American Oral Traditions
Orature, or Oral Literature
What was “discovered” by Columbus?
Columbus called the
indigenous people he encountered on his arrival in the New World
“Indians,” but it is a big misnomer because Columbus thought he was in
India. Aside from the geographical mistake, the name suggests a
nonexistent common identity among the native peoples who were in fact
characterized by a multiplicity of cultures and languages. To this day,
Native Americans identify themselves more readily with their tribe
(such as Blackfeet, Cherokee, Turtle Mountain Band Chippewa etc.) than
with the generic term “Indians” (Querry 1-2).
Oral and communal texts
The first American Indian
written language appeared in 1821 when Sequoyah, a
warrior and silversmith, created a set of written alphabet for the Cherokee people.
Prior to 1821, as in all pre-literate cultures, Native Americans
practiced oral literature, or ‘orature', which consisted of chants, songs, and spoken
narrative that relied heavily on the intricate designs of rhythm,
tempo, and vocal expressions. The literary values of these
oral “performable texts” are often neglected or unduly considered
inferior in cultures that prioritize written languages (Querry 1; Baym 4-5).
A rich literary heritage
The Native American oral
literature has a long history. As Ron Querry points out, “the continent
of North America already had a 28,000-year history of storytelling”
before American colonists started their literary endeavors (1). More
importantly, it is a rich heritage from which contemporary Native
American authors continue to draw inspiration and on which their
identity is founded.
Major Verbal Genres
Stories: creation, people's origins
and migrations, mythic heroes, tricksters
Songs or poetry: dreams, vision, healing,
Chants: naming, grievance
riddles, proverbs, etc.
A Missing Legacy
Instead of speculating on
the “Indian origins” of American Literature, Jarold Ramsey suggests
that we “inquire why, after four centuries of contact, America's first
traditional literatures have had so little influence” on American
literary heritage (53). He argues that the key to the enigma might lie
in “the Anglo-American imperviousness to the literary traditions of
other ethnic groups” such as those of black Americans, not to mention
those of Native Americans (53).
Granted that native cultures
leave indelible imprints in American literature, they are often reduced
to stereotypes. Scarcely has effort been made to assimilate their
literary achievements as well; the failure to engage the Native
repertories is an irreversible fact in American literary history up to
the mid-twentieth century (Ramsey 55).[i]
Native literature needs to be recognized as one of the essential
categories of American literature.
Nina et al., eds. The Norton Anthology of American Literature.
Shorter 7th ed. New York: Norton, 2008.
Richard. “Native American Literature.” http://www.wsu.edu/~dee/NAANTH/NAANTH.HTM
Ron. “Discoveries of America: Stories Told by Indian Voices.” American
Diversity, American Identity. Ed. John K. Roth. New York:
Henry Holt, 1995. 1-3.
Jarold. “Thoreau's Last Words—and America's First Literatures.” Redefining
American Literary History. Eds. A. LaVonne Brown Ruoff and
Jerry W. Ward, Jr. New York: MLA of America, 1990.
due to the neglect, before N. Scott Momaday published the Pulitzer
Prize-winning novel House Made of Dawn
there were only nine published novels by six American Indian authors