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Stories of the Cultural Group (Part 1)
By Christiane Brems, Ph.D., ABPP

Storytelling has been an important means of making sense of the environment and of transmitting information, knowledge, and wisdom from generation to generation among many ethnic groups across the world, including the North American continent. In fact, although generally emphasized in the context of indigenous cultures, stories are part of all cultures and all cultural groups. Fables, myths, fairytales, and legends serve the purpose of transmitting values and knowledge, and can become a coping mechanism that aids peoples' sense of control over their lives and environments (Pellowski, 1977). Stories transmitted through the generations are used by the story-tellers to guide the actions of younger members of a cultural group and to help them adapt their behaviors according to the codes and values of the group. Traditional stories serve to reflect or illustrate typical situations people in a given group might face, thus preparing them for its occurrence and for adjusting to and coping with it. Through cultural storytelling, human beings developed a means to express and communicate their experiences to others around them, helping them feel integrated into an understanding group. This self-disclosing and sharing purpose of storytelling may well be critical to the maintenance of mental health within cultural groups.

Cultural stories have evolved across time to adapt to changes within a cultural group and to reflect the shifts in experience a culture experiences as it encounters others. Traditional oral cultures have largely given way to print or literary cultures, which in turn have been superceded in many ways by television and internet (or visual) cultures (McLeod, 1997). Regardless of medium (oral, print, or visual), the story meets its purpose of communication and sharing. Originally, storytelling was a communal activity, often leading to bonding and cohesiveness-building. Reading books, on the other hand, can be a solitary activity, which nevertheless can help the reader feel part of a larger group as she or he identifies with the storyteller or the main character of the narrative. Book clubs can turn the reading of books into shared experience that bring back the communal nature of the original story. All cultural stories are told to transmit something about the group that creates the story. They are shared stories that reflect (not only) an individual perspective but also a collective perspective deemed important by the group. The myths of native cultures are excellent examples of cultural stories, as are the fairytales of old European and Oriental cultures, the Sufi stories of Islamic mysticisms, and the tales of Hindu philosophers (Pearce, 1996). Many of these stories endure today and are used to teach and promote growth among human beings of all cultures. The cultural narrative is here to stay and plays a role in all group contexts.

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Related Articles
Stories of the Family (Part 2)
Stories of the Individual (Part 3)
Using Stories for Growing and Healing

About the Author: Christiane Brems, Ph.D., ABPP, is a professor of psychology at the University of Alaska Anchorage. She came to UAA in 1989 from a faculty position at the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center. She received her Ph.D. in clinical psychology in 1987 from Oklahoma State University. She is a licensed and board-certified psychologist and a certified interactive imagery guide. She has been in private practice as a clinician and consultant in Oklahoma and Alaska (including in the Anchorage and Bethel areas). Dr. Brems is the author of several books, including the Comprehensive Guide to Child Psychotherapy; Between Two People: Exercises Toward Intimacy; Psychotherapy: Processes and Techniques; Basic Skills in Psychotherapy and Counseling; and Dealing with Challenges in Psychotherapy and Counseling. She is an active researcher, author of more than 60 journal publications, and co-director of the Alaska Comprehensive and Specialized Evaluation Services at UAA.

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