Native American Oral Poetry

    Contributing Editor: Andrew Wiget

    Classroom Strategies

    The Inuit and Aztec poetry requires the introduction of cultural background in order to understand some of its themes and imagery, but it is much more accessible than "Sayatasha's Night Chant." Because it is expressive of individual emotional states, it is much closer to the Western lyric poetry tradition, and therefore more readily apprehended by students than the long Zuni chant. "Sayatasha's Night Chant," on the other hand, is very difficult for students for a number of reasons, which, if properly addressed, make it a rich aesthetic experience.

    First of all, it is absolutely essential to refer students to the notes that supply important, culture-specific, contextual information that is necessary for understanding the poems. This is less urgent in the more accessible poetry of the Aztecs and the Inuit, but it is required for the other very brief song texts and especially for "Sayatasha's Night Chant," which I think will pose the most problems for students. One can enrich the cultural context of the "Chant" by teaching it in conjunction with the Zuni "Talk Concerning the First Beginning." This origin story establishes some of the fundamental symbols that are expressive of the Zuni world view and some of the fundamental themes, so that if the students read "Sayatasha's Night Chant" following the emergence story, they can carry forward some of the cultural information acquired from reading the origin story to support their reading of "Sayatasha's Night Chant."

    Major Themes, Historical Perspectives, and Personal Issues

    The Inuit and Aztec poetry is relatively accessible to students, who recognize in it some fundamental human emotions that have literary expression in Euro-American traditions as well. The Inuit poetry is remarkable for its juxtaposition of human beings against the natural world. Nature is viewed as an enormous arena that dwarfs human beings, who are continually struggling to secure their existence. Much of the Inuit view of nature corresponds rather well to the notions of the Romantic sublime. This is a Nature that the Inuit face with a combination of awe, terror, and humility, as reflected in the Copper Eskimo "Song" and Uvavnuk's "Moved." On the other hand, the "Improvised Greeting" suggests that in the presence of such an overwhelming Nature, which isolated people, the experience of social contact was a cause for tremendous joy. And yet, as the "Widow's Song" suggests, alienation from one's community left one isolated and trapped in one's self. (Inuit poetry can be very reflective.) Orpingalik's song speaks to a loss of competence and power experienced in one's old age that undermines the sense of accomplishment and identity. A good poem to read to workaholics, whose identity usually rests in their work!

    Aztecs, it seems, are familiar to everyone. Their popular reputation rests on a series of images--the offering of human hearts to the sun, cruel and violent warfare, a powerful militaristic empire--many of which were true. Thus it comes as a surprise, having set up this cultural and historical context, to discover a poetry whose central theme is the fragility of life, the transience of beauty, and the elusiveness of truth. At the height of their power, the Aztecs experienced life, beauty, and truth as inexorably slipping away. They expressed this theme in their poetry through three images or vehicles, the most important of which are images associated with flowers. Flowers in their fragile beauty represented for the Aztecs the very essence of life. In the poem "Like Flowers Continually Perishing," the poet imagines that we are like flowers slowly dying in the midst of and despite our beauty. Flowers throughout literature are symbols of fragility as well as great beauty. A second cluster of images has to do with feathers. Feathers in Aztec culture represented things of great value and preciousness because many of them had to be imported from the jungles of Central America. They were also objects of great delicacy, and, like flowers, became symbols of the fragility, beauty, and preciousness of life. The third and most important image was poetry itself. Aztecs wrote poetry to achieve immortality. Because they experienced life as transient, they looked to create an ideal world through the images articulated in their poetry. In this they felt they were imitating their principal deity, Omeoteotl, the creator of the universe, also called the Lord of the Close and the Near. Omeoteotl achieved immortality through creativity, and the Aztec poets sought to do the same.

