Oral Literature and the Oral Tradition

Oral Literature and the Oral Tradition
Before the arrival of Columbus in 1492, there were thousands of narratives, ceremonies,
songs, and speeches performed by Native Americans, and these can be subdivided into
categories such as creation stories, trickster and hero stories, chants, ceremonies, and
There were considered to be over 300 cultural groups and over 500 languages spoken in
North America when Columbus arrived. Over five centuries later, less than 200
indigenous languages are still spoken.
The oral tradition was and continues to be a defining element of Native American
cultures. Native American tribes were, according to linguistic definitions, primarily oral
cultures (dependent upon acoustic modes of communication). The imposition and
development of chirographic (writing) cultures has had a profound impact on the
continuance of oral traditions: sometimes disastrous, as in governmental and educational
attempts to eliminate Native languages, and at other times (perhaps) beneficial, as in
attempts to preserve Native languages and to continue oral traditions through writing.
Native American literature often draws on oral traditions for both its content and form.
As Joseph Bruchac has noted, “The vast body of American Indian oral literature,
encompassing dozens of epic narratives and countless thousands of stories, poems, songs,
oratory, and chants, was not even recognized by Western scholars until the late 1800s.
Until then, it was assumed that Native Americans had no literature.”
In the mid-1800s, European-American editors and translators began copying and
translating Native American literature into writing, under the assumption that Native
cultures were rapidly “vanishing” and must be preserved before they disappeared
altogether. Many non-Native editors infused Native American texts with their own
perspectives and Western worldview, which often perceived Native American culture and
language and primitive, premodern, and unchanging. This worldview often underlies
anthropologists’ attempts to “collect” and preserve Native American artifacts and
Notions of authorship and audience:
Most oral genres of literature, whether spoken or sung, were considered the common
property of a group, rather than the property of an individual author. This reflects
traditional Native American conceptions of identity as communal and inclusive; the
individual self was only understood in relation to a larger community and to particular
Similarly, the audience listening to an oral performance was considered to be a part of the
performance, and the audience’s response shaped the telling of the tale; the audience was
thus not a passive observer, but an active, co-creator of the oral story. In this sense,
stories were never finalized or complete, but always under revision and “in process,” so
that a story changed with each telling. Critics have called this process of storytelling
dialectical or “dialogic,” because it consists of a dialogue among multiple voices and
contains many perspectives.
Key Elements of Oral Literature:
(Adapted from Joseph Bruchac, “The Sun Still Rises in the Same Sky”):
Native American cultures use stories to teach moral lessons and convey practical
information about the natural world. A story from the Abenaki people of Maine, for
example, tells how Gluskabe catches all of the game animals. He is then told by his
grandmother to return the animals to the woods. They will die if they are kept in his bag,
she tells him, and if they do die, there will be no game left for the people to come. In this
one brief tale, important, life-sustaining lessons about greed, the wisdom of elders, and
game management are conveyed in an entertaining and engaging way.
Creation myths also convey these lessons, focusing on beliefs about the nature of the
physical world; beliefs about social order and appropriate behavior; and beliefs about
human nature and the problem of good and evil.
American Indian oral literature also reflects a more inclusive, eco-centric view of
the natural world than the one typically seen in Western-European literature. The
Native American universe is not dominated by human beings. Animals and humans are
often interchangeable in myths and folk tales. Origin myths may even feature animals as
the instruments of creation and animals often convey wisdom and insight to human
American Indian oral literature shows a keen awareness of the power of metaphor.
Words are as powerful and alive as the human breath that carries them. Songs and chants
can make things happen—call game animals, bring rain, cure the sick, or destroy an
enemy. For Native Americans, speech, or oratory—often relying on striking similes
drawn from nature—is a highly developed and respected literary form.
The Trickster is an archetypal figure in many Native American oral stories, including
creation myths and stories that developed post-conquest, to explain (and challenge) the
Euro-American invasion of Native land. The Trickster is represented as Coyote in many
tales, and is a reminder of the importance of subversive humor in the process of survival.
Repetition is a device often used in oral literature, but often lines that are repeated
contain different and changing meanings. Repetition is often used to create expectation.