Academic journal article Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute

Artistry in Native American Myths

Academic journal article Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute

Artistry in Native American Myths

Article excerpt

KROEBER, KARL. Artistry in Native American myths. xii, 292 PP. Lincoln, NE, London: Univ. of Nebraska Press, 1998

For many years, American folkiorists were divided into two warring camps - the humanists, who approached myths, tales and legends as oral literature, and the anthropologists, who treated oral traditions as reflections of the cultures that produced them. Despite efforts to reconcile these approaches, conflict persisted from the late nineteenth century to the 1970s when some anthropologists, the 'young Turks', introduced 'performance theory'. This new approach is essentially anthropological in that it continues to stress context and de-emphasize text. The added emphasis is on the artistry of the narrator at the moment of creation and reading past culture through the mythic present. According to one folklorist, the thrust of performance theory is on meaning in a specific context in a specific culture. Comparative and historical studies are replaced by 'descriptions of folklore performances in their setting'.

Kroeber emphatically identifies himself with performance theorists in this fascinating but exasperating collection of short North American Indian myths. The reader is told that the myths are built 'upon unfamiliar kinds of logic' and that they 'arise out of and sustain oral cultures, the experience of which is alien to our print-dominated society'.

The book is divided into five sections, each containing several myths followed by the author's comments and analysis. There is, for example, a selection of seven trickster-transformer myths from as many different tribes and a selection of myths about bears. Four Yurok myths recounting the origin of 'blood money are used to illustrate how the personalities of individual narrators account for differing versions of the same myth within a single culture. …

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