Lecture 2:
American Indian Literature

Native American literature is oral and communal in origin. Before Native Americans began writing in English or other European languages, the concept of a single author was incomprehensible. Native American storytellers recited stories, and also improved upon the details or revised them to fit current needs or situations, before passing them on to the next generation, which did the same. The outcome of the story was already known to the audience, and the audience's response was as important to the story as the storyteller's. Thus, each story originates with the community as a whole, and each retelling reinforces the values of the community.

Remember as you read these stories that the literature is originally oral, rather than written. That gives it a different style, rhythm, and purpose than written works. Also, remember that you are reading translations, and thus the natural rhythms, as well as any rhyme or wordplay, are lost. And last but surely not least, remember that these tales resonate as deeply with the people raised with them as any of the religious tales with which you might have been raised. These tales form the basis of their beliefs and values, and, just as religious tales from any culture, help to make sense of the world in which we all live.

In these stories can be found a worldview which is at odds with European views. The European vision of life is based on opposites and on linear thinking and perceptions of time and reality: man is separate from nature and superior to it; thus, individuals are separate from others; this places a heavy emphasis on individualism. Time can be measured and events can be assigned specific beginning and ending dates; the past is separate from the present and future. Events are caused by other events; sometimes the causes aren't known, but it is assumed that, with enough knowledge, they can eventually be known and explained rationally.

The Native American worldview, by contrast, is based on the concepts of unity and cycles. It places an emphasis upon the totality of existence: humans are equal to all other elements and creatures, superior to none. Life and events move in cycles which repeat themselves in one form or another; the ending and the beginning run together. Not everything in the universe can be explained; sometimes events are random, and not everything has a cause-and-effect explanation.

Obviously, trying to explain the basic assumptions of European and Native American cultures in two paragraphs will lead to oversimplifications and overgeneralizations; but even such a brief summary will reveal some of the fundamental conflicts between the two cultures' ways of perceiving the world, and may also help to explain why they had such different ways of living in it.

NOTE: You will all be choosing different stories from different cultures to read for this assignment, so I haven't included specific information on any particular culture. It would probably make your reading more interesting, however, if you do some research into the culture(s) whose tales you choose to read. Each culture's tales are influenced, as you can see, by the environment in which they lived, and the stories will make more sense if you know the background from which they come, and the purpose they are meant to serve.

For more information on this topic, go to the Links page.

--The mural on this page is called "Rural Highway." It's the mural painted for the Middleport, N.Y. Post Office by Marianne Appel in 1941. More information about this mural can be found at Western New York Heritage Press.

--During the Depression in the 1930s and early 1940s, the U.S. government commissioned a number of murals for post offices across the United States. Many of these were quite amazing. To read more about them, CLICK HERE.