Native American Literature

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Title: Chapter 1: Oral Narrative

Author(s): William Marling

Source: Native American Literature. Andrew Wiget. Twayne's United States Authors Series 467. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1985. From The Twayne Authors Series.

Document Type: Critical essay

Full Text: COPYRIGHT 1985 Twayne Publishers, COPYRIGHT 2008 Gale, Cengage Learning

Archaeologists have long argued that Native Americans arrived from Asia in successive waves over several millennia, crossing a lush flowered plain hundreds of miles wide that now lies inundated by 160 feet of water released by melting glaciers. For several periods of time, the first beginning around 60,000 B.C. and the last ending around 7000 B.C., the land bridge now known as Beringia was open. The first people came earlier than 30,000 B.C., traveling in the dusty trails of the animals they hunted, unaware of the historical consequence of their daily routine.1 They brought with them not only their families, weapons, and tools, but a broad metaphysical understanding, sprung from dreams and visions and articulated in myth and song, which complemented their scientific and historical knowledge of the lives of animals and of men. All this they caught up, shaped carefully and deliberately in a variety of languages, bringing into being oral literatures of power and beauty, and so coming into possession of themselves in the land that was beginning to possess them.

Contemporary readers, forgetting the origins of Western epic, lyric, and dramatic forms, are easily disposed to think of “literature” only as something written. But upon reflection it quickly becomes clear that the more critically useful as well as the more frequently employed sense of the term concerns the artfulness of the verbal creation, not its mode of presentation. Ultimately literature is aesthetically valued, regardless of language, culture, or mode of presentation, because some significant verbal achievement results from the struggle in words between tradition and talent. As an accomplished Inuit singer told the Danish polar explorer Knud Rasmussen, “the most festive thing of all is joy in beautiful, smooth words and our ability to express them.”2 What one seeks, then is verbal art, the ability to shape out a compelling inner vision in some skillfully crafted public verbal form.

Performance, Form, and Genre

Of course, the differences between the written and oral modes of expression are not without consequences for an understanding of Native American literature. Because the modalities have different capacities, precisely the opposite is true. The essential difference is that a speech event is an evolving communication, an “emergent form,”3 the shape, functions, and aesthetic values of which become more clearly realized over the course of the performance. In performing verbal art, the performer assumes responsibility before the audience for the manner as well as the content of the performance, while the audience assumes the responsibility throughout for evaluating the performer's competence in both areas. It is this intense mutual engagement that elicits the display of skill and shapes the emerging performance. Where written literature provides us with a tradition of texts, oral literature offers a tradition of performances. In both cases, however, the art lies not in the modality itself but in the effective use of its possibilities within culturally defined aesthetic norms.

Traditional folkloric studies of Native American oral literature worked with transcriptions of the verbal component of the performance, as if those “texts” represented the reality. But transcribing an oral performance is, to borrow Albert Lord's phrase, like “photographing Proteus,”4 and immediately produces an anomaly that is neither a part of a living folkloric tradition nor of a truly literary one. Consequently, literary criticism of Native American oral literatures founded on a conventional notion of text and evolved from analogies to Western genres, styles, and aesthetic values soon proves of little value. Written texts, the object of literary criticism, are composed entirely of printed linguistic signs, but, as Judith Irvine has recently pointed out, linguistic complexity is only one dimension of form in a speech event. She observes that formality may be heightened in a speech event not only by increasing the number of rules governing what is appropriate language but by increasing correlation between verbal and nonverbal aspects of the event; by increasing the prominence given to one's social, as opposed to personal, identity; and by increasing the centralization of space in which the event occurs.5 Only the first of these is applicable to written literature.

