “good enough” to love a story; we have to respect the stories and the cultures that shared them with us.

Another danger of adapting traditional stories is that you can stretch them so far that they break. This most often happens with environmental stories when a teller adds a didactic moral. When a teller ends an Aesop’s Fable with the phrase “and the moral of the story is…” many kids and adults roll their eyes and stop listening. They may even feel annoyed that the teller didn’t trust them enough to understand the story on their own. As a group, humans don’t want to be hit over the head with the “story lesson.” We want to pick up our lessons on our own. Pick stories that you love, tell them and then get out of the way. If your story characters start channeling Woodsy OwlTM or Captain PlanetTM, you may lose your listeners.

Crediting a story can get tricky when you adapt a tale, especially if it appears very different from the original. Traditionally, storytellers didn’t bother crediting their sources. But that was then and this is now. I think professional storytellers have a responsibility to let people know the sources of their stories. I usually handle this at a performance by saying something like, “You can find versions of this story in Nigeria, but I changed it when it came to this country,” either at the beginning or end of the story. That way I credit the source and let people know that the story has changed a bit.

So the next time you are looking for an animal or plant story and can’t find what you need, consider adapting existing traditional stories. If done with care and respect, your own version of a traditional tale can become one of the best stories you have ever told.

[Portions of Strauss’ articles are excerpted by the author from: Kevin Strauss, Tales with Tails: storytelling the wonders of the natural world. (Westport, CT: Libraries Unlimited, 2006). 230pp. $35.00pa. ISBN 1-59158-269-5pa.]

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(c) 2006 Tales with Tails Storytelling Programs

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