Swapping Stories: Folktales from Louisiana—Why Are Folktales Important?

By Maida Owens

In this world of high technology, one may wonder why something as simple and low tech as storytelling is important. On the surface, folktales may appear to be simply entertainment with no real significance. But the stories told by a group of people offer a window into that culture that reveals its values and worldview. Probably of more significance is the fact that stories offer each one of us an opportunity to participate within our community and connect with other people in meaningful ways.

Everyday, each one of us tells stories. While, admittedly, some are more talented than others, all of us relate events in our lives, tell jokes, or share legends about local people, beliefs, or events. Each of us knows individuals who excel in their ability to draw a crowd and pull us into the story being told. Some tell animated jokes, while others surprise us with a tall tale that begins in a matter-of-fact style and moves to a fantastic ending. Some of us even share stories passed down within our culture that are not as common as in the past: myths, magic tales, and animal tales. The tales or stories provide opportunities for us to feel connected to others and belong to a group.

Just as each one of us is a storyteller, each group or community has storytelling traditions. One group may excel at jokes, while another may still have individuals telling magic tales. Sharing tales of haunted houses, supernatural creatures, fooling strangers with tale tales, or teaching lessons with animal tales, such activities reflect the shared values and perspectives of our communities. Our priorities, ethics, and sense of humor are revealed in our stories.

The traits that mark our stories as unique and set apart from other stories also reveal our cultural differences and help to define the group. Such differences do not have to divide us. But rather, they can help us to appreciate the unique cultural art forms and contributions that diverse groups have to offer the world. Our own stories, like our other distinct cultural traditions and art forms, offer us the opportunity to celebrate our diversity and the boundless expressions of human creativity.

The multi-faceted project, Swapping Stories: Folktales from Louisiana, examines Louisiana's cultural diversity through its traditional storytellers. Since 1989, the project has presented storytelling in communities, published a book with the University Press of Mississippi, and produced a video documentary and this website with Louisiana Public Broadcasting. The next step will be the development of study units for classroom use.

The book, video, and website offer examples of the different types of stories told by various Louisiana cultural groups. Recognizing storytelling as an expressive art form, Swapping Stories: Folktales from Louisiana demonstrates that oral traditions are both extremely personal creations and broad cultural statements, reflecting at once the skill of a single teller and the tastes of an entire culture.

We encourage you to consider the tales told by your family, neighborhood, ethnic group, work group or region and join us in celebrating our cultural diversity.