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Running head: The Power of Stories

The Power of Stories:

Using Constructivism and Sense-Making to Introduce

Native American Students to Tribal Archives

Monique Lloyd

Emporia State University

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While the focus of information sharing and communication is shifting to a

social book-marking, web.2, technological, Internet, and digital viewpoint, the human-to-

human, face-to-face, storytelling, oral ways of connecting families and communities

remain powerful and compelling. Both constructivism (constructing our individual

knowledge of the world by experiences and then considering the meaning and value of

these experiences), and sense-making, (a continual process of making sense of a body of

knowledge when there is a gap by gathering information and looking for patterns and

connections), are influenced by cultural constructs. Both of these theories can be utilized

as effective tools to make tribal archival repositories meaningful to Native American

students by effectively connecting thought with emotion.

Tribal archives are like elders who protect and share our stories; they honor our

ancestors, bridge generations, and share knowledge, thus preserving the history of our

people. Recognizing Native American learning styles, including the use of storytelling as

a teaching technique as well as language which is picture and emotion based, are

techniques which can be utilized to help Native American students begin the process of

recognizing that tribal archives places where we can connect with each other through

time and space, providing us with a vibrant view of our history through records, letters,

treaties, oral recordings, and photographs.

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Introducing Native American middle-school level students to their tribal archives,

informing them about the documents, photographs, artifacts, and other archival materials

they contain and how to access them, as well as how they can be used as primary sources

for projects and papers, must begin with an understanding of how we learn and, more

specifically, how Native American students learn. Ways must be found for students to

connect emotionally with their archives, one of the guardians of cultural heritage, before

they can begin using this resource to gain additional information about themselves and

their communities.

Constructivism and Sense-Making

Constructivism is a learning theory linked to child development research

(especially Piaget) in which learning is viewed as an active process in which learners

construct new ideas or concepts based upon their current and past knowledge.

This process is highly influenced by the context, the beliefs, and the culture of the

learner. Learning is viewed as holistic and knowledge is seen as dynamic.

Instruction must focus on the context which makes students ready to learn, structured

spirally so that it can be more easily understood, and designed to fill in the gaps of

information (Bruner, 1996).

There are a variety of theorists in this field who suggest links between

constructivist theory and practice, providing the beginnings of an framework which can

be used to design teaching strategies. While it is beyond the scope of this paper to

mention them all, two of the major researchers is this field include Jonassen who
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believed learning should be internally controlled and mediated by the learner (Jonassen,

1991) and Honebein who focused on seven goals for the design of constructivist learning

environments including embedding learning in social experiences and encouraging self-

awareness in the knowledge construction process (Honebein, 1996). Constructed

knowledge resembles Native American thinking:

Constructed knowledge is a way of thought that does not split self-knowledge

from other knowledge. Its basic premise is that "all knowledge is constructed and

the knower is an intimate part of the known." It is a way of thought based in

context. It is knowledge that accepts ambiguity, complexity, and contradiction. It

is knowledge in which there is reflexivity and a questioning of assumptions

understood both by self and others. Perhaps most important of all, it is a

connected knowing and a passionate knowing (Hannigan,, 1994).

Sense-Making, an approach which states that learning is a continual process of

making sense of a body of knowledge when there is a gap by gathering information and

looking for patterns and connections, was developed by Brenda Dervin. It is based on

three assumptions: 1) that it is possible to design and implement communication systems

and practices that are responsive to human needs; 2) that it is possible for humans to

enlarge their communication repertoires to pursue this vision; and 3) that achieving these

outcomes requires the development of communication-based methodological

approaches (Dervin, 1983).

The theories of constructivism and sense-making may be relevant to and effective

in teaching Native American students:

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A key component of education shared by virtually all First Nations people is that

the unknown is made accessible by its connection to the known. (Spielman,

1988; p.90).

Learning Styles of Native American Students

Native American information users tend to prefer to receive their information

orally, through storytelling, through observation and through art, and from tribal

(community) and holistic perspectives (Philips 1983; More, 1987). There is also a

preference for information that is presented through a spiral process, rather than through a

linear one, and in a way which allows one to have time to absorb it (Rhodes, 1988).

Bruchac writes about the importance of remembering that stories can both teach and

entertain (Bruchac, 1996, 2003).

Native peoples also prefer more “wait time” than non-Native peoples. Wait time

is a term used in education referring to the length of time people in a conversation are

willing to wait for a reply (Rowe, 1983). Sociolinguists Wild, Nalonechny, and St.-

Jacques examined the concept of silence in Native American speech and concluded that

some time for silence was necessary to give time to reflect on what has been said, to

allow the speaker to add more information if they wished, for listeners to think about

what they would like to say, and as a sign of respect ((Wild, Nalonechny, & St.-Jacques,

Obtaining information visually is another important component and this includes

using words to describe scenes in listeners’ minds as well as actual physical

representations such as papers or photographs (Swisher, K. & Dehyle, D. (1989).

