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.
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.
For example, the Comanche nation's creation story involves the Great Spirit creating man from earth. However, he also creates a shape-shifting demon. The demon torments the Comanche people, so the Great Spirit casts the demon into a bottomless pit. But the demon, determined to get revenge, took refuge in the fangs and stingers of poisonous animals so that it could continue to torment the people.
Influence on American Literature
The Last of the Mohicans by James Fenimore Cooper
James Fenimore Cooper's famous novel The Last of the Mohicans is still read widely today. It was influenced by Native American culture and storytelling. He used elements of American Indian stories in his novels, including the theme of the power of nature and the link man has to it.
Another early American writer, Washington Irving, was influenced by Native American stories of supernatural forces. In famous stories, like 'The Legend of Sleepy Hollow' and 'Rip Van Winkle,' he combined American Indian stories with those of Dutch and German stories to create unique stories about the supernatural world barging in on the natural world. Later American writers like Mark Twain, Emily Dickinson, Henry David Thoreau, and Herman Melville were all influenced by Native American literature.
There are hundreds of American Indian nations across North America. They have a rich oral tradition of storytelling that helped them make sense of the hardships of everyday life. Though each nation has its own stories, several themes that are common across the tribes are the link between the land and the people, a hero's journey, and the supernatural and natural worlds. American Indian stories influenced and helped shape later American literature.
Following the completion of this lesson, you may be able to:
- Provide a background on the oral tradition of Native American storytelling
- Write about common themes in Native American storytelling
- List authors of famous works who were inspired by Native American storytelling
- Analyze the impact that these authors' stories had on American literature