Native American Oral Tradition
Margaret A. Boyer

Markers of oral tradition
Categories of oral literature
Common themes in oral (and contemporary written) literature
Issues in the study of Native American literatures

Contemporary Native American literature is grounded in the oral traditions of the various indigenous groups of peoples who have and who do live on the American continent. While the differences among the many different cultural groups are great, there are commonalities as well among these orally based traditions. The following is a general overview of the Native American oral tradition which informs the works of contemporary Indian writers.

A. La Vonne Brown Ruoff's American Indian Literatures: An Introduction, Bibliographic Review, and Selected Bibliography, published by MLA, 1990 is the major source of this information.

Markers of oral tradition

1. Oral literature is a performance. Storytellers, within the specific culture's structure established for myth, song or ceremony, have the freedom to create their own interpretations of the traditional stories; the versions must be acceptable to the entire community, the specific performance appropriate to the situation and the desired result of the performance achieved. Most traditions usually consider there to be one valid version of a story with the inevitable changes adding allusions to recent events. Important to the telling are specific gestures and vocal techniques to dramatize contents or to prompt a response from the audience.

2. The sense of community is integral to the oral tradition. The stories and their context are community centered; they both are products of the community and are told for its sake rather than for the individual telling the stories or for those outside the community.

3. Oral literature is a living tradition. Simon Ortiz, an Acoma Pueblo poet stated in a 1990 interview that for him and those that have grown up in it, "[t]he oral tradition . . . is that whole process . . . of that society in terms of its history, its culture, its language, its values, and subsequently, its literature."

4. A love of language and playing with language marks oral literature; a native audience can note the puns, metaphors, and humor which are integral to an oral tradition's telling of its history, its place in the world and the values important to the community.


Categories of oral literature

1. Narratives, as in every culture, are employed to entertain and to teach; it is the means of passing on beliefs and history to children and to remind adults about their place in their world. These narratives are of various types, and their categorization varies between tribes as well as between tribes and scholars (up until fairly recently, mostly non-Indian) talking about these stories. Most tribes contrast the sacred from the non-sacred stories; this designation controls who can tell which stories and under what circumstances they can be told. Scholars have tended to divide the stories into myths or tales, the first being those that are said by the tribal group to be true of the prehistoric past and the latter, are seen as either true or fictional in the historic past. This categorization is complicated by the way different groups of people divide their own history; for instance, a number of tribes pose three separate time periods. The first is designated the mythic, that time in which the primal world with animal spirits exist in human form and there are monsters; the second is the age of transformation in which it is said the world as we know it today took its final shape, the animal people turned into animals and other beings transformed into natural geographical landmarks. The final, the historical age, is that in which all events are said to have occurred in human memory.

The plots of these stories are compressed and episodic and the settings are simple. The characters are often one dimensional, rarely expressing thoughts or emotions; their behavior only advances the activity in the story and there are frequently inconsistences in time, logic and detail. Humor is often a central element in these narratives and one that is most often lost in translations–and the frank references to sexual acts and bodily functions that an outsider might find inappropriate are not distasteful to the community listeners. These references along with the inconsistencies noted above are accepted by the audience.

These narratives can be grouped as stories of creation or tribal cultural heroes with a good number that do not seem to fit in the other two categories.

Creation stories relate how the first parents came to be or tell the story of a mythic hero who creates the universe. These stories relate the ways humans got to the earth's surface and then, in some cases, migrated to the home place. While those of the southwest US are the most complex (i.e., Diné bahané of the Navajo), the most common type on the North American continent, the earth diver, tells of a flood after the creation of the earth and the process of recreating the world with the combined efforts of a spiritual entity and animals.

Tribal cultural hero stories includes those of the mythological characters who create the world as we know it now; they usually give to humans the resources and rituals that are needed to survive. This character defeats the enemies of humans and, possesses the power to shape aspects of nature into their final form. This hero (most often male, though not always) is usually of divine birth (i.e., frequently the mother is human while the father can be the sun, wind or stone). One fascinating variety of this hero is that of the trickster figure; this cultural hero relies on tricks and cunning to achieve his goals; they are creatures of extreme with enormous appetites for food or sex, and they are known for breaking taboos. We see trickster most often in animal form, such as Coyote, Raven, Hare, Wolverine or Jay. These narratives teach the results of improper behavior and provide an outlet for this behavior for the audience and can point out problems in the community. They are sources of great entertainment.

Other narratives, which do not categorize easily, include the "Orpheus" tales, so called because they deal with traveling to the land of the dead and the attempt to return to the land of the living and the "star husband" stories, which combine elements found in many creation and cultural-hero myths.

2. Autobiographical stories are not traditionally the "life stories" as in Western European culture, but rather specific incidences of the teller that would benefit the whole group. This element is seen in the relating of courageous deeds by warriors to the community in the coup tales as a means of both boasting of one's individual prowess or courage and of assuring the warrior's place in the community. In this category are also the "as told to" stories from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries (Black Hawk, Pretty Shield, Black Elk, etc.). Contemporary examples are included in the work of N. Scott Momaday, Leslie Marmon Silko, Wilma Mankiller.

