Native Oral Traditions

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Native Oral Traditions


Orality and Community. Most contemporary readers who are trained in the European tradition are likely to think of the literature of the early nineteenth century as something written, as poetry or fiction appearing in books. Among Native Americans, oral literature, still prevalent, enjoyed an exalted status in the nineteenth century. Those who performed stories, songs, and rituals were some of the most valued members of a community. Their performances served to remind the members of a community of their origin, how they came to be in a particular place, and how they should continue to live. Most native traditions distinguished between three oral genres: narrative, song, and ritual drama. In all these genres the oral tradition was informed by a central belief that human beings should strive for harmony with the universe. Because Native oral traditions were inherited and at times evolving, it is difficult and inaccurate to label particular songs and performances as belonging to a certain period. Thus the twentieth-century student of nineteenth-century Native American literature should proceed with caution: in addition to the difficulties that arise with the written translation of a verbal text, one

must keep in mind the timeless nature of the oral tradition.

Narratives. Oral narratives tended to be divided into true and fictional categories. True narratives often served a kind of Biblical function, a collection of central texts that defined communal values and from which other narratives branched off. The core story was the origin tale, a narrative that explained the creation of the world and the tribe. Among many nations of the Southwest the world was created by the Sky Father and the Earth Mother. The Papago origin tale celebrated the powers of the First Born, who finished the earth and then made all animal and plant life:

Long ago, they say, when the earth was not yet finished, darkness lay upon the water and they rubbed each other. The sound they made was like the sound at the edge of a pond. There, on the water, in the darkness, in the noise, and in a very strong wind, a child was born.

Other narratives told of ancestral migration, the adventures of cultural heroes, or accounted for the origins of specific rituals and ceremonies. Stylistically, narratives varied widely from group to group. A Papago narrative might have been broken into lengthy stanzas and told over a succession of nights. An Apache narrative, on the other hand, was often spare, compact, repetitive, and would have been told in less than an hour. Additionally, narrative songs might vary with each performance; while Papago storytellers worked for years to memorize the canon of verse and song that constituted their bible, Cherokee storytellers were free to improvise if the spirit moved them do so.

Trickster Tales. The second type of narrative was often told at night by grandparents to amuse and instruct children. They were analagous to Western fairy tales but were often episodic, cyclical, and revolved around the adventures of a conventional character. The most popular character was the trickster character, so-called because of his mischievous and deceptive antics. Often appearing as a raven, rabbit, fox, or most commonly a coyote, the trickster was a humorous figure who sometimes outwitted others and sometimes outwitted himself. He typically embodied qualities such as lust, greed, and avarice. His tales entertained but also taught listeners the consequences of such foibles.

Songs. Songs were, and continue to be, a significant component of Native American culture, accompanying both ceremonial and everyday activities. Like narratives, ceremonial songs varied widely from group to group. The Navajo Nightway Ceremony, composed of about four hundred songs, filled nine days and eight nights:

May it be beautiful before me.
May it be beautiful behind me.
May it be beautiful below me.
May it be beautiful all around me.
It beauty it is finished.
In beauty it is finished.

In contrast, a Yaqui fiesta consisted of a dozen compressed, imagistic songs, such as the following:

These three like enchanted night buzzards
Hover above me.
These three like enchanted night buzzards
Hover above me.
As they are coming with the light before dawn,
Here from the enchanted light before dawn,
On top, on the highest point where the mountain sits,
They are swinging.
These three like enchanted night buzzards
Hover above me.

Nonceremonial songs accompanied nearly all aspects of daily life. There were songs for traveling, housework, lullabies, or social occasions. Some ceremonial songs also had a nonceremonial function. The Navajo Nightway Chant, for example, might also have been used as a traveling song.

Ritual Drama. Ritual drama was a sacred form of oral literature that often combined song and narrative. These performances were ritualized attempts to communicate with natural and supernatural forces, to use the power of the word to achieve order in the spiritual and physical worlds. They might have been performed seasonally to celebrate the renewal of the earth, they might have marked communal events, or pertained to important personal events, such as birth, death, and marriage. Others may have functioned as purification ceremonies. Ritual dramas were performed by priests, respected singers, or shamans. Priests and shamans inherited ritual forms and songs from their family or, alternatively, underwent rites of initiation. In some cases certain rites were the responsibility of specially empowered societies. Among the Ojibwas, Menominees, and Winnebagos, for example, healing ceremonies were performed by the Grand Medicine Society.

Themes. Underlying the diversity of forms and language in the oral tradition were a number of common themes: the sense of the sacred, the sense of the beautiful, the sense of place, and the sense of community. To many Native Americans in the nineteenth century, all things were sacred; this sacred power created a sense of balance throughout the universe. The patterns within songs and narratives, such as repetition and symmetry, reflected that balance. For each tribe, however, the sacred was often located in a specific place, sometimes described as a mythical dwelling place or the site of origin. For example, the Navajos and Hopis viewed some southwestern mountains as sacred dwelling places. As the tradition celebrated sacred places, it also reminded the individual that he or she was part of a larger whole, a whole that included not only the community but also all of creation. Spirit and harmony informed all life. The power of the word, given by and reflecting the sacred, affirmed and celebrated this unity, as in this Yokuts prayer:

My words are tied in one
With the great mountains,
With the great rocks,
With the great trees,
In one with my body,
And my heart.
Do you all help me
With supernatural power,
And you, Day
And you, Night!
All of you see me
One with this world!


A. LaVonne Brown Ruoff, American Indian Literatures (New York: Modern Language Association, 1990);

Andrew Wiget, Native American Literatures (Boston: Twayne, 1985).

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Native Oral Traditions

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