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

Native American Oral Poetry

In the world’s numerous oral literatures, poetry is song, whether the psalms of David, the lyrics of Orpheus, or the meditations of Tecayahuatzin. The movement from recitation to chant and song is often correlated with other factors, such as increasing seriousness, emotional intensity, or complexity of linguistic form. In short, like other poetry song consists of affectively charged, sophisticated language. Ritual poetry, created for communal expression, is widespread in Native America; lyric poetry, which articulates an individual response, is far less common.

Ritual poetry both commemorates and creates. In a wide variety of settings, it transports participants back to the time of origin recalling the prototypical events and persons who gave structure and meaning, life and health, to this world, or it calls them forward to belief in a new world to come. In either case, the symbolic language and narrative form of most ritual poetry aims to re-create the sacred in the present moment. The complex Navajo healing ceremonials transform the patient’s home into the world just after the emergence, and heal by identifying the patient with the culture heroes Monster-Slayer and Born-for-Water, who rid the world of monsters. Similarly, whole communities regularly seek to be restored to their original fecundity in cyclic ceremonials, which anthropologists call world-renewal rituals. In some cultures, ritual poetry may be quite brief and imagistic, achieving its impact through repetition which induces in the participants a powerful sense of imaginative transport. In other cultures, it may be quite long and predominantly narrative, drawing heavily upon its mythic subtext. In either case, it is usually marked by conventionalized symbolic expressions called formulae, which may be as short as a phrase or as long as several lines (block formula).

“Sayatasha’s Night Chant” is a fine instance of Native American ritual poetry. It is sung as part of the extensive Zuni world-renewal ceremonial commonly called Shalako, after the ten-foot tall masked impersonations of those spirits. The formal name of the ceremony, however, means “The Coming of the Gods,” and refers to the fact that the kachinas, who are patron spirits of both the earth’s forces and the Zuni ancestral dead, promised at the beginning of time to return every December to the village in the high desert of New Mexico with seeds and moisture to renew life for the coming year. The gods return incarnated in the persons of masked, costumed men, who have spent most of the previous year in arduous preparation for these sacred responsibilities. Thus begins the half-year-long season in which the kachinas are present and visible among men until their going home in late summer. Throughout this season, everyone at Zuni is busy in fulfilling ritual obligations, which are accompanied by complex songs and prayers, rich in agricultural and environmental symbolism, for the aim of Zuni religion is nothing less than to promote the continuance of life.

The poem is chanted in unison by the Shalako priests, a section at a time with breaks in between, over the course of the eighth night of Shalako, the whole performance, with accompanying rituals, taking about six hours. The narrative structure of the poem has two distinct sections. The first is an extended flashback consisting of several elements: the events of the previous New Year when Pautiwa chose and consecrated the present Sayatasha narrator (ll. 1–103); a more limited flashback in which Sayatasha recounts his formal investiture and the immediate preparation for this Shalako which began forty-nine days before (ll. 104–379); and the recounting of his visits during this preparatory period to the sacred shrines where he contacted the rain-making ancestral spirits, while retracing the route of the Zuni aboriginal migration to their present home (ll. 380–520). The second section narrates contemporary occurrences taking place on the eighth night of Shalako, the house consecration and the gift of seed, game and human fertility (ll. 521–758), and the concluding litany of blessings (ll. 759–774).

Looking more closely at the chant, we can describe it as a singular manifestation of a more basic pattern recurrent throughout the world, including Native America: the quest for power. Having assumed the responsibility to be the Sayatasha impersonator, the narrator obliges himself to present the needs of the community to those who can answer them. Especially important here is his visit to Kothluwalawa, the Zuni “Heaven” and Kachina village, to which he comes as a man, but from which he leaves fully invested as Sayatasha the kachina (ll. 178–379). Endowed with the kachina’s power to promote life and growth, symbolized by the pouch of all seeds which was given to him, he returns to Zuni to confer these blessings upon his people. His ability as masked impersonator to represent both humans and kachinas enables him to serve as a mediator between the two communities. Not all Native American ritual poetry is as long or as formulaic as “Sayatasha’s Night Chant,” but however different Native American tribes have been and are from each other, they continue to create the majority of their oral poetry in ritual contexts.

Other forms of ritual poetry, including shorter prayers and dream songs, often compressed speech and imagery in poetic language and form. The two Cherokee formulas included here use a prescribed seven-part form that is rigidly followed and a color symbolism laden with cultural significance as key elements in reconfiguring reality through magical speech. These brief, but socially sanctioned forms contrast with other more private forms. In the Pima deer-hunting song, the hunter enters into the spirit of the hunted, imagining and vocalizing the delirium of the deer in its death throes. In the prayer before going into battle, a Blackfeet man addresses the Sun and asks to be delivered from the fate he dreamed. Other shorter forms are genuine lyrics, individually composed to focus through concentrated language and song an intense emotional response to personal experience. The several songs of love and war included here, though brief, were sung repeatedly to deepen the singer’s recovery of the original experience.