    "Sayatasha's Night Chant" is more accessible to students if one can view it as a quest, in which a human being, representing the Zuni people, is sent on a journey from the village to the Zuni "heaven," Kothluwalawa. The purpose of this journey is to obtain the seeds and power needed to regenerate life for a new year. "Sayatasha's Night Chant" is a poem recited in the context of a world renewal ritual. In narrative form, it describes how a man has been appointed in the beginning of the poem (line 106) to represent the Zuni people. His mission, which takes the better part of a year to accomplish, is undertaken because the world is in need of renewal (line 67). His appointment takes place in January, and throughout the next nine or ten months this person is busy visiting many shrines at Zuni to plant prayer sticks (physical representations of the basic elements of life in this world) as offerings to the deities (lines 120-33). Later, forty-nine days before the Shalako ceremony in early December, the man who will impersonate Sayatasha is formally invested with the symbols and the costume of his role (see notes 8 and 9). Now having been transformed into a being who represents the spirit world of the rain-bringing ancestors, the Sayatasha impersonator returns to the village bearing the seeds of new life. Before he reaches the village, however, he visits twenty-nine separate springs around Zuni, each of which represent the different places where the Zuni people stopped on their way to the Center of the World, the village of Zuni. In reenacting this migration, the Sayatasha impersonator recovers the force, energy, and potency of that first creation to reenergize life in the village. The poem ends as the Sayatasha impersonator, on the eighth night of Shalako, confers upon the entire village the blessings of life and fertility that he had been sent to gain for them.

    Significant Form, Style, or Artistic Conventions

    Students need some initial help in understanding the meaning of prevalent images, like flowers in Aztec poetry. They might also need assistance in seeing some potent juxtapositions that occur in the Inuit poetry. For example, the despairing woman in the "Widow's Song" holds an amulet (a token of religious faith) in her hands while she stares angrily at the northern lights that taunt her with their beauty and promise.

    In the case of "Sayatasha's Night Chant," there is much ritual language, and students will need help in working through the characters and understanding the ritual actions that are a key to the poem. Ritual poetry is very formulaic and repetitive. Students are frequently frustrated by repetition and aggravated by the apparent lack of spontaneity and the stiltedness of the language. Point out to them that in serious religious settings, spontaneity is not valued, not only in Zuni settings but also in ritual contexts throughout the world, including Euro-American cultures. It's also good to develop in them some understanding of the key symbols, like water and corn as symbols of life. Water, in particular, is something that they ought to be able to relate to. Notes 1, 3, and 8 should help students understand ritual poetry.

    All of these songs were sung in different ways, which affects the way in which they were experienced. The "Night Chant" is just that, a narrative chant in which the words are uttered on a sustained tone with a falling tone at the end of each line. The short songs were sung to more complex melodies, sometimes by the individual alone, sometimes with an audience chorus response. Short songs were often repeated many times in order to deepen the emotional experience stimulated by the song.

    Original Audience

    I make it a point to try to reconstruct the cultural context of the poems' origins in order to recover for the students the aesthetic force that these poems must have had for their original listeners. I remind them of the terrible and frightening confrontation that human beings have with the physical environment in the Arctic and how people cling to each other under such circumstances. Understanding the relationship between the physical and the social worlds in Inuit life is a necessary precondition for understanding the poetry. The same thing is true of the Aztecs. One juxtaposes the poetry against the cultural and historical context from which it emerged.

    In all cases, I also stress the unique context in which these songs were first performed. The Eskimo, for instance, had song festivals in which these very intense and private songs were sung in public. The Inuit, in other words, had created a socially sanctioned forum for the expression of one's most private joys and griefs. This suggests a new way of thinking about the function of poetry and the relationship between an individual and his social context. Among the Aztecs, poetry was composed principally by the nobility, most of whom had also earned great fame and success as warriors. It is effective to point out to students that the poetry most sensitive to the fragile beauty of life was created by the noble warrior class. In terms of the Zuni poem, it is useful to remind students that ritual poetry is recited publicly in the context of a variety of significant and meaningful religious actions, and that these actions are as much a part of the total experience as the recitation of the poetry. Consider also Jane Green's "Divorce Dance Song" as a kind of publication. The notion that poetry is coupled with action and so comes closer to approximating the condition of drama than any other Western form is initially unfamiliar to students. They may need some help in realizing that poetry, even in the Western tradition, emerged from the recitation of hymns in dramatic settings in ancient Israel and Greece.

