Oral Traditions, Folklore, and Cultural Studies

“Oral traditions” and “folklore” vitally connect us with the imaginations and histories of “the folk”—often ordinary men and women who created and continue to create our world—and substantially form our sense of belonging or not to ethnic, national, gendered, professional and other groups. Oral narratives and folklore include cosmogonies, folktales and fairy tales, legends, epics, Hawaiian wahi pana, ghost stories, jokes, ballads, chants, proverbs or wise sayings, and mythologies. And yet, “oral traditions” and “folklore” are not coterminous. Oral traditions function socially as popular history and literature, depending on their specific cultural and socio-historical location. Folklore—a concept and term that was introduced into the English language in 1848—includes non-verbal traditions such as festivals, foodways, and ethnic dance, performance, and theater as well as verbal expressions of popular history and literature.

Disciplines such as folklore studies, literary studies, indigenous studies, gender studies, composition, history, and cultural history ask different questions of “oral narratives” and “folklore,” but consider them as forms of knowledge and forms of art. Whether the focus is on the cultural production of women, indigenous peoples, the state, young adults, or diasporic groups, the adaptation and translation of oral narratives and folklore across cultures and media—including film and the internet—is an increasingly popular focus for scholars in a range of disciplines.

Bringing a “cultural studies” perspective to the study of oral traditions and folklore historicizes questions of power and transmission and offers a located perspective that interrogates how oral traditions in Hawai‘i and Oceania have, for instance, been shaped by colonialism, as well as by electronic technologies, and how indigenous peoples are re-creating them today.