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Environment • Culture • Language

Born together, they change together and eventually die together. ~ G.N. Appell, Ph.D.


This Overview is an introduction to the collection of oral literature and traditional ecological knowledge of indigenous societies. Our methodology is focused on the training of local individuals to do the recording so that their society itself benefits from the work (see Sabah Oral Literature Project and Community Based Field Methods tabs on the sidebar). This method ensures that the materials recorded are not biased by the presuppositions of an outside intervener. This approach is based on our experience in establishing and managing the Sabah Oral Literature Project, which was inaugurated in 1986. Much of this oral literature project was focused on the Rungus Momogun of northern Borneo (now Sabah). As in much of this Overview, the Rungus experience and materials figure significantly, it is appropriate here to give a brief cultural sketch of Rungus culture and society before we proceed.


The Rungus are a people of northern Borneo, now the state of Sabah, Malaysia. Fifty years ago, when we began our research, the Rungus lived in longhouses and practiced swidden agriculture, raising crops of rice, maize, cassava, and vegetables. The domestic families also raised pigs and chickens for sacrifices. A few families also had water buffalo. Priestesses, who were also spirit mediums, managed the sacrifices to relieve illness and increase fertility of domestic families and villages. Offerings to the rice spirits were largely managed by men. All sacrifices and offerings were accompanied by long poetic chants and prayers.


This Overview has also benefited from our experience in establishing and managing the Fellowship Program of the Firebird Foundation. This program encouraged the collection of oral literature and traditional ecological knowledge in societies around the world that were once nonliterate or still are. The Fellowship program began in 2008 and ended in 2020.  There have now been over 300 such projects in various parts of the world (please see sidebar for list of Fellowships awarded and the goals of their projects).


In 2020, following the death of their parents, George and Laura Appell’s daughters took leadership of the Firebird Foundation. The Fellowship Program was revised and has become the Firebird Foundation Research Grants, designed to support oral literature research around the world.


The concept of oral literature may be strange and confusing to many who have never lived in a traditional, non-literate society or who have never studied the traditional literature of early western societies such as the Icelandic and Norwegian Sagas. For example, the magnificent Icelandic epic, the Burnt Njal Saga, was originally performed orally, as were the Homeric epics. Also for some the concept of oral literature might be viewed as an oxymoron, but the term was first used in 1898, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, to refer to the sagas of the Germanic peoples.


Sometimes oral literature is confused with oral history, which is only part of the orality of traditional societies. Many also assume since these societies do not have a complex economic system that their language, traditions, and approaches to the infinite are also much simpler. This is far from the case, as you will find in the material on the Rungus. Other terms have been used to refer to certain aspects of oral traditions, such as oral epics, oral poetry, and so forth. But as we shall see in the Nature and Function of Oral Literature in the sidebar, these only form a small part of the oral traditions of a non-literate society.


Since World War II, many of the traditional societies have been overrun and are being overrun by the modern world system. It is quite clear that much of what is lovely and precious is rapidly disappearing. It has been our experience and our Fellows’ experience that everywhere we have been recording oral literature the second or third generation in the society are decultured from their traditional society. They, who have had elementary schooling, television, and the internet, have little use or interest in the traditional knowledge or the linguistic arts of their parents and grandparents. It is to these older generations we have to turn to for recording and preserving this incredibly beautiful and important body of art and knowledge. The collection of this disappearing knowledge and creative genius is not an easy task or a simple one. Just to record narratives, rituals, prayers, life histories, etc. is not enough. We have to delve deeply into the hidden meanings and symbols, into the extensive figurative language, that the younger generations no longer understand. Even the older generations may have to struggle for awhile to reach a full understanding of some of the hidden meaning in the figurative usages, and in some instances they still fail to understand the references to a figurative usage (see Appendix 5 for an example of such figurative language from the Rungus people of northern Borneo). It is indeed an urgent task to move as rapidly as we can to do this work, for as the social environment changes, as the physical environment changes, so does the language. As schooling drives out traditional knowledge, as mass media and the internet corrode old values, so knowledge and artistic works are lost.


Because of the complex figurative language that is found in the oral literature of traditional societies, it is impossible to translate and appreciate this body of orality unless a cultural dictionary for the society is constructed. The one we have built for the Rungus attempts to cover the major figurative language usages, all the gods and spirits and their characteristics, the crops planted, the forms of dress, and so on (for a discussion of this and its importance, see No.5 in the Methodological Papers, “A Cultural Dictionary for Translation and Exegesis of Texts”).


One of the first steps in studying the oral literature of a society is to develop a list of possible types of that which might be found in that society. In Appendix 1 is a list of types of oral literature that are found in Borneo societies as a preliminary guide to work in Borneo. But as this list was generated externally, it does not represent how the members of a particular society themselves classify their oral literature. It is largely based on Western ideas. It is only to give ideas as to what to look for. Many times those who are interested in oral literature attempt to force the indigenous oral materials into their own categories. However, the local classification really must be the focus of the collection and appreciated for itself as a statement of the existential issues of life at a particular time and at a particular level of sociocultural integration. While it is important to determine how the members of the society themselves classify their oral literature, this step is seldom completely finished until all forms of oral literature in a society are recorded. But, a beginning effort can guide further and more productive research. In Appendix 2 the Rungus Classes of Oral Literature are listed. We have been working on the classification of Rungus oral literature since our first field work there starting in 1959. This issue is further discussed in the section, “The Sabah Oral Literature Project”.

