Native American Oral Literatures

    Contributing Editor: Andrew Wiget

    Classroom Issues

    Teachers face a number of difficulties in bringing before their students something as unfamiliar as Native American oral literatures. The problems will vary, of course, from situation to situation. Jeanne Holland's article in the Bibliography on page 13 outlines some of the difficulties she faced in using the first edition of this anthology, some of which we have tried to remedy in this second edition, others of which I addressed in a recent issue of The Heath Anthology of American Literature Newsletter (see Bibliography).

    In the absence of real knowledge about other cultures or other periods in time, most students tend to project their own sense of appropriate human behavior onto all other peoples and call it "universal human nature." The principal problem teachers will have, not only with their students but with their own experience, is the recognition that people in other cultures understand the world and human behavior in significantly different ways. This means, in literary terms, that we may not be able to apprehend the motivation of characters nor the significance of their actions without supplying a good deal of cultural information. To address this problem instructors should avail themselves of the notes that are supplied with the texts, perhaps even going over this material explicitly in class, coupled with the additional information provided in the headnotes and the introductions. There are also a number of resources readily available that an instructor can consult. Wiget's Native American Literature and Ruoff's American Indian Literatures constitute a very valuable core of essential reference works. Instructors should also consult the Smithsonian's new, multivolume Handbook of North American Indians, for its many articles on the history and culture of specific tribes and its extensive bibliographies, and Murray (1990) for a thorough discussion of how the dynamics of the translation/transcription situation shape the text we read.

    Many students will come to class with assumptions about how American Indians lived, their historical relations with the United States, and their contemporary situation. Many of these stereotypes--that Indians were in perfect harmony with nature; that they were communalists and shared everything; that they did not believe in any form of individualism; and most frighteningly, that there are no more real Indians today--will need to be addressed in class as a preface to the discussion of any kind of Native American literature. Concerning stereotypes, I find it best to begin any discussion of Native American literature with an exploration of what students in fact think they know about Native Americans, and I provide some basic background in terms of the population of Native Americans as of the 1990 census, cultural information about modes of living and adaptation to particular environments, and historical information. I also make it a point to emphasize that every society has evolved a useful and fitting adaptation to its environment. That adaptation is called culture. 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 time is available, I would highly recommend that the class view "Winds of Change," a PBS documentary that dramatizes the adaptability of contemporary Indian cultures, and goes a long way toward restoring the visible presence of Indian diversity.

    Many forms of Native American literature also employ different kinds of artistic devices that are unfamiliar or even antithetical to conventional Anglo-American notions of aesthetic response, such as acute brevity, much repetition, or cataloging. None of these literary conventions appeal to the experience of contemporary readers. To address this problem, I illustrate how cultural conventions that students assume as essential characteristics of literary experience, in fact, have changed over time. This is very easy to do. A classic example is to point out how conventional notions of what constitutes good poetry have changed significantly from the Renaissance through the early nineteenth century and up to the present day, and that we recognize contemporary poetry as being marked by the absence of some features that used to be valued as significant in poetry. This will show the changeableness of literary forms and undermine the students' assumptions that the way things look today is the basis for all judgments about what constitutes good art. I might also indicate the important influences of American Indian literature on American literature, and that some of these Native forms and conventions and themes were borrowed by Anglo-American writers from Cooper through the Imagists and up to the present.

    Classroom Strategies

    Anthologies present the possibility of successfully developing several teaching strategies. There is enough material in both volumes of the anthology, for instance, to develop a semester-long course just on American Indian literatures. Most teachers, however, will be teaching American Indian traditions in the context of other American literatures. I will suggest three basic strategies.

    I think the most important teaching strategy for Native American literature is to single out one text for extensive in-class treatment and to embed it richly in its cultural and historical context. Work through a text with constant reference to notes. Also offer startling images for the class's contemplation, inviting them to reflect upon a range of possible meanings, before suggesting how this imagery or symbol might have meaning in its original cultural context. It's also very helpful to use films, because they provide visual connections to the cultural environment. For the Zuni material, I particularly recommend for a general southwestern Native American world view, "Hopi: Songs of the Fourth World," a film by Pat Ferreiro.

    A second strategy uses culturally related materials, or even materials from the same tribe, and teaches them back to back, mixing the genres, in order to let the context that you develop for one enrich the other. There is enough Iroquoian and Zuni material here, for example, to do just that. An especially good unit would include showing the film, teaching the Zuni "Talk Concerning the First Beginning," contrasting it with Genesis, then moving on to teach "Sayatasha's Night Chant" under the Native American Oral Poetry section. This way the cultural context that you have built up (by understanding fundamental symbols like corn and rain and how they emerge from the people's experience with the land) can serve more than one work.

    A third strategy I have used successfully involves what I have called elsewhere "reading against the grain." Many Native American texts invite comparison with canonical texts from the Euro-American literatures. I always teach the Zuni creation story with readings from the Bible. Genesis 1 through 11 offers two versions of the creation of the world and a flood story, as well as opportunities to discuss social order in chapters 4, 5, and 10. Genesis 27, which gives the story of Jacob and Esau, provides a biblical trickster figure in the person of Jacob. And finally the book of Judges, with its stories of Samson and Gideon, provides good examples of culture heroes, as do other classics such as the Aeneid, the Odyssey, and the various national epics. These classical works are also good counterparts to the Navajo story of Changing Woman's children, the hero twins, who are also on a quest to transform the world by ridding it of monsters, which, like Grendel or the Cyclops, are readily understood as projections of our fears and anxieties, as well as interesting narrative agents. The Yuchi story of "The Creation of the Whites" and Handsome Lake's version of "How America Was Discovered," together with the Hopi version of the Pueblo Revolt, are powerful antidotes to the European mythopoeticizing of the invasion of North America. This is a point I emphasize in my article on "Origin Stories," which reads the Zuni emergence story against Villagrá's epic poem on the history of New Mexico and Bradford's Of Plymouth Plantation, both of which are excerpted in Volume 1 of this anthology. Finally, the Iroquoian description of the confederacy is usefully compared with colonial political documents that envision various social orders, including the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Federalist papers.