Indian Oral Literature

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INDIAN ORAL LITERATURE nurtures and explores the connections native peoples see in the entire web of living and inert members. Rooted in both the land and the language, stories, in all their forms, relate people and species to their places of abode. These stories provide entertainment and education; they include informal accounts of personal events and nightly bedtime and just-so stories about how animals got their present colors, tails, behaviors, and such, as well as formally recited epics, which depict the creation of the world and other events, and take days or months to complete. In ancient times, the crippled and the blind earned food and lodging by telling stories and spreading news in camps and villages. Their repertoire included foibles, tales, fables, stories, and myths, as well as epics of great formal complexity. While the word "myth" connotes the imaginary in contemporary English, literary studies define it as a kind of cultural explanation, and native people accord it the weight of scientific proof and cosmic rationale.

Origin epics are the most distinctive. Throughout the Americas, there are seven major types of origin epics, including Earth Diver, who brought a speck of dirt from the ocean's floor to enable the world to be formed; Father Skyplus Mother Earth, who begat creation; Emergence from an underworld; Spider weaving the world; Tricksters democratizing private resources for future benefit to all succeeding beings; Twins vying to create useful or harmful consequences; and Dismemberment of a giant (like the Norse Ymir), whose body parts become pieces of the world—the skull becoming the dome of the sky, the bones turning into stones, the hair to vegetation, the blood becoming water, and the organs into species. None of these epics is entirely unique to the Americas; for example Earth Diver is circumpolar and Father Sky plus Mother Earth appears through the Pacific and ancient Japan. Even Ymir presents the story of Adam in reverse.


Although the content of a story will vary with each telling, its grammar and literary style make its form distinct. Often a story has a title, a beginning ("Once upon a time"), and an ending ("The End," "Tied up"). The narrative will rely heavily on dialog between the characters, each of which has a distinct style of speech, like that of the modern cartoon characters Elmer Fudd and DaffyDuck. Some of the characters will have particles added on to their words when speaking. In languages like Navajo, where physical shape and internal consistency, such as "bulky," "roundish," "granular," "bundled," determine noun forms, humor is supplied by misapplying these shapes ("roundish" instead of human for a hunchback). Similarly, the difference between knowledge gained first-hand and that which is reported vicariously alerts listeners to lies and deceptions. Indeed, the very appearance of a trickster figure, such as Coyote or Hare, tells children that whatever the trickster does is likely to be very wrong. In this way moral, lessons were taught but not preached.

Other literary devices include the repetition of events, often four times the lengthening of vowels for emphasis (looong), the inversion of the norm (cross dressing), and the use of words in archaic or baby forms. Additionally, the level of the voice is raised or lowered, and whispers, lisps, and emphatic silences are used. Mythic events are adapted to fit the particular moment of telling.

Native speakers also develop a keen sense of chronology within their literature. Among the Iroquois of the Northeast, three epics explain the creation of the earth by Earth Grasper and the twins Sapling and Flint, the founding of the Iroquois League (1400s?), and then the Good Word of the prophet Handsome Lake about 1800. Among Tsimshians of the North Pacific, a dozen such epics layered through time not only outline the history of their world but also explain the founding of key dynastic houses. Because the earliest epics describe a newly glaciated world, these layerings extend over at least 10,000 years. Each serves to convey an array of names to be inherited, of resources to be claimed, of house sites to be occupied by season, and of art works (crests) to emblazon all of these connections.


The context of a story—the particular season, or the presence of certain listeners—greatly influences how it is told, when it is told, and why it is told. For example, most epics should only be told in winter, when the land is quiet and the people relaxed. But if a child is visiting a place where an important event once happened, he or she may be told the story immediately, so a connection is made between the people, the place, and the event. Different families have distinct versions of the same event or epic. Often after one family has hosted a feast and told its version in public, other families will tell their versions in private, so the contrasts are made clear. Support for contested versions comes from "proofs" on the landscape; thus, the telling of an epic at such a place reinforces a family's claims. Among the Abenakis of the Northeast, human society began after a Frog disgorged all the earth's water. The water ran over the landscape in a treelike pattern, each branch ending in a lake inhabited by humans who gained a closeness with a particular species. At each telling, families agree on the dendritic flow of the water but strongly differ on the specific pond and particular species at the end, insisting that it must be their very own. Thus, a bear family will culminate its account with a pond inhabited by bears.