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Logo Firebird Foundation, Culture, Language and Environment.

Language, culture, and the environment form a closely integrated, dynamic system (see logo, “the Delta of Social Life” above). Any change in one of the three subsystems will cause a modification in the other two. We shall see examples of this shortly. As language, culture, and the environment are closely interlinked subsystems, to split language from the others results in the withering of all three. To focus on one of these three subsystems results only in partial knowledge. In our opinion to try to save a language that is disappearing may have utility in terms of the social consciousness of the society, but it can never be returned to its original integration, its original state of knowledge interwoven with the culture and the environment (see examples of irretrievable loss in article No. 11 in the Methodology Papers). It is the study of oral literature in a society which brings these three elements into its original synthesis.


Therefore, anyone attempting to record the oral traditions of a society must have an elementary knowledge of linguistics, sociocultural anthropology, and ecosystem functioning. These are necessary to search for examples of oral literature and ecosystem knowledge; they are required to understand the texts recorded.


In the section on Methodological Papers, the article “Some Thoughts on Collecting Traditional Ecological Knowledge: Discovery and Loss”, we provide some thoughts on the study of traditional ecological knowledge, some of which arise from our own experience. Here, however, we will discuss the fundamental issues in studying cultures and a brief note on linguistic analysis.

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Fundamental Issues in Studying Cultures

The goal of sociocultural anthropology is the study of cultures and societies. The fundamental issues in sociocultural anthropology -- if I am not oversimplifying to the degree of distortion-- are three. First, if the collector of oral literature is from outside the ethnic group, or is a member of the group but who has been educated outside the group, the collector must realize that he or she is entering into an entirely differently constructed world view. The collector can be faced with a set of potentially strange values and action patterns that are confusing and difficult to understand. The collector must leave behind his own world. He/she should learn and enjoy the new cultural world and its cultural ecology.


Second, and critical to developing this understanding, is the stance taken by the researcher: he or she does not judge the beliefs, values, or institutions of the other society. It is fundamental to the work to make the assumption that these beliefs, values, and institutions serve an important function in the process of the society’s adaptation to its ecosystem. And this includes its management of its form of cultural ecology – its capacity to provision the society. This assumption of function is constantly open to testing so as to further understand the society’s integration.


Third, the application of system methodology in its elementary form is critical to the inquiry. This is to discover how the institutions and behaviors of a traditional society form a system in which each element is interlinked. Destroying one linkage, as we shall see, starts the unwinding of the level of integration of that society into a lesser and more confused state.

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Elementary Linguistic Skills

A collector must start with some fairly basic knowledge of linguistics. Transcribing oral literature requires using a phonemic orthography. Such an orthography mirrors the local meaningful sound units of the society. In many communities there is no such orthography. In some instances primitive attempts have been made so that the transcriber of oral literature from recordings must devise his own basic orthography. Otherwise, there is a potential loss of knowledge and understanding. If the collector is not sufficiently skilled in developing a sound, phonemically-based orthography for an unwritten language, then he must work with a linguist to accomplish this.


In Appendix 3 we attempt an introduction to articulatory phonetics, the basic approach necessary to develop the phonemes of the language, that is the meaningful sound units. We present several charts in this appendix. In Chart 1 there is a diagram of the articulatory points in the mouth. Chart 2 presents an account of articulatory points. In Chart 3 there is a diagram of the symbols used for the various points of articulation for consonants. In Chart 4 there is a similar one for vowels.


These provide a system of labeling the phones of a language, which is the start of a phonemic analysis.


Once the phonology of a language is achieved, or even while doing it, a phonemic analysis has to proceed to provide a sound orthography for transcribing the texts recorded. In the section “Methodological Papers”, we provide a “Bibliography to Introductory Linguistics” These should introduce the beginner into phonemic analysis.

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The Environment

The third subsystem, the Environment, is discussed under Methodological Papers, “Some Thoughts on The Collection of Traditional Ecological Knowledge”. This also includes a statement on the concept of Cultural Ecology. Here we turn to a discussion of Oral Literature and its part in uniting these three elements.

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Oral literature is the queen of the battle in the preservation, understanding, and enjoyment of disappearing traditional cultures and languages. It nicely integrates the three closely linked subsystems of environment, culture, and language. An example of how this can be done is illustrated in the sidebar, “Sabah Oral Literature Project”, which recounts the history and results of that project in northern Borneo.


For example with regard to the contribution of oral literature to linguistic analysis, we have found in some texts, now only remembered in part by a few Rungus priestesses, linguistic forms that the younger generations were not aware of. Yet these forms enlighten the study of the language and help in the translations of other texts. We have also found that in oral texts the basic themes and values of the society’s culture are revealed, those themes and values which were once played out in institutional behaviors that no longer exist.