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Among the Sioux, there is a saying: “The white man sees with only one eye”. Seeing

with only one eye refers to learning only with the mind, concentrating on facts and

information (Spielman, 1988). The second eye, which adds depth, includes is nature,

harmony, experience, intuitive knowledge, dreams visions, and spirituality (Simpson,



The first step in introducing Native American student to the concept of archives—

what they are, what they contain, how they organized, and how materials can be

accessed—begins with first capturing their attention. Archives are not only places where

students can do research. It, like their elders, stores, preserves, and shares their

community’s history. It is concerned not only what happened a long time ago, but what

is happening now and what will happen in the future.

An archive can be an intimidating place. It is not like a library where one can

browse at will, search in an online catalog for authors, titles, and subjects, and bring

items home. Those who wish to access materials must generally fill out and sign a form

with contact information, provide an explanation of what they wish to examine, produce

photo identification, put all of their belongings except for pencils and paper in a

locker (although some archives now allow the use of laptops and digital cameras), and

work in a place where they can be continually observed by staff (Fleckner, 1984). To

access materials, users need to understand what finding aids are, and how to use them and

then must approach a reference archivist who can retrieve the items for them.
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Using a story or visual images to teach can be effective because it connects

thought with emotion. It flows and leaves one with visual images with aids memory.

Internal language is picture and emotion based. The process begins with observation,

proceeds to thinking, then understanding and feeling, and finally, acting (Rhodes, 1988).


Term Conventional Familiar Examples

Archives A place that collects the A file drawer, box, or shelf

records of individual,
families, and organizations
Archivist An individual responsible Responsible for valued and
for handling, preserving, important personal, family,
and providing access to or community items
documents and materials of
continuing usefulness
Artifact A three-dimensional, A beaded pin; a drum
physical object produced,
shaped, or adapted by
human workmanship
Collection A group of materials with Documents created by the
some unifying characteristic same person, family, or
community group
Document Any written or printed work A receipt; minutes from
tribal council meetings
Also includes photographs
Manuscript A handwritten document Letters, diaries, or notes

Oral history A recording or written Recorded stories told by

transcript of a planned oral elders

Figure 1: Archival terminology

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In a general learning environment, these terms would be given to students to study

and memorize, followed by a quiz. A more appropriate way to present these to middle-

school level, Native American students would be to tell a story which incorporates them,

allowing a thoughtful consideration of the content.

Here is an example of such a story:

Yesterday I bought a can of peaches at the little grocery store in my village. The

clerk gave me a receipt for my purchase (document).

I like canned peaches, but I always forget what a good price is per can. I always

buy the same brand and the same size can so I began keeping the receipts when I bought

canned peaches at the different grocery store chains I shop in when I shop in larger,

nearby towns.

I put them together (archivist) in a box I keep on my desk (archives). When I

have a half-dozen or so, I’ll look through them and see which store sells peaches at the

best price. I’ll keep them and keep collecting to see if the prices change (collection).

I keep many things in my box (archives). Two of my favorites are a small,

beaded pin one of my aunties made for me (artifact) and a funny note one of my sons left

for me (manuscript).

Photographs have the power to connect us. They can be compelling and have

emotional clout. Here is a adaptation of a story about a dress owned Grace Pourier, the

maternal grandmother of Emil Her Many Horses, a Lakota who lived in Pine Ridge,

South Dakota:
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My dress had a fully beaded yoke and was made of tanned hide and was made by

my grandmother. My dress was beaded with glass beads. I also had a pair of fully

beaded leggings and moccasins. Why did mama let me sell my dress? I was crazy!

They said there was a woman down at the agency buying beadwork, and I asked mama if

I could sell my dress, and she said “Okay”.

The only thing I have left now is this photo of me wearing my dress. I hope my

dress is out in the world somewhere, perhaps part of a museum collection or treasured as

another family’s heirloom (Her Many Horses, 2007).

Oral stories are also powerful. Many tribal archives have oral stories told by

elders still on reel-to-reel tape, brittle and fragile as old bones. It is expensive to reformat

them to CDs, translate them to English, and prepare written transcripts.

Here is one story told by Tim Stime (Ojibwe) in 1984:

There was a time when someone killed a moose, he would bring the moose back

to the village and give the meet according to the proper means of distribution in the

community. Nobody would think of hoarding the meat for themselves. What would

happen to those without meat? And how would the meat be preserved anyway?

After electricity came into the village of the first things people got was the

freezer. Now when someone kills a moose, he can just throw the meat in the freezer and

it will last all winter. The whole value of sharing meat is changing. In Ojibwe, the word

for freezer means “stingy box” (Spielman, 1988).

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Constructivism and sense-making theories are helpful tools to help us better

understand learning styles and are especially pertinent to Native American students.

Understanding that Native American learning styles include receiving information

through storytelling and from holistic perspectives, presented with time given to absorb

it, is essential to the task of introducing students to archives.

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