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Bridging the Gap- A look at the work of some Native American female writers

Updated on April 25, 2013
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Throughout history, stories, both fiction and nonfiction, have been spread from generation to generation first orally and later, after the widespread invention of writing, through written texts. This transition between oral stories and written texts has been a moderately recent, dramatic change for many different American Indian groups. Consequently, numerous female American Indian writers have attempted to bridge the gap between traditional oral stories and the written word. Leslie Marmon Silko, Jane Johnson Schoolcraft, and Zitkala Sa are only a small handful of these writers who have used their written work to help bring traditional oral stories into an ever growing modern world.

Leslie Marmon Silko’s Storyteller, uses traditional and modern stories and a unique literary structure to bring oral stories into a contemporary written form simply by writing them down and publishing them in a book. Silko even went a step further by adding nonfiction family stories and family photos to her collection of oral stories. The stories of her own family add to the storytelling theme because they help the reader and future generations understand the living conditions in which Silko found herself in as a child; therefore, her life has itself become part of storytelling and it is now written down for all to read. Furthermore, Silko acknowledges the way traditional oral stories change by saying, “The story was the important thing and little changes here and there were really part of the story. There were even stories about the different versions of stories and how they imagined these differing versions came to be” (227). The “different versions” are in at least two chapters in the book but it is especially emphasized in the section titled “Storytelling.” In the section, the cheating wife, to be blunt, is telling about how and why she has been away from her husband for so long; but it is not just one story. Several different stories with some slightly different situations are written in the section to stress how oral stories differ over time and from one storyteller to another. By adding these little variations in the stories, adding her own family stories, and writing down oral stories into a collection Silko brought oral story telling into a whole new realm, the realm of the written word.

Similarly, Jane Johnson Schoolcraft also wrote down at least one traditionally oral story called “The Forsaken Brother: A Chippewa Tale.” Schoolcraft was able to make the oral story a modern text by using the scene where the younger brother is singing to her textual advantage. He sings:

Neesya, neesya, shyegwuh gushuh!

Ween ne myeengunish!

ne myeengunish!

My brother, my brother,

I am now turning into a Wolf!—

I am turning into a Wolf.

This is highly significant because instead of maintaining an English only text, Schoolcraft includes what she believes to be the sounds that make actual Chippewa words. Then she adds the English version of the words. The Chippewa words are meant to acknowledge that this is a Chippewa tale that has been mostly written into English. As a result, the reader understands the origin of the story is Chippewa but the English reader is not alienated because the lines are also translated. Consequently, Schoolcraft was successfully able to turn a traditional oral story into a written story without leaving out its Chippewa origin.

Zitkala Sa is also an author who wrote many stories; however, she is a different writer than the previous two discussed here because her stories are mostly nonfiction or nonfiction essays. Although Zitkala Sa’s work is different, her writings can be seen in a similar approach to Silko and Schoolcraft’s work because she wrote about things that would have ended up being oral stories. For the most part, Zitkala Sa’s protagonist is herself. Although her autobiography was probably never an oral story, it can be argued that her life would have eventually become one. As an educated woman, her travels in an Anglo dominated society would have undoubtedly caused stories within her family and close circles to begin accumulating and circulating. Furthermore, her childhood, the injustices she saw on tribal lands, her actions, and her opinions would have no doubt been told to her children and maybe her grandchildren and so on. However, somewhere along the way her life stories in the oral form may not have been told and they may have been forget. Zitkala Sa made certain that the oral story her life was would be around for others to enjoy reading and learning from by writing them down. Zitkala Sa is a representation for the reason traditional oral stories should be translated into the written word because since she chose to write down her legacy, her life will not be forgotten.

Although Zitkala Sa, Jane Johnson Schoolcraft, and Leslie Marmon Silko wrote in different time periods, their written words help bridge the gap between traditional oral stories and written texts. This accomplishment may not have always been easy for them because traditional values are held in high regard to American Indians but their words will continue to help the Indian and Anglo cultures coexist by coming to a better understanding of the existence of one another in an ever changing world.

© 2013 morningstar18

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