One of the classic epic chants of the Rungus is presented in the original text with interlinear and free translations in Methodology Papers, “Epic Ritual Chant of the Rungus Momogun of Northern Borneo”. Unfortunately, we can provide only the text of this chant and not the accompanying music, which is so moving. Further information on this project can be found in Appendices 2, 4, 5, 6, and 7, which provide useful examples of Rungus oral literature and related work.


Similarly, information on the ecosystem is found in these oral texts, as we explain in article No. 11 in the Methodology Section. For example, in the Rungus epic of a hero’s journey into new lands the discovery of certain flowers, narrated in the text, indicates that there exists fertile land in which to settle.

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Religion, Rituals and the Culture

Historical accounts provide some interesting and insightful material on the culture of the source society. Life histories reveal aspects of social processes and the nature of the sociocultural system. Myths and legends have an importance above and beyond their intrinsic value in terms of providing psychological projections of a society and revealing hidden processes (see Dundes 1987, Dundes, ed. 1984, 1988). There hidden truths are found and the key values of the society are portrayed. But it is in the domain of the sacred, it is in the literature of sacred rituals that the creative spirit flourishes. In these one finds literature of great beauty and aesthetic power. These texts reveal the world view of the society and recount the existential challenges the society has to face. As a result, they are emotionally moving and stimulate a deeply felt resonance almost universally.


Texts of rituals may be to propitiate gods and spirits for a good harvest. There may be rites of passage and ceremonies that accompany, recognize and ease major social transitions such as birth, coming of age, death and so on. Illness may require certain rituals, as does lack of fertility of the family, in their domestic animals, and in the village territory (see Bell 1992, 1997 for a discussion of the various forms of rituals and their functions and purposes). The critical point is to determine for whom or what social group the rituals are being held. We will discuss this issue in length in the article “Collection Issues and Suggestions”, No. 10 in the Methodology Papers.

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The Ritual Ecology of a Society: The Sacred and The Environment

Traditional societies mark those aspects of the environment that are critical to their survival by sanctifying them. Such flora and fauna, such sacred places are revered and ritualized. They form the ritual ecology of the society, and it is critical to identify them. Much of this can be done through the collection of oral literature. Oral literature texts can not only reveal the history of the society, the social processes at work, and the values and aesthetic creativity of a society, the texts often reveal the sacred parts of the society’s environment. We shall discuss in article No. 11, “Some Thoughts on the Collection of Traditional Ecological Knowledge” how rituals and ceremonies can provide indicators of critical ecological functions in the ecosystem which sustain a society and that need protection (also see article No. 8 in the Methodological Papers).

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Finally, it is important to realize that no human system is perfect. The great linguist Edward Sapir put it very succinctly: all systems leak (reported in Cruikshank 2000:XII). The system for recording oral literature and ecological knowledge we have presented here is not perfect. It will be revised, it will evolve. As Leonard Cohen has put it, “There is a crack in everything. That's how the light gets in.” (Selected Poems, 1956-1968), and thereby important modifications made.


In addition, cracks also appear in the social system of the society from which literature and knowledge is being recorded. There is no perfect social system. There are always conflicts and tensions and points that are in contention. Be aware of this and look out for these cracks. Recording this material is important, for it gives you insight at some later point as to the nature of these conflicts in the social system and culture and why certain social processes are ritualized. It is important to archive these aspects for later reference.


Remember when you are recording oral literature, including personal accounts and environmental knowledge, you are dealing with the hearts, minds and souls of people. Remember that you will come across moments of exquisite beauty and moments of unquenchable pain. Be gentle, be compassionate, be empathetic.

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Appell, G. N., and Laura W. R. Appell
  1993 To Converse with the Gods: The Rungus Bobolizan-- Spirit Medium and Priestess. In The Seen and the Unseen: Shamanism, Mediumship and Possession in Borneo. Robert Winzeler, ed. Borneo Research Council Monograph Series Volume 2. Williamsburg: Borneo Research Council.
  2003a Death Among the Rungus Momogun of Sabah, Malaysia: The Dissolution of Personhood and Dispersion of Multiple Souls and Spirit Counterparts. In Journeys of The Soul: Anthropological Studies of Death, Burial, and Reburial Practices in Borneo. W. D. Wilder, ed. Phillips, ME: Borneo Research Council.
Bell, Catherine
  1992 Ritual Theory Ritual Practice. New York: Oxford University Press.
  1997 Ritual Perspectives and Dimensions. New York: Oxford University Press.
Cruikshank, Julie
  2000 The Social Life of Stories: Narrative and Knowledge in The Yukon Territory. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press.
Dundes, Alan
  1987 Parsing Through Customs: Essays by a Freudian Folklorist. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.
Dundes, Alan, ed.
  1984 Sacred Narrative: Readings in the Theory of Myth. Berkeley: University of California Press.
  1988 The Flood Myth. Berkeley: University of California Press

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