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The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Fifth Edition
Paul Lauter, General Editor

Native American Oral Narrative

Native American stories, rich in tradition, are inextricably rooted in the things of tribal experiences; and, because they are oral rather than written, the tales rely upon a performance dimension that is lost to a reader. For instance, some Navajo and Iroquois stories are told in complex performances that, for an understanding of their fullest dimensions, require the audience’s knowledge of the location of particular places where events occurred and the specific voices in which certain characters are speaking. Ritual dances in both cultures ascribe to certain locations inside the audience circle the geographical places afar off that are mentioned in the stories. Sand paintings, in the Navajo traditions, are ritualistic and sacred, for they symbolize sacred places and sacred acts that inform the Navajo stories being told. The creation story of the Iroquois similarly relies upon the experiences known to the listeners; the long houses of the sky dwellers in the Iroquois creation story resemble the long houses traditional in Iroquois culture. Native American stories, then—whether they are chants, songs, or narratives—rely upon a performance, a dramatic presentation that the written word for the most part cannot convey.

Cycles of stories relate to the Native Americans’ subsistence experiences—planting, hunting, and fishing—and to life experiences—birth, puberty, and death. Other stories explain the more distant origin of the world and emergence of the people, the development of the particular Native American population and crucial events in the history of that population, and the uncertain nature of human existence. The latter groups of stories are offered here—stories of origin and emergence, historical narratives, and trickster tales.

Origin and Emergence Stories are complex symbolic tales that typically dramatize the tribal explanation of the origin of the earth and its people; establish the central relationships among people, the cosmos or universe, and the other creatures (flora and fauna) of the earth; distinguish gender roles and social organization for the tribe; account for the distinctive aspects of climate and topography of the tribe’s homeland; and tell of the origins of the tribe’s most significant social institutions and activities. Given the great numbers of Native American tribes, it can be expected that some of the stories offer interesting similarities while others suggest great differences among tribes.

Several different types of origin tales are prominent in the Native American canon. The two most common are the Emergence story, found throughout the southwestern United States, and the Earth-Diver story, which predominates throughout Canada and the eastern region. The Earth-Diver story tells of a great flood that covered the earth and of beings who are borne upon the water until, after several failed attempts, an animal brings up enough mud from beneath the water to begin the magical creation of the earth. David Cusick, a Tuscarora Indian whose tribe was allied to the Iroquoian Confederacy, began the history of his people with a version of the Earth-Diver story. Because it resembled that of Noah and the flood of the biblical tradition, many Euro-Americans considered the Indians to be descended from the Lost Tribes of Israel, a group of ten tribes that, after the conquest and destruction of ancient Israel, never returned. It is possible that the Biblical stories and the Native Americans’ stories have an ancient, common antecedent.

Native American tales more frequently differ, however, from the stories of biblical tradition. For most of the pueblo dwellers and many other Native American groups, people did not originate in a protoworld (like Eden) but rather in the womb of the Earth Mother, from which they were called out into the daylight of their Sun Father. Most widely developed among agricultural peoples, the Emergence story narrates the original  passage from darkness to light, from chaos to order, and from undetermined to distinctly human form. The dynamic of evolution—that life evolves from one form to another—serves as a fundamental metaphor for transformations of all kinds. If one is ill, or if the community is without rain or food, restoration can be achieved by a ritual return to the place of Emergence and recovery of the original power from that place.

Both the Emergence and Earth-Diver stories are part of much longer narratives, in which they are followed by migration stories, as in the Zuni search for the Center of the World, or Culture Hero Stories, like the Navajo story of Changing Woman and the Hero Twins. Culture Hero Stories dramatize a people’s belief about how a remarkable individual altered the original world and social order to its culturally accepted norm. The events in these stories account for the origin of distinctive cultural beliefs, values and practices. So, for example, the Lakota tell how a supernatural woman, White Buffalo Calf Pipe Woman, brought to them the sacred pipe and taught them how to pray with it to the Great Spirit. The Seneca tell of a young man named Gaqka or Crow who went to the south and, listening to the earth, learned all the stories, and brought back storytelling to the Seneca.

The Biblical stories of Genesis, which most Europeans believed, functioned in a similar manner for the colonists. Yet a comparison of Native American origin tales and Biblical stories illuminates profound cultural differences. Generally speaking, Native Americans traditionally did not believe in a single supreme, autonomous, and eternal being who established the conditions under which all beings must exist. Nor did they consider humans as having a radically different nature from the rest of earth’s inhabitants, which they conceived of as intelligent, self-willed, and communicative. Given such beliefs, Native Americans found that the proper relation between people and the earth should be one of familial and personal respect, a relation honorable because of a kinship derived from a common beginning.

