Native American Oral Narrative

    Contributing Editor: Andrew Wiget

    Major Themes, Historical Perspectives, and Personal Issues

    Some very important themes evolve from this literature. Native American views of the world as represented in these mythologies contrast strongly with Euro-American perspectives. Recognizing this is absolutely essential for later discussion of the differences between Anglo-Americans and Native Americans over questions of land, social organization, religion, and so on. In other words, if one can identify these fundamental differences through the literature very early on, then later it becomes easier to explain the differences in outlook between Native American peoples and Anglo-American peoples that often lead to tragic consequences.

    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 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.

    The Zuni "Talk Concerning the First Beginning" speaks directly to the nature of the physical world. If we look closely at the Zuni "Talk," the story imagines the earth as hollow, with people coming out from deep within the womb of the earth. The earth is mother and feminine and people are created not just of the stuff of the earth, but also from the earth. They are born into a particular place and into a particular environment. In the course of this long history, imagined as a search for the center (a point of balance and perfection), they undergo significant changes in their physical appearance, in their social behavior, in their social organization and in their sense of themselves. By the time they have arrived at Zuni, which they call the center of the world, they have become pretty much like their present selves. It is especially important to follow the notes here with this selection and with the Navajo selection. Both of these stories talk about transformations in the physical world. The world is populated by beings who are also persons like humans; all of the world is animated, and there are different nations of beings who can communicate with each other, who are intelligent and volitional creatures.

    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 seemy 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.

    Significant Form, Style, or Artistic Conventions

    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.

    Original Audience

    The question of audience is crucial for Native American literature, in that the original audience for the literature understands the world through its own experience much differently than most of our students do. As a result, it's important to reconstruct as much of that cultural and historical context as possible for students, especially when it has a direct bearing upon the literature. So, for instance, students need to know in discussing Zuni material that the Zunis, Hopis, and Navajos are agricultural people and that corn and moccasins figure prominently as symbols of life. Rain, moisture, and human beings are imagined in terms of corn, and life is understood as an organic process that resembles a plant growing from a seed in the ground, being raised up, harvested, and so forth. Historically it's important to realize too that visions of one's community and its history differ from culture to culture. So, for instance, the Hopi story of the Pueblo revolt imagines the revolt as a response to a life-threatening drought that is caused by the suppression of the native religion by the Franciscan priest. This way of understanding history is very different from the way most of our students understand history today. Its very notion of cause and effect, involving as it does supernatural means, is much more closely related to a vision of history shared by Christian reconstructionists, seventeenth-century Puritans, and ancient Hebrews.

    At the same time, students should be cautioned about the presumption that somehow we can enter entirely into another cultural vision, whether it be that of the Lakota during the Ghost Dance period of the 1880s or the Puritan Separatists three centuries earlier. This is not only a matter of translation and transcription. As both Murray and Clifford point out, what is sometimes blithely called "the need to understand" or "the search for knowledge" is not a neutral quest, but one determined in great measure by the often unarticulated aims and attitudes of the dominant society that structures fields of inquiry and creates the need for certain kinds of information. Although most contemporary students often assume that all differences can be overcome, the facticity of difference will remain.

    Questions for Reading and Discussion/ Approaches to Writing

    1. The number of works addressed in this section is so great and the material so varied that particular questions would not be useful. A good lead-in to all of these works, however, would focus on motivation of characters or significance of action. I would want students to identify some action in the narrative that puzzles them, and would encourage them to try to explain the role of this action in the narrative and what might motivate it. They will not necessarily be successful at answering that question, but the activity of trying to answer that question will compel them to seek for meaning ultimately in some kind of cultural context. There is, in other words, a certain kind of appropriate aesthetic frustration here, which should not necessarily be discouraged, because it prepares the student to let go of the notion that human behavior is everywhere intelligible in universal terms.

    2. I usually have students write comparative papers. I ask them to identify a theme: for example, the relationship between human beings and animals, attitudes toward death, the role of women, or other similar topics, and to write comparatively using Native American texts and a Euro-American text that they find to be comparable.


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    -- and Arnold Krupat, eds. Recovering the Word: Essays on Native American Literature. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987.

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