The way a narrator uses phrasing to create nuances of meaning and suspense can enhance or diminish the quality of each recitation. Age, gender, and pedigree also bear on a narrator's style. All Native American children are told stories and encouraged to repeat them. Those exhibiting keen memory and giving enjoyable performancesare trained for public roles. Such artistry requires a broad range of knowledge. For example, when blind and thirsty Coyote goes in quest of a drink, he keeps running into trees. The audience will be able to discern the habitat from the type of tree that Coyote has run into, and will suspect he is near water when he falls into willows or is in the hills when he encounters pines.

Zuni storytellers add details consistent with their archaeological past to enrich their accounts and create an ideal mood. Hatchways, cotton dresses, and stone tools, while not always strictly accurate, enhance the literary quality of a story. Such complexity and nuance characterize superior performances and gain recognition for a narrator.


Most stories translate easily from native languages into English, Spanish, Russian, and other foreign languages, though native speakers say much of the emotional quality is lost in translation. Modern publications of Indian oral literature regard it as similar to Western drama, with long performances presented as lines, scenes, and acts. Stage directions provide data on the actions and voicings used, while shifts in the actual typography—such as capital letters for loud phrasings, italic letters for soft ones, and blank spaces for silences—suggest more than the actual wordings.

Academics concerned with folklore, anthropology, linguistics, and literature have developed a variety of explanations for Indian oral literature. Story telling releases social pressures, especially those among family members. Epics help rationalize the cosmos, providing a basis for ritual and worship. The stories give intellectual consideration to the ironies, contradictions, and conflicts that exist in all species. While some explanations have been faddish (such as solar myths spreading from ancient Egypt), the ones noted above have endured, because they recognize the creative role that stories play.

Studies that emphasize a story's performance and context examine the phrasings, the audience, and the narrator. The look of the printed page also conveys much about how the dramatic manner interacts with the rules of the language itself.

Studies of the text emphasize the intellectual, cultural, and creative concepts embedded in each telling, such as the full and intimate knowledge of animal behavior and changes in the landscape over centuries, as well as the text's actual arrangement as "measured verse." Culturally important numbers, such as four, seven, and twelve, are used to organize lines and scenes into satisfying wholes, much the same way that basketry, weaving, and knitting use patterning by numbers to create texture and design. Such artistry also helps to identify the many examples of "fakelore" devised by Euro-Americans in the interest of "romantic" or "bloodthirsty" images of native peoples. Lovers leaps, star-crossed lovers, heartless battles to the death, forbidden sacred mountains, New Age mysteries, and a host of such Hollywood projections have nothing to do with traditional literatures.

Yet a basic interest in "motifs" continues. No story, myth, or epic stands alone. Certain themes are so common they have their own titles. Among these are Origin of Death, Bungling Host, Flood, Orpheus, Star Husband, Rolling Head, Dog Husband, Sun and Moon Incest, and Virgin Birth. They often appear in similar forms in the folklore of other cultures. These parallels speak to the overall human condition.

The role and importance of these tellings, whatever type or form, within the domain of literature can be summed up in the Native reminder that "our stories were our libraries."


Miller, Jay. Earthmaker: Tribal Stories from Native North America. New York: Perigee, 1992.

Thompson, Stith. Tales of the North American Indians. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1966. Reprint of 1929 first edition.


See alsoIndian Languages ; Indian Oratory ; Literature: Native American Literature .

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Indian Oral Literature

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