Native American Folklore

Native American folklore is the body of traditional oral narrative works that express the history, religion and culture of any one of the different groups of indigenous peoples of North and South America. The oral tradition of Native American culture has enabled the passage of prayers, historical events, communal values and cultural practices to be preserved from one generation to the next.

In the Native American worldview, language is a living being. Spiritual energy can be exchanged with each breath and the formation of the spoken word is included in this process. Therefore the oral tradition in Native American culture is not just the act of speaking and listening, but a process in which the history, culture, language and values are kept, literally, alive. The words of the native culture re-affirm their survival and existence and the vibrations of the spoken word are capable of forming action and reaction. In essence, the language is seen as way of creating the world.

Native American folklore and literature, as in all cultures, is an expression of the values of the society. In Native American beliefs, there is an intimate connection between the physical and the spiritual world. All things, animate and inanimate, possess a spirit. This belief colors native folklore with its symbolism and metaphorical allusions, not as a stylistic device, but as spiritual energy. Symbolism is seen as a part of nature, and as a part of the people; it is an attempt to meld mind and heart. According to Native American writer Joseph Rael (Picuris Pueblo),the author of the Ceremonies of the Living Spirit, "Metaphor is how God is present in our lives."

In the book American Indian Myths and Legends a collection of 21 creation legends are re-told from different indigenous nations across North America. A common theme throughout is the metaphor of Mother Earth and Father Sky and the assembly of parts to make the whole. For example, the Dine Song of the Earth begins with the meeting of Mother Earth and Father Sky, seen as helpmates, even though opposites in nature. It includes references to the sacred mountains of the East, South, West and North (Sisnajinni, Tsodsichl, Doko-oslid and Depenitsa, respectively) as well as the God of Sunrise (Hastyeyalti) and the God of Sunset (Hastyehogan). There is harmony amongst these components of nature even though they seem diametrically opposed to each other; each component is essential to the ‘happiness-of-all-things.'

There are a few contrasts that can be drawn between Native American and Judeo-Christian creationism. In the Judeo-Christian account it is related that man was ‘created in God's image.' In Native American accounts, the belief is related that all entities are living and contain a divine essence. For the native culture, God is present in the land, the sky and even the seasons and the weather. Another contrast that can be made is the dualistic use of ‘day versus night' in the story of creation as related in Genesis. For Native Americans this imagery strikes as ‘simplistic' underscoring a rudimentary, dichotomous, black-and-white world view. In Native American folklore, opposites are not emphasized for their opposition but for working in unison.

The oral discourse of the Native American is vastly spread over numerous nations that make up the culture, but frequently revolves around the dual themes of infinity and perpetuity. Speeches center on eternal truths and stress the need for coexistence with nature rather than domination of it. Creation is a continuous process; therefore, nature is alive, inconstant and infinite in its own way. Life is considered a circle with every beginning an end and every end a new beginning.

Traditionally, as a part of the discussion about Native American folklore and the power of the spoken word, it is also interesting to note perspectives on silence and listening. Native American tradition points to silence as a necessary activity to center oneself with nature. A foolish person may be likened to a bird that makes noise incessantly. A quiet person is valued as the most effective spokesperson for the community. In a verbal confrontation, silence is the best weapon.

Additionally, part of the folklore tradition must not only value speech, but in some part, value listening as well. Listening is also seen as the activity of the wise, as in the story and song of the wren, in which the priest concludes that every person "can be happy, even the most insignificant can have his song of thanks." Listening is an active and receptive state that shows respect and honor and participation in what the speaker is relating.

Selected full-text books and articles on this topic

The Anguish of Snails: Native American Folklore in the West
Barre Toelken.
Utah State University Press, 2003
The Native American Oral Tradition: Voices of the Spirit and Soul
Lois J. Einhorn.
Praeger, 2000
Indian Story and Song from North America
Alice C. Fletcher.
University of Nebraska Press, 1995
Myths and Legends of the Pacific Northwest
Katharine Berry Judson.
University of Nebraska Press, 1997
Myths and Tales of the Southeastern Indians
John R. Swanton.
United States Government Printing Office, 1929
Blackfoot Lodge Tales: The Story of a Prairie People
George Bird Grinnell.
University of Nebraska Press, 1962
Shoshone Tales
Anne M. Smith; Alden Hayes.
University of Utah Press, 1993
Hopi Coyote Tales: Istutuwutsi
Ekkehart Malotki; Michael Lomatuway'ma; Anne-Marie Malotki.
University of Nebraska Press, 1984
Turkey Brother, and Other Tales: Iroquois Folk Stories
Joseph Bruchac; Kahonhes.
Crossing Press, 1975
Myths and Tales of the Chiricahua Apache Indians
Morris Edward Opler; David French.
University of Nebraska Press, 1994
Seneca Myths and Folk Tales
Arthur C. Parker.
University of Nebraska Press, 1989
Wigwam Evenings: Sioux Folk Tales Retold
Charles A. Eastman; Elaine Goodale Eastman; Edwin Willard Deming.
University of Nebraska (Lincoln campus), 1990
Pawnee Hero Stories and Folk-Tales: With Notes on the Origin, Customs, and Character of the Pawnee People
George Bird Grinnell.
University of Nebraska Press, 1961
Indian Why Stories: Sparks from War Eagle's Lodge-Fire
Frank B. Linderman; Charles M. Russell.
Blue Ribbon Books, 1995
Native American Folklore in Nineteenth-Century Periodicals
William M. Clements.
Swallow Press, 1986
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