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Native American Storytelling: Cultural Significance, Literary Techniques, and External Influences

Updated on September 14, 2015
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Unlike the Europeans, who colonialized the Americas and organized their literature and history according to the written word, Native Americans preserved their culture and beliefs through oral traditions (Hoxie, 1996). Oral traditions preserved by Native American cultures reflect the basic beliefs of tribal life, ceremonies, stories, songs, and oratory: they still remain an important part of Native American life, both on and off the reservation today (Davis, 1994). Since oral traditions are nearly completely socially constructed texts, narratives presented therein are bound with both the notions of self and large-scale identities such as tribe. Thus, the cultural importance of Native American oral stories is akin to the Homeric epics “The Iliad” or “The Odyssey” because both narratives are exemplified by the power to define societies through it and by it. Even so, the verbal and performative elements play off against the literary in different ways for different cultures, and thus historical precision needs to be applied to individual stories in order to avoid hasty generalizations or appropriation (Innes, 2013). The ontology, characterization, language, and influences of Native American storytelling, even for contemporary Native American authors whose work is primarily conveyed via text, are rooted in oral traditions.

Notes

[1] Verbal Mimesis: Linguistic craftsmanship to represent spoken language through word choice, diction, and grammar.

[2] Over-abstraction using Latinate words in apparent in much English literature, and is primarily located in written rather than verbal discourses such as in “Paradise Lost” when Milton famously said, “Darkness visible.” Critics still cannot agree on what Milton specifically means here.

Leslie Marmon Silko
Leslie Marmon Silko | Source

The Language of Native American Storytelling

The ontology of Native American oral performance depends particularly on “a language more dependent on the ear than the eye” (Hoxie, 1996). Authors evoking the style of oral traditions such as Leslie Marmon Silko in “Call That Story Back,” focus on verbal mimesis [1]. For orally or auditory performances in the English language, concrete single-syllable Saxonate words provide an edge over abstract multi-syllable Latinate words because Saxonate words not only contain more earthly imagery, but they also pack more emotional power, and they are used more commonly in everyday speech than Latinate or Greek-deriving English words.

This technique of meticulous word choice, diction, and grammar influences the texture of Native American storytelling style. For instance, in Silko’s “Call Back That Story,” the sensuous and concrete aspects of its language capture both the mysticism and simplicity of Native American worldviews. By using figurative language Silko can cultivate a mysterious or even sublime mood, yet remain safely distanced from over-abstraction by choosing simple Saxonate words [2]. Furthermore, using simple words and rhythms enables other community/tribal members to remember and recite the same story with ease because words with concrete imagery are easier to memorize than those with abstract imagery. This idea is supported by the cognitive neuroscientists Caroline West and Philip Holcomb in their journal article “Imaginal, Semantic, and Surface-Level Processing of Concrete and Abstract Words: An Electrophysiological Investigation” (2000), whose findings concluded, “words representing concrete concepts are processed more quickly and efficiently that words representing abstract concepts.”

Cultural Significance of Oral Traditions

Aside from Native American authors’ usage of simple language to effectively provide an emotional punch to their audiences and its obvious purposes for helping other tribe members remember and recite the same stories easier, the cultural implications of oral storytelling is imperative. Commentators on oral culture— such as Hayden White and Claude Levi-Strauss—repeatedly found that oral narratives serve a mnemonic purpose. Yet narrative structures, with their repetitions— such as the anaphora of Simon Ortiz’s phrase “the soft damp sand… the soft moist sand…” in his poem “My Father’s Song”— and stock devices which enabled early oral cultures to remember key points about their present and their history, also facilitated something else. According to Paul Colbey (2001), “Memory embodied in a narrative made a significant contribution to the formation and maintenance of the self-image of peoples, especially when writing may not have been available physically to store records of past events and details of a people’s most cherished ideals” (Narrative, pg. 38) Native American oral traditions, by their methods of memorization and recitation, helped define and preserve both self and social identities for tribes from generation to generation. Thus, the construction of social identity in Native American literature and storytelling was not simply perpetrated solely through individualistic memories nor within a subjective psyche, rather the performative and communal aspect of oral recitations enacted members of the tribe to remember with each other a public dream.

Contemporary Significance: Struggles with Memory

In contemporary Native American literature, authors merge tribal and personal memories because the assimilation of Native American life into the fabric of American culture came with conveniences, hardships, and many ideological contradictions; ultimately, the modern Native American has found it difficult to find solace in the industrialized United States because it is constantly at odds with Native American tradition, of which the latter in its purest form had dissolved by the advent of the 20th century. In fact, at the advent of the 20th century, Native American literature acquired motifs of cultural dislocation and alienation which would become an enduring and reoccurring theme (Hoxie, 1996). For instance, in Vizenor’s “Measuring My Blood,” the mixed-blood becomes a “postmodern liberatory space in which contradictory histories and languages can create a trickster discourse” (Hoxie, 1996). Ultimately, this means his fiction resembles the disturbing, disrupting, and challenging aspects of postmodernity in relation to the plurality of contexts that construct Native American identity.

