Knowing place through story

Two people, one of them pointing to the distance, approaching a viewing platform overlooking bodies of water and small hills with light snow on the ground

This blog is part of the Footprint Evaluation Initiative, a collaboration that aims to embed consideration of environmental sustainability in all evaluations and monitoring systems.

Knowing place is essential, as understanding all aspects of context is vital to undertaking evaluation that supports community, environmental renewal, and sustainability.

Place involves the oneness of spirituality, human and natural systems. But how can we understand ‘place?’ While physically going to a place helps us immerse ourselves in what we see, hear and experience, what we do not see may be as important as what we notice. Our own origin and worldview may blind us to important aspects of place. So, how do we understand what we do not see? One powerful way is through the telling of and listening to stories. Sharing stories deepens our understanding of place through learning about the place and its history from Indigenous peoples and other community members.

The importance of story

Specifically, Indigenous knowledge is based on the collective wisdom of ancestors and built through careful observation and experiences of natural patterns of life – relationality; humans, non-humans, and the natural environment - which can be portrayed through stories. As stated by Laliberte, “Indigenous oral history is just as valid and significant as Western written history and it should be recognized as such,” Fornssler, B., McKenzie H. A., Dell, C.A., Laliberte, L. and Hopkins, C., 2014). Tribal Critical Theory (TCT) emphasizes the importance of Tribal beliefs, philosophies, and customs for understanding the lived reality of Indigenous people. It recognizes the importance of story as a legitimate data source and building block of theory (Bowman, Francis, and Tyndall, 2015).

Not only can stories help us understand, they can be a vehicle for transformation or renewal. As explained by Hodges (2014); “Stories engage people at every level – not just in their minds but in their emotions, values and imaginations, which are the drivers of real change. So, if we want to transform society, we must learn to tell – and listen to – a new set of stories about the world we want to create.”

Stories illuminate the importance of culture and history, including language, customs, spirituality, and physical locality. Story is a decolonizing approach that elevates evaluation from an extractive exercise to a holistic endeavour situated within the nest of relationships and connectivity. Stories are not fiction or ‘make-believe,’ as they are sometimes characterized in the often dominant English language. They are authentic representations of experiences that help us “learn, discover and understand” (Krueger, 2015).

Storytelling is a means of transmitting knowledge and history, teaching and learning, connecting generations, creating, and strengthening community – all of which helps us to understand ‘place.’ Storytelling crosses cultures and millennia.

"The storyteller's art changed through the ages. From battling dread in word and incantations before their people did in reality, they became the repositories of the people's wisdom and follies. Often, conscripted by kings, they became the memory of a people's origins, and carried with them the long line of ancestries and lineages. Most important of all, they were the living libraries, the keepers of legends and lore. They knew the causes and mutations of things, the herbs, trees, plants, cures for diseases, causes for wars, causes of victory, the ways in which victory often precipitates defeat, or defeat victory, the lineages of gods, the rites humans have to perform to the gods. They knew of follies and restitutions, were advocates of new and old ways of being, were custodians of culture, recorders of change."

Okri, 1997

Understanding world views

Stories help us understand different world views. As a man in Nunavut explained to us: "Rocks are living things. Rivers are living things. Ice is a living thing. If we respect them, they will give us what we need to live in harmony with the system. But in the formal education curriculum, they are non-living things…. We need to ensure a place for both world views.” Recognizing different world views, gives us insights and a new appreciation of place. We now come to an understanding of place that was not possible simply through our own lens.

While this suggests that we may understand place by learning about different world views, it also challenges our thinking about systems. In an Indigenous world view, there is one system that includes spirituality, humans, other creatures, and the physical environment. All are interconnected within one system where relationality is key.

Ways to tell and listen to stories

Stories can take many forms. They can be told through methods of individual or group conversations, drawing, photo novella (picture stories and digital storytelling), and photo voice. Regardless of the format, the foundation to telling and listening to stories is trust. Trust takes time to build. In the context of place this is doubly important, as spending time in a place also helps teach us about place. Trust is also built through reciprocity. As the evaluator, you too must share your story and give of yourself, all of which helps to build critical relationships, rooted in trust.

Individual conversations may focus on personal experiences or oral history. Elders and community members may share the history of the place including the social, cultural, physical, and spiritual context. In a program evaluation context, they may also be stories that bring forth institutional memory, explaining how programs have evolved over time within the context of place. Group conversations may occur through focus groups, talking circles or story circles. Questions are open-ended and the process must ensure that everyone has the opportunity to speak in a safe space.

