Rapscallions – characters aid memory

A Pueblo kachina ‘doll’ at the Brooklyn Museum, New York.

One of the themes I greatly underestimated when I started working with adapting Indigenous memory systems for education was the role of characters. I cannot emphasise enough what a difference they make.

Characters make stories, and the information they encode, ever so much more memorable.

Very early in my PhD research, I became aware of the universal use of a pantheon of characters in all indigenous cultures. The ancient Greeks and Romans also taught about using characters to tell stories when memorising information.

The Native American Pueblo Indians call their mythological characters ‘kachina’. I was entranced by these vivid and wildly varied characters and their representations in all art forms. They featured on pottery, in petroglyphs, had specific masks, danced at ceremonies and permeated all aspects of life. Most entrancing of all were the dolls used to introduce the characters to children. I was able to examine a range of these kachina at the Brooklyn Museum in New York.

I soon learned how much more memorable any information became when characters (real or mythological) populated the stories. Referred to in Western writing as mythological characters, ancestors and a range of other names, there really is no equivalent in Western culture. The most appropriate terms are those used by the cultures in question. For the Pueblo, they are kachina (katsina).

It is culturally insensitive to use terms which may imply that we are adapting kachina or any other indigenous pantheon to contemporary life, so the team of educators I work with decided to call our characters rapscallions. This in no way implies that all kachina or characters from other indigenous cultures are rascals. Starting with a rascal-like concept just worked well for children when wanting to give their new friend personality.

I have chosen my own set of ‘ancestors’ from history to tell the stories of my culture. I initially linked these to cards because that gave me a physical representation of them. One of the students I have been working with from Castlemaine Secondary College has done the same thing.

Reuben has selected his 53 ‘ancestors’ from across a range of disciplines and linked them to the 53 cards (including the joker) of a deck. He then placed them in a history memory trial of his own design.

Although I have my set of real ancestors, I have also found that I wanted vivid ‘mythological’ characters that I could manipulate according to the data I was memorising. I commissioned my lead rapscallion from one of my favourite artists, Suzanne McRae of Hip Hip Decay.

I am absolutely delighted with my new best friend, Rapscali. He performs the very best stories in my imagination and is the hero of my set of images and stories for remembering mathematical tables: Rapscali’s Tables, available from the Memory Whisperer Shop.

With fellow educators, Paul Allen and Alice Steel, I have been exploring how best to use rapscallions with adults and students.

Our youngest is Haku, here using a toy bear as a rapscallion.

Alice Steel has created rapscallions with her science classes. She has some as puppets ready to perform and others as small creatures created by the students.

I also used rapscallions with classes at Malmsbury Primary School. They have created them in art and we are now using them to help with work right across the curriculum.

I have no doubt that my understanding of the value of using rapscallions will just grow and grow. They are a universal in oral cultures so there must be a very good reason! I am just glimpsing how valuable they are.

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6 thoughts on “Rapscallions – characters aid memory”

  1. Do you have links on how people exactly made their memory stories using these characters? I am also trying to think of how to make memory links NOT using sexual imagery, NOR overt violence (silly violence is ok). Your thoughts?

    1. Hi Steven,

      I am not sure what ‘people’ you mean. Do you mean the Indigenous cultures I write about, or contemporary people. Or the work I have done in schools with Rapscallions. The best way to understand is to do it. Just get to know your characters and let your imaginations go.

      I, too, don’t like vulgarity nor violence. What is vulgar and violent to me would be considered very mild to almost anyone else. Very few of my stories have either in them, but sometimes it just happens and mild vulgarity or violence is the instant link between the elements. If that happens, you can try as hard as you like, but your brain probably won’t let go of it. But you don’t need to add either sexual imagery nor violence to any story. And any violence can be made silly (as can sex) just by the way you play with it in your imagination. There are plenty of other themes!

      Lynne

  2. This is interesting commentary. There is a good collection of kachinas at the Heard Museum in Phoenix, Arizona, part of the estate of the politician Barry Goldwater.

    1. Thank you! That is enough to make me head across the wide blue oceans to Phoenix. I find everything to do with kachinas absolutely fascinating. I’ll go online and see what I can see of their collection from here.

      1. Good idea, Lynne — you can make the trip after the online search!

        You probably already know all the books on Kachinas. Here are two that I like a lot: Classic Hopi and Zuni Kachina Figures (Andrea Portago and Barton Wright) and Messagers des Dieux Hopis et Zunis (Eric Geneste and Eric Mickeler)

        1. I don’t know all the books, although I have quite a few. I love these guys and the incredible role they play in Pueblo life. I have. added these books to the wish list. I am learning French as one of the memory experiments (I must add that to the website) – so maybe one day I will be reading a book on kachinas in French.

          Thank you,

          Lynne

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