Chapter 1: Early American Literature to 1700
and Puritanism

Native American Oral Literatures

© Paul P. Reuben
  October 13, 2016

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Learning and Teaching Strategies in dealing with Native American Oral Literatures

Andrew Wiget is a distinguished scholar in this field - note the bibliographical entries below. Here are some of his comments:

Culture is a system of beliefs and values through which a group of people structure their experience of the world. By working with this definition of culture, which is very close to the way current criticism understands the impact of ideology upon literature, we can begin to pluralize our notion of the world and understand that other peoples can organize their experience in different ways, and dramatize their experience of the world through different symbolic forms.

If culture is a system of beliefs and values by which people organize their experience of the world, then it follows that forms of expressive culture such as these (creation) myths should embody the basic beliefs and values of the people who create them. These beliefs and values can be roughly organized in three areas: (1) beliefs about the nature of the physical world; (2) beliefs about social order and appropriate behavior; and (3) beliefs about human nature and the problem of good and evil.

Both the Zuni story and the Iroquoian story of the origins of the confederacy also talk about how society should be organized, about the importance of kinship and families, about how society divides its many functions in order to provide for healing, for food, for decision making, and so on. The Iroquoian confederacy was a model of Federalism for the drafters of the Constitution, who were much impressed by the way in which the confederacy managed to preserve the autonomy of its individual member tribes while being able to manage effective concerted actions, as the colonists to their dismay too often found out. The Navajo story of Changing Woman and the Lakota story of White Buffalo Calf Pipe Woman are important illustrations not only of the role of women as culture heroes, but also of every people's necessity to evolve structures such as the Pipe Ceremony or the Navajo healing rituals to restore and maintain order in the world.

The Raven and Hare narratives are stories about a Trickster figure. Tricksters are the opposite of culture heroes. Culture heroes exist in mythology to dramatize prototypical events and behaviors; they show us how to do what is right and how we became the people who we are. Tricksters, on the other hand, provide for disorder and change; they enable us to see the seamy underside of life and remind us that culture, finally, is artificial, that there is no necessary reason why things must be the way they are. If there is sufficient motivation to change things, Trickster provides for the possibility of such change, most often by showing us the danger of believing too sincerely that this arbitrary arrangement we call culture is the way things really are. When Raven cures the girl, for instance, he does so to gain her sexual favors, and in so doing calls into question the not-always-warranted trust that people place in healing figures like doctors. The Bungling Host story, widespread throughout Native America, humorously illustrates the perils of overreaching the limits of one's identity while trying to ingratiate one's self.

Perhaps the most important thing that needs to be done is to challenge students' notions of myth. When students hear the word "myth," they succumb to the popular belief that mythology is necessarily something that is false. This is a good place to start a discussion about truth, inviting students to consider that there are other kinds of truth besides scientific truth (which is what gave a bad name to mythology in the first place). Consider this definition of myth: "The dramatic representation of culturally important truths in narrative form." Such a definition highlights the fact that myths represent or dramatize shared visions of the world for the people who hold them. Myths articulate the fundamental truths about the shape of the universe and the nature of humanity.

It is also important to look at important issues of form such as repetition. Repetition strikes many students as boring. Repetition, however, is an aesthetic device that can be used to create expectation. Consider the number three and how several aspects of our Euro-American experience are organized in terms of three: the start of a race ("on your mark, get set, go"); three sizes (small, medium, and large); the three colors of a traffic signal; and of course, three little pigs. These are all commonplace examples, so commonplace, in fact, that initially most students don't think much of them. But there is no reason why we should begin things by counting to three. We could count to four or five or seven, as respectively the Zunis, the Chinooks, and the Hebrews did. In other words, these repetitions have an aesthetic function: they create a sense of expectation, and when one arrives at the full number of repetitions, a sense of completeness, satisfaction, and fulfillment.

| Top | Selected Bibliography 1980-Present

Brill de Ramírez, Susan B. Contemporary American Indian Literatures and the Oral Tradition. Tucson: U of Arizona P, 1999.

Bross, Kristina. Dry Bones and Indian Sermons: Praying Indians in Colonial America. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 2004.

Hobson, Geary. ed. The People Who Stayed: Southeastern Indian Writing After Removal. Norman: U of Oklahoma P, 2010.

Johnson, E. Pauline, and A. LaVonne B. Ruoff. The moccasin maker. Tucson: U of Arizona P, 1987. PR9199.2 .J64 M6

Kelsey, Penelope M. Tribal Theory in Native American Literature: Dakota and Haudenosaunee Writing and Indigenous Worldviews. Lincoln, NE: U of Nebraska P, 2008.

Krupat, Arnold. Ethnocriticism: Ethnography, History, Literature. Berkeley: U of California P, 1992.

Murray, David. Forked Tongues: Speech, Writing, and Representation in North American Indian Texts. Bloomington: Indiana U P, 1990.

Owings, Alison. Indian Voices: Listening to Native Americans. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers UP, 2011.

Ruoff, A. LaVonne Brown. American Indian Literatures: An Introduction Bibliographic Review, and Selected Bibliography. NY: MLA, 1990. PM155 .R86

- - -, and Jerry W. Ward. eds. Redefining American literary history. NY: Modern Language Association of America, 1990. PS153 .M56 R4

Swann, Brian, ed. Smoothing the Ground: Essays on Native American Oral Literature. Berkeley: U of California P, 1987.

Swann, Brian. Coming to light: contemporary translations of the native literatures of North America. NY: Random House, 1994. PM197 .E1 C66

&emdash; and Arnold Krupat, eds. Recovering the Word: Essays on Native American Literature. Berkeley: U of California P, 1987.

Teuton, Christopher B. Deep Waters: The Textual Continuum in American Indian Literature. Lincoln, NE: U of Nebraska P, 2010.

Wiget, Andrew. Native American Literature. Boston: Twayne, 1985. PM155 .W54

- - -. Critical essays on Native American literature. Boston, Mass.: G.K. Hall, 1985. PM156 .C75

- - -. Dictionary of Native American literature. NY: Garland, 1994. PM155 .D53

MLA Style Citation of this Web Page

Reuben, Paul P. "Chapter 1: Early American Literature to1700 - Native American Oral Literatures." PAL: Perspectives in American Literature- A Research and Reference Guide. WWW URL: (provide page date or date of your login).

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