Perhaps most importantly, no Native American origin myth identifies anything at all analogous to the Christian belief in sin or a fall from the grace of a god. That is, there is no evil pre-condition, no lost harmony and balance, in the Native American interpretation of origin. Thus, there is likewise no story similar to that of the Christian savior. Many Native American tales, by contrast, explain that people and the universe at the same time moved from chaos and disorder to balance and harmony. These stories offer examples of prototypical relationships that show reciprocal and cyclic evolution, an evolution tied to a very particular place. Jews and Christians over the centuries have transported to each new settlement the divine commission given to Adam at the moment of creation. The Zuni, the Navajo, the Iroquois, indeed each Native American people, lived in a particular homeland known to be their own since their beginning, given to them, as the Zuni myth so aptly expresses it, as their Center. For most Native Americans this Center was both a specific life-sustaining environment and a compelling identity-sustaining idea, especially in times of tribal trouble. To move or be moved from their Center was, for these Native Americans, unthinkable.

Historical Narratives explain the movements of the tribe, and thus frequently recount the colonization of the tribe by the Europeans. Some historical narratives feature legendary figures of mythical proportions who move about in recognizably historic settings. In these narratives, the relationship between actual event and tribal belief is not always clear. Other historical narratives serve primarily as tribal record, and are thus extraordinarily accurate. As the Hopi narrative of the coming of the Spanish suggests, in some tribes what has been called “memory culture” might encompass centuries.

Many stories of this vast historical literature are of value for Euro-Americans, for they tell of colonization from the  Native American perspective. The Hopi  narrative, with its unflattering picture of  Franciscan missionizing, a narrative substantiated in large measure by the documentary record, stands in stark contrast to Villagrá’s Catholic vision of the conquest as a glorious march of the cross. More importantly, the story highlights the profound differences between the two cultures, differences even centuries of contact would not alter. The Spanish understood native religions as paganism which, for the sake of the Native Americans, the Spanish were bound by their God to eradicate. Pueblo Indians like the Hopi, on the other hand, wondered about a God who commanded them to abandon their kachina religion, knowing that extinction was the logical consequence of suppressing the religion that had secured rain, food, life itself, since their Emergence into the day-world. The Seneca story of “How America Was Discovered,” like the Yuchi story, historicizes elements of origin myths into a critical account of the effects of contact with European invaders.

As the Native Americans’ stories of their origin, religious life, and social activity differed markedly from the Europeans’, so did their stories explaining life’s uncertainties. Trickster Tales illustrate a testing of the limits of cultural formation and practice. That is, Native American stories about trickster characters—people in the form of Coyote, Raven, or Rabbit—feature humorous and often scandalous attempts to violate the established customs and values of the tribe. The Trickster figure, stereotyped as alone and wandering on the margins of the social world, frequently engages in socially unacceptable acts to call attention to the arbitrary and tentative nature of established cultural patterns. For instance, when Raven cures a girl in the Tsimshian story by imitating the behavior of the medicine men (in order to gain both material and sexual rewards), Raven’s actions cast doubt upon both the motives and methods used by medicine men, thus urging the audience to distinguish between the role a person plays in society and the character of the person in the role. Both scandalous and instructive, trickster stories ultimately offer cultural lessons. Told with relish, the stories ironically provide useful and necessary correctives to cultural self-satisfaction.

Whether the stories are socially corrective trickster tales or emergence or historical narratives, these and other Native American genres show the people aspiring for harmonious interaction with the earth. Native American communities continually return in prayer and ritual, story and song, to the fundamental relationships established as part of their tribal identity. At the same time, many contemporary Native American writers, who have never participated in the life of a tribal community, have discovered a new strength in old traditions. The ancient stories endure, despite radical changes in the circumstances of the people who produced them and who tell them today, because they provide a structure of meaning and value at once intellectually satisfying and imaginatively compelling.
Andrew O. Wiget
New Mexico State University

In the Heath Anthology
Changing Woman and the Hero Twins after the Emergence of the People (Navajo) (c. 1600)
Iktomi and the Dancing Duck (c. 1600)
Iroquois or Confederacy of the five Nations (Iroquois) (c. 1600)
Raven Makes a Girl Sick and Then Cures Her (Tsimshian) (c. 1600)
Talk Concerning the First Beginning (Zuni) (c. 1600)
The Bungling Host (Hitchiti) (c. 1600)
The Origin of Stories (Seneca) (c. 1600)
Wohpe and the Gift of the Pipe (Lakota) (c. 1600)

Cultural Objects
Image fileTsimshian Bird Carving

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Group Presentation of Native American Tales (Lois Leveen, April 26, 2001)
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Secondary Sources

Dell Hymes, 'In Vain I Tried to Tell You': Essays in Native American Ethnopoetics, 1981

David Murray, Forked Tongues: Speech, Writing, and Representation in North American Indian Texts, 1991

Paul Radin, The Trickster, 1956

William Sturtevant, ed., Handbook of North American Indians, 15 vols., 1981-

Brian Swann and Arnold Krupat, Recovering the Word: Essays on Native American Literature, 1987

Dennis Tedlock, The Spoken Word and the Work of Interpretation, 1983