    Comparisons, Contrasts, Connections

    The Aztec and Inuit poetry compares well in theme and form to British and American Romantic lyric poetry. Certainly the Aztec poetry compares well with Western poetry in the elegiac tradition. The Inuit and Aztec poems also offer opportunities for comparing and contrasting the role of poetry as a vehicle for self-expression and for the creation of individual identity, another important Romantic theme. One can contrast "Sayatasha's Night Chant," in which the individual identity of the speaker of the poem is totally submerged in his ritual role or persona, with the Inuit and Aztec poetry where the "I" reflects the personal identity of the poet/subject. "Sayatasha's Night Chant" can also be effectively contrasted with British and American poetry whose subject is the power of Nature. Reading "Sayatasha's Night Chant" against Bryant's "Thanatopsis," Emerson's "Nature," or Thoreau's Walden will lead students to consider Native American views of Nature as something very different from the Anglo-American Romantic understanding of Nature. Such contrasts are especially instructive because they enable students to understand why Native Americans and Anglo-Americans might hold different attitudes toward the land and activities involving the natural world.

    Discussion Strategies

    Begin the discussion of Eskimo and Aztec poetry by inviting students to consider, in the case of the Eskimo, the physical environment in which the Inuit people live and the need for powerful social bonds in the face of the overwhelming power and intimidating scale of the natural world of the Arctic. By the same token, begin the discussion of Aztec poetry with a presentation of the scale and scope of the Aztec military, political, economic, and social achievements. In both cases the poetry stands against this powerful cultural context and effectively discloses its key themes sometimes by contrast to one's expectations (as in the case of the Aztecs) and sometimes by conforming to one's expectations (as in the case of Inuit poetry). With "Sayatasha's Night Chant," I usually begin by insisting that most cultures have rituals, such as first fruit feasts (like our Thanksgiving) or foundational feasts (like our Fourth of July or New Year's), which are designed to commemorate the forces of life and order that structure and animate our world. I talk about the role of ritual in people's lives, and I disassociate ritual from its popular definition of something routine. This discussion of ritual and the role of the sacred in culture is an enormously valuable preface to approaching this particular poem.

    Questions for Reading and Discussion/ Approaches to Writing

    1. I would draw students' attention in the Eskimo poetry to the place of human beings in the physical universe and the relationship of the individual to society; and in the Aztec poetry, to the images of flowers and to the function of poetry. In "Sayatasha's Night Chant," I would focus on important images such as cornmeal and invite students to make connections between symbols that they discover in "Sayatasha's Night Chant" and their antecedents in the Zuni origin myth, "Talk Concerning the First Beginning."

    2. Aside from obvious thematic papers focused around topics such as nature, death, ritual, and so on, I would invite students to write on broader topics such as the role of poetry in these societies and to compare how poetry functions in them with how it has functioned in the Western tradition.


    Bunzel, Ruth. "Zuni Ritual Poetry." 47th Annual Report of the Bureau of American Ethnology (1930): 611-835.

    Finnegan, Ruth. Oral Poetry: Its Nature, Significance and Social Context. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1977.

    Geertz, Clifford. "Religion as a Cultural System." In The Interpretation of Cultures. New York: Basic Books, 1973.

    Leon-Portilla, Miguel. Pre-Columbian Literatures of Mexico. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1969.

    Lowenstein, Tom, trans. "Introduction." Eskimo Poems From Canada and Greenland. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1973.

    Wiget, Andrew. "Aztec Lyrics: Poetry in a World of Continually Perishing Flowers." Latin American Indian Literatures 4 (1980): 1-11.

    --. "Oratory and Oral Poetry." In Native American Literature. Boston: Twayne, 1985.

    --. "Sayatasha's Night Chant: A Literary Textual Analysis of a Zuni Ritual Poem." American Indian Culture and Research Journal 4 (1980): 99-140.