Native American literature begins with the oral tradition. Creation myths, trickster stories, use of symbols, and rituals of healing will be some of the sub-topics derived from short readings from diverse voices of Indian storytellers and writers. Native writers write out of tribal traditions, and into them. They, like oral storytellers. work within a literary tradition that is at base connected to ritual and beyond that to tribal metaphysics or mysticism. What has been experienced over the ages mystically and communally -- with individual experiences fitting within that overarching pattern -- form the basis for tribal aesthetics and therefore of tribal literatures.
The rules that define Native literatures are found in canonical Native works such as the Navajo chantways or the sacred texts of the Iroquois, Cherokee, Keres, or Maidu. Each tribe has its canonical works, and it is on the tradition of her own Indian nation that the writer draws. There are some divergences from tribal narrative modes because present day Native cultures and consciousness include Western cultural elements and structures. Assuming they do not seriously dislocate the tradition in which they are embedded, this inclusion makes them vital. If they are really good, they are as vital as the oral tradition, which also informs and reflects contemporary Indian life. The Native literary tradition is dynamic. It pertains to the daily life of the people, as that life reflects the spiritual traditions within their collective life and significance (Allen).
The Way to Rainy Mountain by N. Scott Momaday, Pulitzer Prize winning author, is said to be the Native American work most committed to the all-encompassing voice of lyric or epic, romantic or modernist art-speech. The Way to Rainy Mountain offers three different voices in its tripartite arrangement of its materials into a legend or story, a historical anecdote or observation, and a personal reminiscence (Krupat).
Mabel McKay: Weaving the Dream by Greg Sarris dramatizes the transformation of oral into written language as well as the concept of collective narration. We can also consider the topic of Native American autobiography, the relationship between the voices of biculturalism, and the creation of the self through stories. In Native American autobiography the self most typically is not constituted by the achievement of a distinctive, special voice that separates it from others, but, rather, by the achievement of a particular placement in relation to the many voices without which it could not exist. As the textual representation the autobiography comprises an encounter between two persons or three, if we include the frequent presence of an interpreter or translator.
Carter Revard, in "Walking Among the Stars" (in Tell You Now: Autobiographical Essays by Native American Writers), opens with a story to place himself within a cultural heritage and to establish the oral tradition of story telling. He opens windows to the past and doors to the future for the reader with a juxtaposition of linguistic devices: the manner of gossip; a lying/laying debate in the voice of an English grammar teacher; the tone of an anthropologist or a funny Native American; the voice of the historical scholar or satirist. He writes a stream-of-consciousness imitation of Proust and simultaneously undermines cultural authority in one paragraph when he finds the wasp in the spider's web in the outhouse more interesting than Proust.
Language helps create the self, rejects the old order, transforms it into the new, invokes the old gods, kills the old heroes, revises history. A bicultural narrator can do this. Carter Revard with his fluency in European culture and his understanding of Osage ceremony can bring the outsider in, if he wishes. Revard's is but one example of an autobiography built on diverse internal and external voices. Educated in the Western literary t4adition and rooted in the oral tradition of story telling, he blesses his dual heritage, bilingualism, biculturalism. By moving creatively from the linguistic world of the Euroamerican tradition to the world of Native American poetry, he demonstrates that "it is only an illusion that the worlds are separate . . . the webbed connections between us are all translucent yet apparent."
Techniques of polyphonic storytelling can be found in autobiography and in Leslie Marmon Silko's book Storyteller. Silko dedicates her book "to the storytellers as far back as memory goes and to the telling which continues and through which they all live and we with them." Having called herself a storyteller, she thus places herself in a tradition of tellings, suggesting what will be the case, that the stories to follow, Silko's "own" stories, cannot strictly be her own. There is no single, distinctive, or authoritative voice in Silko's book nor any striving for such a voice (or style); to the contrary Silko will take pains to indicate how even her own individual speech is the product of many voices. Storyteller is presented as a strongly polyphonic text in which the author defines herself -- finds her voice, tells her life, illustrates the capacities of her vocation -- in relation to the voices of other storytellers Native and non-Native and even to the voices of those who serve as the audience for these stories. The voice of the storyteller in Native American tradition creates the self within community.
Native novels, whether traditional or "modern," operate in accordance with aesthetic assumptions and employ narrative structures that differ from Western ones. The ideal Western hero, a single individual, engages in conflict, bringing it to crisis, and resolving that crisis in such a way that individualistic values are affirmed. This classic fictional structure informs most of American culture, not only in its refined and popular aesthetic forms, but in most of its institutions as well.
But the Indian ethos is neither individualistic nor conflict-centered, and the unifying structures that make the oral tradition coherent are based on common understanding expressed in the ritual tradition that members of a tribal unit share. The horrors that visit an Indian who attempts isolate individuality have been lovingly depicted in the works of E. Pauline Johnson (Moccasin Maker), Mourning Dove (Cogewea, the Half-Blood), N. Scott Momaday (House Made of Dawn), D'Arcy McNickle (The Surrounded), Leslie Marmon Silko (Ceremony), and James Welch (Winter in the Blood and The Death of Jim Loney). This concentration on the negative effect of individuality forms a major theme in the oral literatures of all tribes.
For a perceptive analysis of the topic of humor, see Kenneth Lincoln's book, Indi'n Humor. Citing Vine Deloria, Jr., "One of the best ways to understand a people is to know what makes them laugh," he analyzes the myth of the trickster, the healing power of laughter, the comic element of pain, gods, animals, and other native voices that are unique. The trickster is a dominant figure of Native American mythology and art. Sometimes the trickster is a coyote, sometimes a spider, sometimes an undefined being. He is a slippery character, an ambiguous shapeshifter loaded with natural and sexual energy. Not only does the trickster defy the flesh-and-blood boundaries of animal identity, he also refuses to fit into the mental categories we use to understand the world. Trickster tales are often built upon layers of tricks. In the stories, the figure playing the trick and the figure being tricked merge together. Through the idea of the trick, the trickster breaks down the distinctions between "self" and "other," between "us" and "them." Through the experience of the story itself, listener and teller become each other while still retaining their differences (Philip J. Deloria).
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