One of the differences between narrative and song, for instance, is the addition of more rules governing expression (metrical rules: prosody; semantic rules: figurative language; structural rules) and the correlation of two modes of expression, verbal and tonal. Similarly, the difference between conversation and oratory has to do not only with the participants' shift from private identity to public role but also to an increasingly centralized focus for the event. It may be possible, then, to suggest distinctions in terms of several kinds of formality, acknowledging, of course, that such distinctions are necessarily abstracted from the particular situation in an individual community, where additional distinguishing features may be involved. One might begin with narrative as the form more often than not the least structured textually and contextually. Oratory and lyric song are intermediate forms; lyric song may be more structured linguistically than all kinds of oratory, but oratory of all kinds is almost always more structured contextually. Ritual chant and song are often the most structured forms in all ways. The present chapter will examine narrative forms of Native American verbal art, while the second will address oratory and both ritual and lyric song.

From the beginning, trying to find some clear and universal criteria for distinguishing different types of narratives has been the ever-elusive goal of folklorists and anthropologists. Alan Dundes demonstrated that such a goal was unattainable when he concluded a study of Native American stories by announcing that “myth and folktale are not structurally distinct genres . . . . The distinction between them is wholly dependent upon content criteria or totally external factors such as belief or function. Thus [Franz] Boas was basically correct in distinguishing myths from folktales on the basis of content differences such as setting, time, and dramatis personae.”6 In effect, Dundes acknowledged that what distinguishes these stories for Native Americans was not comprehended by his analysis at all, each tribe having instead its own criteria. Based on a widespread Native American sense of narrative time,7 however, it is possible to make some cross-cultural generalizations and still acknowledge elements of setting that are important features in these tribal genres. In the progress of narrative time, the principal figures are a series of mediators who incarnate supernatural power and values in the present moment, thus communicating prototypical realities to each succeeding new world. In this way cultural institutions come to be understood as both created, historical realities and yet images of eternal verities. In this perspective, the sequence of narrative forms reconstructs a native consciousness of the narrated past (see Figure 1).

The past begins in the Origin Period. In some cultures the most remotely conceptualized being is an Asexual Spiritual Being like the Aztec Ometeotl, whose dynamic self-reflection creates through thought emanation either two Sky Parents Proper (Sun Father, Moon Mother) or Displaced (Sky Father, Earth Mother). Their intercourse creates two worlds (Mountain, Water; East, West; Zenith, Nadir) requiring reconciliation. This movement of mediation can be envisioned either as an Ascent (Emergence) or a Descent (Earth-Diver). At the point of Emergence or Contact there appears a mediational figure like the Seneca Woman Who Fell from the Sky, the Navajo Changing Woman, or the Maidu Earth-Initiate, whose incarnation begins the birthing of spiritual power into the present, earth-surface world, and whose body upon decease sometimes becomes the first plants and animals.

Responsibility for further creation is then passed on in the Transformation Period. In some cases responsibility is given to a single figure whose character incarnates the polar values of Culture Hero and Trickster. This person may remain an integrated Trickster/Transformer or have the power to transform itself into either pole; hence, the Algonkian Manabozho as Culture Hero and as Trickster, Hare. Where the Trickster is undifferentiated from the Transformer, responsibility for further transformation can be given to demiurgic Twins who are themselves polar opposites, like the Seneca Rival Twins, Flint (Hunting) and Sprout (Agriculture), or the Navajo Hero Twins, Monster-Slayer (Active, Warrior) and Born-for-Water (Passive, Shaman). In any case, all three roles may coexist in a single character, although the tasks of the Transformer and Culture Hero are logically, if not chronologically, prior to those of the Trickster, for the sober implication of Trickster's buffoonery is that man's power in the world is finally limited. As the Transformation Period closes, the mediational figure creates the first real men and, in creating their clans, the first social structure. In many cultures these functions are achieved during the course of a migration.

The presence of men and of historically recognizable social structures and settings marks the Legendary/Historical Period. During this period sacred power remains active in places and things but its personal agents have removed themselves, leaving only ritual heroes and shamans as mediating agents. The heroes of the Legendary Period are the first men and women to avail themselves of these powers. The Legendary merges with the Historical as the sacred power quest pattern of legendary heroes becomes impressed upon the adventures of the secular hero. With the Historical Period, concern is turned away from acquiring wholly new forms of spiritual power to maintaining conventional channels.

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