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Native American Oral Tradition: Heritage and Literary Influence

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  • 0:05 Life in Early America
  • 1:01 Native American Stories
  • 2:38 Major Themes
  • 4:50 Influence on American…
  • 5:56 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Natalie Boyd

Natalie is a teacher and holds an MA in English Education and is in progress on her PhD in psychology.

Native American nations have a rich oral tradition of storytelling. In this lesson, we'll explore the heritage and themes of American Indian stories and look at how they influenced later American literature.

Life in Early America

Thousands of years ago, people migrated to what is now North America. These people came in several groups and split into many other groups until hundreds of Native American nations had spread across the continent.

Until the end of the 15th century, American Indians were the only people in North America. But in the 16th and 17th centuries, a large influx of European explorers settled in what is today America, bringing with them all sorts of problems for the Native Americans. European diseases and weapons resulted in mass deaths, and the European people often treated American Indians horribly, taking their land and abusing or killing them.

Before the Europeans arrived, though, life had its own type of difficulties. Wars between Indian nations caused pain and death. Droughts, floods, and other natural disasters ruined food stocks. Disease and animal attacks also contributed to the harsh reality of life many years ago.

Native American Stories

Like many other cultures, Native Americans made sense of their world through storytelling. Events that seemed random, like natural disasters, could be explained in terms of the Great Spirit and how he was displeased with the actions of men.

There are hundreds of American Indian nations, all with their own language and culture. However, one thing that they share in common is a rich oral tradition. That is, they have stories passed down from generation to generation through spoken language. The stories passed down through the oral tradition of Native Americans are ways of recording the history, culture, and beliefs of each nation. And, the environment and problems facing each nation also affected the stories the tribe told.

For example, a famous story from the Iroquois tribe of what is today New York tells of how Owl got his wisdom and strange looks by angering the Everything-Maker as he worked to create all the animals. As a result of his run-in with the Everything-Maker, Owl got his wish for wisdom, but the price was all of the beautiful physical features that he wanted. In addition, because the Everything-Maker was angry at Owl, Owl hid and only came out at night when the Everything-Maker was fast asleep.

Notice how this story explains the funny looks of owls, as well as why they are nocturnal creatures. The Iroquois lived in the woods in what is today the Northeast United States, so it makes sense that they would have a story about owls.

But, imagine the Hopi Indians, who lived in the desert of the Southwest. The Hopi might have encountered owls in the desert, but they are much less plentiful in that area of the United States than they are in the area where the Iroquois lived. As a result, they are less likely to have a story about owls.

Major Themes

Despite the vast differences in Native American stories, there are some general themes that are common to the stories. A very common theme in American Indian stories is the link between the land and people. This is not surprising since most Native American traditions hold a reverence for the land. But, it goes beyond that. Many Native American stories make it clear that humans come from the land and return to the land. As a result, both tribal and individual identity is often associated with the land. Stories of how people are born or die, as well as stories of how people come of age, often have a strong natural element.

Another common theme seen in Native American stories is that of a hero's journey. This journey is sometimes literal, as when a young warrior rides off to fight a hostile nation, or metaphorical, as when a person or animal (like the owl) learn a lesson that sets their life off on a new course. Things like initiation rites and coming of age are often seen in stories about a hero's journey.

For example, the Algonquin nation have a story about a village that is besieged by a drought. The villagers send one of their men up the river to find out where all the water went. He comes across a horrible water monster and asks the creator God Glooskap to help. Glooskap comes and fights the water monster, eventually cutting its stomach open. From the monster's stomach, a great river flows forth, offering water and sustenance to the village once again.

Finally, many stories from American Indian nations explain the natural and supernatural world. As with the story of the owl, many stories explain why nature is the way it is and utilize animal characters. Some stories also deal with supernatural forces, such as stories about how the world was created. Often, the natural and supernatural worlds are linked together.

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