Gerald Vizenor
Gerald Vizenor | Source

Lineage, Blood, and Tribal Memory in America

Vizenor’s “Measuring My Blood” brings up a highly valued proponent of Native American culture in regard to tribal memory: lineage. The genetic confusion of being a "mixed-blood" or "half-breed" (as opposed to being a "full-blooded" Native American) can lead individuals into a self-identity crisis. Wendy Rose's "Neon Scars" sheds light into the life living as a "half-breed" and her particular struggles answering the question "Who am I?" For Rose, it was impossible to establish a firm sense of self because she "was in a situation where [she] was physically separated from one-half of [her] family and rejected by the half that brought [her] up" (Trout, pg. 374). Thus, Rose claimed that she ultimately lacked relatives because her parents threw her away, and Hopi lineage can only be traced down her mother's side (she explains how her father was Hopi, and her mother comes from a rich line of colonializing European families). Rose's predicament is very interesting because her blood is composed with the blood of both the colonializer and the colonialized. Symbolically and psychoanalytically, this is a powerful image and conundrum that many Ethnic Americans experience and is a central theme among Ethnic American literature.

Joseph Bruchac is another notable example from the pool of Native American poets to experience this crisis of self-identity and ancestral memory. Bruchac, in his poem "Ellis Island," shows how his Russian line of decedents immigrated to the United States and procreated with his Abenaki line. The result is a conflict of memories and allegiances, one of the hopes and dreams of his Slovak grandparents, one from the native lands of his Abenaki heritage. This is important because, as many other Native American authors have experienced such as N. Scott Momaday and Leslie Marmon Silko, personal memories are seen through a glaze of tribal memory reminiscent of the oral traditions (Ballenger, 1997). Essentially, the construction of character, speaker, or narrator in Native American literature lies in the ability to defy both time and individual consciousness just as Momaday demonstrates in his “The Way to Rainy Mountain” when he calls upon his “whole memory.”

Concluding Thoughts

The importance of oral storytelling in Native American culture was profound centuries ago, and its influences still resonate today among Native American writers. The mythological stories that are passed from generation to generation essentially establish a tribal memory from which individuals can discover themselves and their cultural identities. Even so, with the assimilation of Native American life into the fabric of American culture, the oral traditions of storytelling were disrupted leading many young Native American children and the generations thereafter detached from their ancestral memories and alienated by the mainstreams of American society. Even so, Native American literature today has sparked a revival in the oral traditions of the past by honoring tribal memories and myths at the expense of confronting their own acculturation demons and self-identity crises such having mixed-blood.

References

Ballenger, B. (1997). Methods of memory: On native american storytelling. College English (vol. 59, no. 7, pp. 789-799). Retrieved from Proquest Central.

Cobley, P. (2001). Narrative: the new critical idiom. New York, NY: Routledge.

Davis, M. (1994). Native american in the twentieth century: An encyclopedia. Garland Reference Library of Social Science (vol. 452) New York, NY: Garland Publishing, Inc.

Holcomb, P., West, C. (2000). Imaginal, semantic, and surface-level processing of concrete and abstract words: An electrophysiological investigation. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience (vol. 12, no. 6, pp. 1024-1037). Retrieved from http://www.mitpressjournals.org/doi/abs/10.1162/08989290051137558#.U-l--el0wRY

Hoxie, F. (1996). Encyclopedia of north american indians: Native american history, culture, and life from paleo-indians to the present. New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Company.

Innes, P. (2013). Epic: the new critical idiom. New York, NY: Routledge.

Trout, L. (1998). Native american literature: An anthology. Chicago, IL: National Textbook Company.

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    • Larry Rankin profile image

      Larry Rankin 20 months ago from Oklahoma

      I am especially fond of Native American tales. Great hub.

    • alancaster149 profile image

      Alan Robert Lancaster 20 months ago from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire)

      Hello again Brandon, I thought this might be something beyond my own 'comfort level' but realised it's more a parallel with what I've been doing with my VIKING and AGE OF HEROES series. The oral tradition is all anybody had, be they Celt, Angle, Saxon, Norse or whatever.

      Were stories changed down the years through constant re-telling, or was the tradition stricter with its received knowledge? Some cultures, as long as the story remained essentially the same 'updated' the telling for newer audiences; others would insist on using exactly the same words and inflections. Thus 'Beowulf' became Christianised when an East Anglian monk first set it down on vellum in the 11th Century, although the narrative stayed broadly the same.

    • Emese Fromm profile image

      EmeseRéka 20 months ago from The Desert

      Great hub. Oral tradition was so important for every nation, not only as a way or preserving stories, but even more importantly as a way of belonging, of cultural identity, as you point it out. There are still great storytellers among Native Americans, I've experienced it once while camping on the Navajo Reservation.

      I enjoyed reading your hub, thank you for sharing.

    • lollyj lm profile image

      Laurel Johnson 20 months ago from Washington KS

      Excellent hub, fascinating content. I enjoy Native American writers and poets because of the intense word pictures. I can only imagine how effective their spoken word stories must be Well done!

    • aviannovice profile image

      Deb Hirt 20 months ago from Stillwater, OK

      We are all mixed to some degree and lack a full understanding of what is really within us. I have read many native tales and came to an understanding long ago of how important culture is to the past, present, and future. If we cannot accept what each of us has within us, we have no place in the melting pot of America, yet we were bold enough to take this land from the rightful owners.

    • NisseVisser profile image

      Nisse Visser 20 months ago from On the Edge

      Wonderful hub, thank you

    • teaches12345 profile image

      Dianna Mendez 20 months ago

      My mother lived in an Indian Reservation when she was young. She told some wonderful stories and shared food recipes with us. I think storytelling is an art form that can bring so much enjoyment to listeners.

    • ladyguitarpicker profile image

      stella vadakin 18 months ago from 3460NW 50 St Bell, Fl32619

      Encore, wonderful article. Life on the Indian Reservations can give us many stories and help us understand the Indians.

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