Native American Literature Essay

Native American literature is made up of two different types of literature, the oral traditions and the newer written traditions. From these two types are many different styles that make up the many different tribes of the Native American culture. Storytelling has long been an important aspect of all Native American cultures. It is through storytelling that the Native Americans are able to pass down their traditions and cultural identities.

Oral traditions as well as the newer written traditions play an important part in understanding the cultural make-up of a tribe as well as establishing the historical significances of each individual tribe.

The oral traditions of a tribe provided the heritage and memories of the tribe. It contained the actions, behaviors, relationships, and practices that encompass the social, economic, and spiritual identities of the people. These stories were related to each generation, keeping intact the beliefs and important aspects of the tribe.

Storytellers learn their stories from other storytellers and from experience.

Their stories change with the speaker and with time and with circumstance. Each story is told from a subject-position which affects the telling of the story (Leen, 1995). Storytelling is an event in which the people gather and information is shared through orations for both social and educational purposes. The same tale told in different tribes will be significantly different because each tale contains the important beliefs and stylistic differences of the individual tribe. An example of this can be found in the Trickster tales.

Throughout just the Plains Indians, the Trickster takes many forms, such as the spider for the Dakota tribe or the coyote for the Kiawa tribe. However, the story or the moral of these stories is often the same, serving to teach or provide information necessary to keep the beliefs of the tribe intact. Oral traditions of storytelling change not only from tribe to tribe but also from generation to generation. Each storyteller will alter or change pieces of the traditional story to allow the stories to continue to captivate and entertain the audience.

It is important that each story be relatable to the generation in which it is being told so that the information and histories found within the story will be considered relevant and be remembered. In John Roger’s Return to White Earth he speaks of his mother relating a story to him and his siblings. He writes, “As Mother talked, we children forgot all about what we were so eager to hear… We listened eagerly to know what would happen next in the story. ” (Return to White Earth, p. 56). That movement of stories through generations and the evolving of stories over time thread all the individuals’ experiences together to weave a shared identity.

Trying to capture the essence of the oral tradition in written form is a near impossible task. Vizenor tells us, “Some of these diverse oral narratives have been translated and of course, is that written translation, even when the languages are similar, is not a representation of oral performances, and even the best translations are scriptural reductions of the rich oral nuances” (Native American Literature, 1995, p. 6). It is impossible to recreate the emotional and visual aspects associated with the oral storytelling of the American Indian.

When the oral traditions were first written, the white man was usually writing these tales through an interpreter. These written works lost much of their meaning through the translation. Even though the white man had begun to recognize the historical importance of the oral tales of the Native American, they still often viewed them as primitive. With the inability of the white writer to fully understand the traditions, heritage, or social morality found within the tale, many oral traditions were presented as being silly or incredible tales told by an uneducated people.

Luther Standing Bear wrote: White men who have tried to write stories about the Indian have either foisted on the public some bloodcurdling , impossible “thriller”; or if they have been in sympathy with the Indian, have written from knowledge which was not accurate and reliable. No one is able to understand the Indian race like an Indian (My People, The Sioux, p. 33). The definition of Native American literature is closely tied to what people think constitutes the essence of Native American identity.

Three views stand out in this highly contested debate: those of legal bloodlines, cultural traditions, and bicultural production. According to the Annenberg Foundation, Native American literature, then: Would be those works written by someone who legally is Native American, regardless of their content or style. A second perspective links Native American identity and literature with the preservation of cultural traditions. Literary critics who rely on this view focus on aspects of “traditional” Indian culture in contemporary American Indian literature, such as the continuance of oral traditions.

A third trend in Native American studies defines American Indian identity and literature not in terms of what it preserves (whether it be blood or culture), but rather as a bicultural mixture of Native and European American people and traditions (Native Voices, 2013). Luther Standing Bear believes that the only true knowledge about Native American’s lives, beliefs, and cultures must come from Native Americans immersed in cultural traditions. He says: The American Indian has been written by hundreds of authors of white blood or possibly by an Indian of mixed blood who has spent the greater part of his life away from a reservation.

These are not in a position to write accurately about the struggles and disappointments of the Indian (My People, The Sioux, p. 33). Some Native Americans have argued that since their indigenous cultures have always assimilated aspects of other cultures, even aspects of other Native American cultures, to be Indian is to be bicultural, or multi-cultural. Many American Indians define themselves not primarily as “Native Americans” but as members of a specific tribe, each with their own separate history and culture, yet still very much Native American.

There is a strong belief that the Native American culture is disappearing, being replaced by aspects of other cultures, particularly those of the white man. N. Scott Momaday reflects: Now that I can have her only in memory, I see my grandmother in the several postures that were and hope, having seen many things… I do not speak Kiowa, and I never understood her prayers, but there was something inherently sad in the sound (The Way to Rainy Mountain, p. 63). Even though he relates strongly to his Native American ancestry, Momaday admits that aspects of his own tribe are already lost to him.

The Native American literary tradition has multiple layers, encompassing the historical traditions of old while addressing the struggles and inaccuracies found today. Le Anne Howe best addresses the struggles of the Native American to find their place in the literary world as well as the struggle to maintain their own cultural identity within a society that sees them as the minority. She quotes Edward Galeano saying, “Throughout America, from north to south, the dominant culture acknowledges Indians as objects of study, but denies them as subjects of history.

Indians have folklore, not culture, they practice superstitions, not religion, they speak dialects, not languages, they make crafts not arts… ” (Mocassins Don’t Have High Heels, p. 202). It is through these thoughts that today’s Native American writers try establish understanding of their people through their works while trying to maintain the cultural traditions of their history, passing them on for the next generations. References Annenberg Foundation. (2013). Native Voices. http://www. learner. org/amerpass/unit01/pdf/unit01ig. pdf retrieved August 19, 2013 Howe, Le Anne. (1995).

Moccasins Don’t Have High Heels. Native American Literature. A Brief Introduction and anthology. New York, NY: Addison-Wesley p. 199 Leen, M. (1995). An art of saying: Joy Harjo’s poetry and the survival of storytelling. American Indian Quarterly,19(1),http://search. ebscohost. com. ezproxy. apollolibrary. com/login. aspx? direct=true&db=lkh&AN=9508220366&site=ehost-live retrieved August 19, 2013 Luther Standing Bear, (1928) My People, The Sioux. Native American Literature. A Brief Introduction and anthology. New York, NY: Addison-Wesley p. 33 Momaday, N. Scott. (1969). The Way to Rainy Mountain.

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