Native Americans presented peculiar difficulties to Europeans
since the white people's first arrival about the turn of the
sixteenth century. They proved to be an obstacle to colonization.
Their religious beliefs created a lot of tension and friction for
Christians. There were clear frictions in ideas about proper
behavior. Europeans ended up partly by chance and partly by
intention perpetrating a great holocaust that amounted to
genocide that lasted for 500 years and has only abated - not
entirely ended - in the past 50 years or so.
I think it would be possible, with more comprehensive reading
and study than I have done, to show that the history of
Euro-Americans' attitude toward and treatment of Native
American literature provides a sort of allegory of the history of
post-Euro Indians. The reason I say this is that you can see the
difficulties we have with Indian culture in the difficulties we
have with their literature. Indian literature poses special,
interesting and aggravating problems for Euro-trained readers.
In her book American Indian Literatures, A. LaVonne Brown
Ruoff divides Native American literature into three categories:
Oral Literature; Life History and Autobiography; and Written
Literature, which she says essentially began in the eighteenth
century. Since Native North Americans for all intents and
purposes had no writing system (with the exception of the
Cherokee, who devised a writing system in the nineteenth
century, and the Mayans), you could modify Ruoff's categories a
little bit and say there's an oral literature and a written literature.
The written literature consists at first mainly of nonfiction prose,
and then as the twentieth century unfolds, becomes really just a
genre of conventional Western fiction, poetry and autobiography.
(Native American writings of course have qualities, concerns,
themes and approaches unique to them, but that's a topic for a
different talk.) This written literature is the literature of the
Westernized Native Americans. It speaks partly with a Native
American voice, but it's mainly in English, after all, which is a
major reason it takes form in genres conventional to
For the purists interested in the "real" Native American
literature, then, the texts of most interest are from the oral
literature. In the slightly modified categories, you can say there
are four kinds of Native American oral literature: Narratives;
Songs; Ritual Dramas that include chants, ceremonies and rituals;
and Oratory. Native Americans were great speechmakers, as
many accounts including Ben Franklin's wry piece, mention,
because their political systems by and large depended on the
persuasive powers of their members in groups, and their moral
and ethical systems vital to their survival were handed down
through storytelling by elders. These remarks vastly
oversimplify the complexities within very diverse cultures, but
they're probably generally accurate.
The Whole of Native American
By Dana Wilde
The fact of the literature being oral presents major problems for
Western readers. The most obvious and important is pointed out
by Dennis Tedlock: In an oral presentation, there is no text. Or,
let me rephrase this because the problem is already with us when
I say it like this. In an oral presentation, there is no text as we
conventionally expect it to exist.
In other words, we Western readers understand a text to be a
fixed, written work that we can study in its details like an
unchanging object of nature. "What does the author really mean?"
we might ask, and then carefully pore over each word and piece
of punctuation, teasing out meanings like careful scientists. Even
when we deal with oral literatures, we like to get a transcription
of a presentation and go from there, because the transcription
provides us with that fixed text we can dissect like a cadaver.
But Tedlock observes that in Native American oral traditions
(as, probably, in all oral traditions), the oral telling of a story is
the text. I.e., the text is not a written, fixed work. The text is, as it
were, on the air, and melts into the cosmos out of our sensory
range as soon as it is spoken. How can we study this? Tedlock
says that the problem with a transcription is that it cannot
represent the gestures and vocal inflections that are inseparable
from the recitation in an oral presentation. Gesture, facial
expression, tone, rhythm, breaks from the story, even audience
participation are all part of the story being told. Tedlock coheres
all this by saying that the oral presentation is both the text and
the interpretation of the text rolled into one. No two
interpretations will be exactly the same, even by the same
storyteller. And so the text, while having a general form - as in a
story having the same general plot, characters and setting - is
subject every time to interpretation offered by the storyteller.
So this would be true in narratives especially, and also in songs
and oratory (which in most Native American contexts would not
be likely to be repeated anyway because the context of the oration
would always be different), and even in ritual dramas, which in
many cases call for very precise observance of formulas and
repetitions of movement, precise kinds of order that are expected
in the spirit world, but whose oral "texts" may vary according to
the needs of the situation or reason for the ritual. Conventional
Western literary ideas of "text" cannot accommodate this unfixed
This is a way of saying that as far as conventional literary
criticism is concerned, in the oral Native American tradition,
there is no text.
Tedlock, of course, alerts us to the fact that there is indeed a text,
but it's just not what we expect or want it to be.
Over the last five centuries, Native Americans s have of
necessity warped their cultures and lifeways into Euro-American
lifeways. I think there is little doubt they could have survived at
all without doing so. Their literatures are emblematic of the
warping, and by the end of the twentieth century, some very good
Native American writers have emerged working in conventional
Euro-American forms. Leslie Silko, Gerald Vizenor and James
Welch have written excellent novels of Native American life.
Editors like Joseph Bruchac have retold Native American tales as
well-wrought children's stories, Joy Harjo and Scott Momaday