Lyric poetry, which articulates a uniquely individualized response, is less common than ritual poetry. This may not have been the reality in the community, however, so much as a bias in the record. Because the anthropologists who recorded texts were often more interested in collecting oral literature that reflected a density of cultural beliefs, especially mythic narratives and ritual material, individualized works were less often recorded. As a result, we have been denied access to those voices who individualized the common experience. Instead of the factions and differences within a community, we are left, as a result of this historical bias, with an artificial sense of a common “cultural” response that contributes to the creation of stereotypes. Yet the insouciance of the Makah woman To’ak’s reply to the vain man who was courting her or the plea of Victoria to mothers in his community suggests that every community rings with many voices, not always in harmony, and reminds us again that our concept of other cultures is shaped for us by those who do the recording. Among the early anthropologists, the most diligent recorder of the names and social situations of Indian singers and storytellers was Frances Densmore, who devoted her life to recording the music and sung poetry of Native America.

Nevertheless, among a few Native peoples the creation of lyric poetry was culturally celebrated as an artistic act of the highest order. Among the Aztecs, indeed, it mimed the actions of the Lord of the Close and the Near, the Creator who created himself, for whom invention was the fundamental principle of being and the entire world his mask. The creation of poetry was a task for well-educated Aztec nobles. Individual composers like Tecayhuatzin, Ayocuan, or Nezahualcoyotl earned renown for their poetry, which celebrated the transience of life even as the Aztec empire was at its height, a theme which they articulated repeatedly by subtly manipulating a small but rich poetic vocabulary of flowers and jewels. Life, precious as jade or quetzal feather, could be shattered like the former, crushed like the latter. They thought of themselves as cut flowers, captured for a moment in time, decaying in the very instant their beauty is being contemplated. Life, so solid, so apparently real, was thus an illusion. Only by creating art, by imitating the Lord of the Close and the Near, could they aspire to immortality. So well-known were these songs, that more than seventy-five years after the death of Nezahualcoyotl they were still being sung, this time to Spanish-educated, Christianized Aztecs who recorded them and insured their composers’ immortality.

Inuit (Eskimo) lyric poetry, with its often violent imagery, its pained, urgent voice, its short stanzas and simple refrains is very different in content, tone, and structure from the cool, contemplative, and complex Aztec lyrics. Inuit poetry was not, after all, the poetry of an educated and secure elite, but a poetry of the masses, of men and women who struggled to create life and beauty in a brutal environment wrapped for months in darkness. In the silence of the snowy night, abroad on the heaving ice, however, they waited for the words that would name their experience. “Songs are thoughts,” Orpingalik said, “sung out with the breath when people are moved by great forces and ordinary speech no longer suffices. Man is moved just like the ice flow sailing here and there out in the current. His thoughts are driven by a flowing force when he feels joy, when he feels sorrow. Thoughts can wash over him like a flood, making his blood come in gasps, and his heart throb. Something like an abatement in the weather will keep him thawed up, and then it will happen that we, who always think we are small, will feel still smaller. And we will fear to use words. But it will happen that the words we need will come of themselves. When the words we want to use shoot up by themselves—we get a new song.” Orpingalik’s words communicate the origins of Inuit poetry, not unlike Wordsworth’s “emotion recollected in tranquility,” but many of the songs themselves suggest that a good deal of forethought and anxiety went into composing as well. All of this poetry was for public performance, after all, the equivalent of publication; there were evidently no closet poets among the Inuit. Well-wrought poetry was valued. As one Inuit poet commented, “The most festive thing of all is joy in beautiful, smooth words and our ability to express them.”

Andrew O. Wiget
New Mexico State University

In the Heath Anthology
Creation of the Whites (Yuchi Tale) (c. 1690)
A Selection of Poems
Deer Hunting Song (Virsak Vai-i, O'odham) (c. 1600)
Formula to Cause Death (A'yunini the Swimmer, Cherokee) (c. 1600)
Formula to Secure Love (Cherokee) (c. 1600)
Love Song (Aleut) (c. 1600)
Song of Famine (Holy-Face Bear, Dakota) (c. 1600)
Song of Repulse to a Vain Lover (To'ak, Makah) (c. 1600)
Song of War (Blackfeet) (c. 1600)
Song of War (Odjib'we, Anishinabe) (c. 1600)
Song of War (Two Shields, Lakota) (c. 1600)
Song of War (Victoria, Tohona O'odham) (c. 1600)
War Song (Crow) (c. 1600)
War Song (Young Doctor, Makah) (c. 1600)
Woman's Divorce Dance Song (Jane Green) (c. 1600)
A Dream Song (Annie Long Tom, Clayoquot) (c. 1690)
Aztec Poetry
Like Flowers Continually Perishing (Ayocuan) (c. 1600)
The Singer's Art (c. 1600)
Two Songs (c. 1600)
Inuit Poetry
Improvised Greeting (Takomaq, Iglulik Eskimo) (c. 1600)
My Breath (Orpingalik, Netsilik Eskimo) (c. 1600)
Song (Copper Eskimo) (c. 1600)
Widow's Song (Quernertoq, Copper Eskimo) (c. 1600)
Moved (Uvavnuk, Iglulik Eskimo) (c. 1690)
Zuni Poetry
Sayatasha's Night Chant (c. 1600)

Other Works
A Selection of Poems
Aztec Poetry
Inuit Poetry
Zuni Poetry

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Secondary Sources

Ruth Finnegan, Oral Poetry, 1977

Miguel Leon-Portilla, Fifteen Poets of the Aztec World, 1992

Miguela Leon-Portilla, Pre-Columbian Literatures of Mexico, 1969

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

Andrew Wiget, Native American Literature, 1985

Andrew Wiget, "Sayatasha's Night Chant: A Literary, Textual Analysis of a Zuni Ritual Poem," American Indian Culture and Research Journal 4: 1&2 (1980): 99-140