Drawings or the use of photographs and video are visual ways to elicit and enhance story. Photographs or images may produce stories through the method of photo elicitation. Photographs or images may be presented to an individual or a group to elicit a reaction or provoke a memory. Visuals can access thoughts and feelings that lie beneath the use of words.

Photo novella, on the other hand, is a process where people take photos that represent their lived experiences. They are the stories of people’s lives. Digital storytelling is a form of photo elicitation. Digital storytelling is created through combining a recorded narrative with images, moving or still, often accompanied by music and other sounds. Music can be a powerful addition which evokes a sense of place. Usually told in the first person, digital stories are generally two to three minutes long. They may be a story about a person, event, or issue which the narrator feels strongly about. Digital stories recognize many elements of storytelling including oral traditions, the writing process, the power of visuals and the role of digital media in recording and widely sharing stories.

Photo voice, similar to photo novella, is used in participatory action research to enable personal and community change. It is a group process that “promotes critical dialogue and knowledge about important issues through large and small group discussion of photographs” (Hurworth, 2003).

In the context of place, spending time in a place and listening to the stories of that place, change our understanding. Stories are powerful tools in helping us move past the superficial and into the multi-faceted depth of place.


Storytellers are responsible for who they share their story with and ensuring it is shared in an appropriate way at the right time and place. The storyteller must also be apprised of and consent to how the story will be used.

Active listeners are responsible for putting the story into a relational context that makes sense. As a listener, practicing reciprocity is also important. Sharing your own story is a way of being vulnerable and giving something back. Perhaps, more crucially as the listener, you are responsible for listening with an open heart and an open mind. Then, as Wilson (2008) noted; “If you pass the story on you take on the responsibilities of the storyteller.”

In any place and in any evaluation, you must also understand that you are in the story, so you change the story simply by your presence.

In a fractured age, when cynicism is god, here is a possible heresy: we live by stories, we also live in them. One way or another we are living the stories planted in us early or along the way, or we are also living the stories we planted – knowingly or unknowingly – in ourselves. We live stories that either give our lives meaning or negate it with meaninglessness. If we change the stories we live by, quite possibly we change our lives,’ (Ben Okri, 1997).

The power of story

In a changing world, our methods need to help us understand the realities of those touched by our interventions and evaluations and our own realities. Our methods need to engender understanding and action that support equity, coupled with environmental renewal and sustainability. Story is one powerful – and underused – evaluation method.

Reality is grounded in ‘place’ and coloured by our world view. But how can we understand ‘place’ which entails the relationality of humans, non-humans, and the natural environment? Story is one method that encourages us to learn, listen and understand in ways that are appropriate to and reflective of 'place', including culture and history, language, customs, spirituality, and physical locality. As expressed by Thomas King, "The truth about stories is that that's all we are” (CBC Massey Lectures, 2003).

Related content



Bowman, N. R., Dodge Francis, C., & Tyndall, M. (2015). Culturally responsive Indigenous evaluation: A practical approach for evaluating indigenous projects in tribal reservation contexts. In S. Hood, R. Hopson, & H. Frierson (Eds.), Continuing the journey to reposition culture and cultural content in evaluation theory (pp. 335–359). Charlotte, NC: Information Age.

Hodges, Simon (2014). The Importance of Storytelling for Social Change. Available at The importance of storytelling for social change - Positive News - Positive News

Hurworth. R. (2003). Photo-Interviewing in Research, Social Research Update, 40. Available at

King, Thomas (2003). The Truth About Stories: A Native Narrative. Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. Available at The 2003 CBC Massey Lectures, "The Truth about Stories: A Native Narrative" | CBC Radio

Krueger, Richard A. (2015). An Introduction to Using Stories in Research. Available at an-introduction-to-storytelling-in-research.doc (

Fornssler, B., McKenzie H. A., Dell, C.A., Laliberte, L. and Hopkins, C. (2014). “I Got to Know Them in a New Way:” Rela(y/t)ing Rhizomes and Community-Based Knowledge (Brokers’) Transformation of Western and Indigenous Knowledge,” Cultural Studies ↔ Critical Methodologies (CSCM), 14(2).

Okri, B. (1997). A way of being free. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson/Phoenix House.

Wilson, S. (2008). Research is ceremony: Indigenous research methods. Winnipeg, MB: Fernwood.

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