3. Ritual drama is the most complex because it combines song, story and oratory and dance. These ritual dramas are termed chants, chantways, ceremonies or rituals by the Indian people. Specific individuals or societies in the community oversee the rituals (priests, singers or shamans) and serve to order the spiritual and physical worlds. The power of the spoken word is considered the instrument of change, for it is through the appropriate words, properly spoken by the right person in proper circumstances, that harmony is accomplished. Not only is an individual's goal addressed (to mark important occasions, to heal body and mind, or to ensure a good harvest), but also unification of the community as the participants and spectators collaborate in effecting the change

4. Songs are a vital part of the ceremonies and of all aspects of Indian life and constitute the largest part of Indian oral literatures. The basic instrument is the human voice accompanied with drum or flute. What constitutes a "good singer" varies from tribe to tribe. Some songs are thought to have been given by the creator and then passed down through teachers; these are vital elements of the legends and rituals. Some songs originate through contact between a supernatural being and a human and some are received from spiritual entities, as in vision or dreams or originate in religious movements, (i.e.,the Ghost Dance songs from the late nineteenth-century); some are composed by an individual or a specific society within the community. There are as well personal songs telling of loss or of love. An interesting contemporary creation, the "49 songs" had their origin at an Oklahoma carnival sideshow called "Days of 49rs." which portrayed the story of the California gold rush. Because Indians were not allowed in the sideshow, the young people who attended the carnival created their own songs for their own entertainment. Today they can be heard at powwows, usually sung by young people. The importance of singing and the place it occupies is seen in the comments of Lucy Tapahonso, a Navajo writer, that singing is a part of everyday life for everyone, not just for those who have a trained voice (Introduction in Sáanii Dahataal (The Women are Singing, 1993). Ruoff quotes an Inuit who asserts that "It is as important to me to sing as to draw breath." Note also the use of song and ritual elements in Silko's Ceremony and Alexie's Indian Killer.

5. Oratory was very important in Native American societies before non-Indians arrived. Those skilled in oratory were respected and held in high regard by the community. It is a skill that is still admired and respected.

There are always specific customs involved with the telling of stories; etiquette might demand a gift from the audience or the listeners might be obligated to respond with specific phrases at points in the story. Some stories require special languages or terms not used in ordinary life.


Common themes in oral (and contemporary written) literature

1. It is considered important that human beings live in harmony with physical and spiritual universe; this may be achieved through the power of thought and of words (i.e., rituals can bring rain, keep evil away or heal relationships). Words, the, should be spoken with great care, and there is the deliberate use of silence at times.

2. People must hold a deep reverence for the land. Traditional accounts of a tribe's origin and history can include references to specific places, especially the sacred places in the homeland. In Storyteller, Silko use photos of the landscape, which is explained in terms of the traditional stories, and she makes frequent mention of the places where important and/or remembered events took place and their significance today. Momaday says in The Way to Rainy Mountain:

Once in his life a man ought to concentrate his mind upon the remembered earth, I believe. He ought to give himself up to a particular landscape in his experience, to look at it from as many angles as he can, to wonder about it, dwell upon it. He ought to imagine that he touches it with his hands at every season and listens to the sounds that are made upon it. He ought to imagine the creatures that are there and all the faintest motions of the wind. He ought to recollect the glare of noon and all the colors of dawn and dusk. (83)

3. Directions and the idea of circularity appear and are significant in stories (note the persistent number 4 or the recurring theme of returning home, for instance).

4. The strong sense of community is found ever present in tribal literatures as they stress the need for cooperation and good relations of individuals within and with group. High value is placed on the characteristics of generosity, helpfulness and respect for age and experience. These traits are seen not only as desirable but as essential for survival of the individuals of the group and the culture itself.


Issues in the study of Native American literatures

There is a great deal of discussion among American Indians about the writing down of traditional stories and rituals. At the heart of the debate about the dissemination of these stories outside the group in which it originated is the question "whom do the stories belong to?" This basic question includes the notion of which stories can be told to those outside the community and who decides what can be translated and published. Some feel that the myths and songs are too sacred to be heard and collected by those outside the community. One aspect of this objection is the strong contention about the literal power of words; if someone does not know about this power nor how to handle it, that person could bring harm to not only himself but also to others. Others fear that the traditional stories will be lost. and agree with Momaday that they should be preserved in written form; often contemporary Indian writers such as Joy Harjo or Leslie Marmon Silko create new stories and rituals in genres that are not a part of the traditional Indian cultures. Since the eighteenth century, Indian authors in their attempts to explain their own cultures to non-Indians have combined the themes and forms of traditional oral literature with European ones. Today, many Indian authors agree with Momaday that the stories, songs, ceremonies need to be preserved in writing because any oral tradition is only "one generation from extinction." Native American authors such as Joy Harjo and Leslie Marmon Silko create new versions of old stories and in so doing, keep the old stories alive for Indians and introduce them to non-Indians.

Interest in and collecting of oral literature in North America was spurred by Henry Schoolcraft's 1839 Algic Researches on the Ojibway, a collection of stories and short pieces. A number of non-Indian (and a few Indian) authors and historians also published examples of the oral literature and explanations of in their writings (non-fiction, fiction and poetry; the many periodicals of the time period played an important role in dissemination of this type of writing to a general audience). The later part of the nineteenth century and the early twentieth saw systematic study of elements of American Indian culture, including its literature. Contemporary Indian and non-Indian scholars note the following problems with these collected stories:

1. The ethnographers often only took down the words without knowledge of the culture and so could not relate the context or significance of the work.

2. The translators used the formal conventions of their own language, such as "thee" or "thou" to indicate solemnity.

3. Some translations are so literal that the beauty of the original is lost (as well as humorous elements).

4. Some translators molded ideas expressed they heard to fit their own beliefs or those prevailing in dominant white culture.

To correct these weaknesses, several scholars have reworked the traditional stories; the 1994 anthology Coming to Light: Contemporary Translations of the Native Literatures of North America, edited by Brian Swann, is an example.