Native American Notes

Native American Literature Notes
Characteristics of Native American Literature
 Oral tradition; passed on beliefs, traditions and values from one generation to next; pre-printing press (like
movies do today and we know that because if a movie or TV program pushes the limits of convention it becomes
 Pre-science; ancient; used reason/intellect/imagination/religion to answer questions about the natural world
 Not literal; symbolic; thematic; also just for entertainment (monster stories)
 All tribes vary: there are differences in their beliefs (such as different gods) and customs but there are some
elements that remain constant
 Stress the importance of harmony with nature; balance
 Do not view humans as superior creatures but an equal part of it
Story genres/archetypes:
Creation myths
Warrior/hero tales
Trickster tales
Monster tales
Creation Myth elements:
1. explain why or how something exists in the world
2. awe-inspiring; appreciate the mystery and wonder of nature and the unknown
3. social customs; to explain and reinforce social convention
4. lesson/moral: the hearer was supposed to learn something from the story
-Land and water almost always there in some form for the creator to mix (getting
mud) and make something from
-More than one creator (like twins/brothers, etc.) explain balance (good and bad)
Character types: animals, humans (Native Americans of course, but other races too; white man seldom a positive character—
usually selfish, childish, greedy), elements of nature (Sun, Moon, Tornado, Mother Earth, Father Sky), and gods
Character archetypes: hero, warrior, trickster, challenger/rebel, bridge character (joins two or more realms), jilted/jealous
lover, tragic hero, greedy person who loses everything, villain, etc.
Animal symbols:
Coyote/Fox- Trickster: plays tricks, outsmarts opponent, lies, cheats and steals for personal gain or
Spider: female, usually Grandmother Spider (matriarch=highest ranking female in a family clan);
spiders can spin intricate webs from nothing but their own skill and material which makes them a
creator character; wise, and helpful
Turtle: shore creature; dwells on land and water (2 realms) and is the bridge between both; protection;
Deer/Buffalo: primary food and clothing source; the gift of life and sustenance
Rabbit: prosperity; activity; self sufficiency (solves his own problems)
Hawk: land/air (2 realms like the turtle); messenger; carrier
Eagle: same as hawk except higher ranking; master flier; highest soaring; divine messages, has 4 talons
(see symbolism of the number 4 below)
Mole: grounded (level-headedness); can show the way to the Underworld (not a bad place, just life after
Color Symbolism
Blue: calmness, sky, water, sadness, emotions
Yellow: sun, light, joy, happiness
Green: plants, growth, vigor/vitality, renewal
Red: blood, pain, fire, passion, love, anger
Brown: dirt/mud, substance of creation
Black: death, disease, the unknown
White: purity, cleanliness, divinity
Multicolored: diversity, wholeness, unity
Four Directions ◊
 Number 4: represents wholeness, complete cycle (4 seasons, 4 winds, 4
elements, etc.)
 East: sunrise: newness, beginnings, opportunities, second chances, illumination
 West: sunset: closure, completion, ends (of suffering, problems, disease, war, etc.),
sleep: rest, rejuvenation, dreams/vision
 North: higher learning, teaching, heightened perception and intuition, heady stuff
 South: warmth, comfort, security, trust, faith, heart stuff
 All together: balance; all the paths one can take in life and guidance on those
cultural symbols
 tobacco: viewed as sacred because its smoke and the act of smoking facilitated journeys into the spirit
 Dreams/visions: opportunities for connections to the spirit world for guidance
 Weaving: interconnectedness of all things; protection
 Corn/maize: staple sustenance of life
 Feathers: represent the qualities of the bird from which it came; connection to spirit world
 Dancing and drumming: religious rituals
Native American Notes
True or False and Multiple Choice: You may use your notes to answer the following
1. All tribes of Native Americans believed in the same gods.
2. Myths are religious stories that attempt to answer questions a culture has about
the mysteries of the natural world.
3. A common theme in Native American literature is humanity’s relationship with
4. Most creation myths attempt to answer why we have evil, sickness, or other bad
experiences in life.
5. Having twin creators (or more than one) is one way to explain the balance of the
natural world.
6. Which of the following would probably not be a type of character found in Native
American stories:
a. Animals
b. Aliens
c. Elements (such as earth, sky, sun, tornado, etc.)
d. Native Americans
7. The coyote often symbolizes goodness and prosperity.
8. Native Americans do NOT use storytelling as a way to pass on the beliefs and
values of their tribe to their children.
9. Most Native American stories are meant to be taken literally (word for word).
10. White people often played the role of the hero in Native American literature.
11. Grandmother Spider is a character associated with creation because the spider
spins an intricate web from nothing but its own ability.
12. The Turtle was seen as the connection between the mind and spirituality.
13. A common theme in Native American Trickster stories would most likely be:
brains over brawn (outsmart your opponent, not physically overpower him).
14. A common theme in Native American literature is most likely to encourage
people to fight against nature and isolate humanity.
15. Which of the following is NOT symbolically represented by the color blue in
Native American literature?
a. Earth
b. Sky
c. Water
d. Sadness
16. Yellow is often symbolic of evil, war, and sickness.
17. Which of the following is NOT symbolically represented by the color RED in
Native American literature?
a. Blood
b. War
c. Life
d. Passion
18. The four directions were only a small part of Native American life and
19. The four directions together represent all the possible paths one’s life may take.
20. The direction West was symbolic of new beginnings, opportunities, and growth.
21. The direction North was symbolic of a heightened perception and understanding.
22. Which of the following is NOT a function of a creation myth?
a. To explain a mystery of the natural world
b. To perpetuate social customs, beliefs, and values
c. To teach a lesson
d. To challenge the faith of the reader/hearer
e. To appreciate the mystery of nature
23. Which of the following is not a type (genre) of Native American literature?
a. Creation myths
b. Romances
c. Monster tales
d. Warrior/hero tales
e. Coyote (trickster) tales
24. Based on their relationship with nature, we can infer that Native Americans
believed that humans were created to rule the world and dominate the rest of
25. Trickster tales are folk tales that feature a character, such as a coyote or a fox,
who engages in deceit, violence, and/or magic for personal gain or entertainment.
26. The number 3 is symbolic of perfect balance in Native American culture.
27. Tobacco was viewed as sacred because its smoke and the act of smoking
facilitated journeys into the spirit world.
28. One of the reasons that stories are used to pass on values in the oral tradition is
that they are more interesting than facts, and therefore more memorable.
29. Bridge characters (like the turtle, the hawk, and the mole) bring together two
realms (like land/water).
30. Native Americans believed that humans outranked, or were more important, than
the rest of creation.