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We had to start somewhere . . .
Native American Literature has been a living oral
tradition, but it was never treated with the same
respect as European or Western literature.
The vast body of American Indian oral literature was
not even recognized by Western scholars until the
late 1800s - assumed that Native Americans had no
Part of the problem in recognizing the literature was
due to it needing to be translated.
• Oral Traditions: the process of
passing down sayings, songs, tales,
and myths from one generation to
the next by word of mouth;
preserve historical continuity
• Native Americans lived lives close
to the land. Traditional literature
related to tribal knowledge,
customs and rituals.
Types of oral literature:
Myth: traditional story, rooted in a particular culture, that deals
with gods, goddesses, and other supernatural beings, as well as
human heroes; often embody religious beliefs and values and
explain natural phenomena
Creation Myth: explains how the world came about
The Trickster Tale: familiar character in Native American
storytelling challenging the established order of things, bending
others to his will
Song: contains the wisdom of a people compressed into a lyrical
Native American cultures use stories to:
1. teach moral lessons
2. convey practical information about the
Their universe is not dominated by human beings.
1. Animals and humans are often
interchangeable in myths
and folk tales.
2. Origin myths may even
feature animals as the
instruments of creation.
All American Indian cultures show an awareness of the
power of metaphor: a figure of speech that makes a
comparison between 2 unlike things without using like,
as, than, or resembles.
They believed words are powerful and alive.
Songs & chants could make things happen – call game
animals, bring rain, cure the sick, or destroy an enemy.
They used striking similes: figure of speech that makes
an explicit comparison between two unlike things,
using a word such as like, as, than, or resembles.
The American Indian worldview is not that of a
progressive straight line, but of an endless circle.
Themes & Characteristics
1. Words are powerful & magic. They enable the speaker to grab power.
2. Dreams are messages from the spirit world, conferring power on the
3. Animals and objects, as well as humans, possess a personifying spirit
such as deer, water, wind, even hunger and disease.
4. Things in nature, colors, and words are thought of in pairs which can
be seen as an extension of sexuality - male and female and thus
5. Sun and sky represent the father; rain and sunlight are seen as life-
giving and fertile when they reach the body of female earth.
6. The four directions (east, west, north, south) correspond to the four
faces of the human body (front, back, front, left). The number 4 is sacred.
7. Anonymity - the Indian poet does not consider himself to be the
“author” of his song; the poetry is of all people in his culture.
8. New spirits and gods, rituals and prayers were borrowed from other
tribes and cultures. Christianity was also embraced.
• Pictographs – used to help with
their memory when telling
Constitution of North America
Up until 1400, warfare was very important to
the Iroquois and was considered their chief
activity, but in the 1400s Hiawatha, a man
who had lost all in war (family, children,
possessions, friends, etc.), encountered a
supernatural being (Dekanawidah) in a
Hiawatha was given the cultural ideals of peace. He
was also directed to tell everyone this “good news.”
Despite their history of warfare,
the Iroquois had a maternal society.
Husbands were useless and
unimportant; sons were raised by
the mother’s brother. Orphaned boys
also become heroes in their stories.
Maid Ideas in the Constitution are:
1.Begin all councils with a prayer of thanks.
2.Urge honesty and respect for authority.
3.Avoid gossip and do not lead others into “trivial
4.Be slow to anger.
5.Advocate peace, tenderness, calm deliberation, and
These are feminine, nurturing traits. The constitution de-
emphasizes masculine aggression in its total effect.
There is also a great sense of the responsibility of
proper stewardship of the earth (ecology) and an
optimistic vision for the future.
The tree is an image of peace in the beginning—the
eagle a warning as to how fragile that peace is at all