Rapscallions add character to aid memory

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

Characters make stories, and the information they encode, every 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 have 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. We have then placed them in a history memory trial of his own design, but more of that in a future post.

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 have 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!

With Paul Allen and Alice Steel at The Orality Centre, I have been exploring how best to use rapscallions with adults and students.

Our youngest advisor at The Orality Centre, Haku, is 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 am also using 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!




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Author: lynne

I am an Honorary Researcher at LaTrobe University. I am the author of 19 books, the most recent being 'Spiders: learning to love them' (Allen & Unwin), 'Knowledge and Power in Prehistoric Societies' (Cambridge University Press, 'The Memory Code' (Allen & Unwin, AUS; Pegasus Books, US and Atlantic Books, UK), 'Memory Craft' (Allen & Unwin, AUS; Pegasus Books, US) [and foreign translations, audio versions and so on]. My latest book is co-authored by Margo Neale. 'Songlines: the power and promise' and published by Thames & Hudson with the National Museum of Australia.

4 thoughts on “Rapscallions add character to aid memory”

  1. 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,


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