Yuchi Folklore: Cultural Expression in a Southeastern Native American Community

By O'Neill, Sean Patrick | Western Folklore, Winter 2015 | Go to article overview

Yuchi Folklore: Cultural Expression in a Southeastern Native American Community


O'Neill, Sean Patrick, Western Folklore


Yuchi Folklore: Cultural Expression in a Southeastern Native American Community. By Jason Baird Jackson with contributions by Mary S. Linn. (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2013. Pp. 207 + xxiv, illustrations, acknowledgements, introduction, notes on usage, afterword, notes, references, index. $24.95 paper.)

In this significant new collection, Jason Jackson offers up eleven of his finest essays on the folklore and expressive culture of the Yuchi, written in an approachable fashion that will appeal to seasoned scholars and the general public alike. Based on long-term fieldwork and composed over the past twenty years, the book offers a compelling look at the folk-life of one of the lesser-known tribes in the United States, whose language is unrelated to any other on the planet. As such, the Yuchi retain a unique memory of an ancient wave of culture that once swept the Eastern Woodlands, the region the Yuchi inhabited before relocation to present-day Oklahoma, where they now represent a small but significant enclave among their Creek neighbors. This minority-within-a-minority status has forced the Yuchi into a position of societal multilingualism for generations. With so many external influences acting upon their culture over the past several centuries, the Yuchi have developed a unique and fascinating folk tradition, which is the focus of this book.

The first chapter offers a broad overview ofYuchi culture, grounding the work in an inclusive conception of folklore that encompasses everything from foodways and technology to architecture, ceremony, and the verbal arts. Those who are not familiar with the Yuchi may wish to consult this chapter as a resource of first resort, especially since Jackson is careful to situate his portrayal of traditional culture alongside a discussion of recent developments, granting the sketch historical depth. Before moving into the main body of the work, Jackson engages in a self-described "literary experiment" (31-43), which transports the reader into the field on an imaginary voyage, with the ceremonial life of the Yuchi passing before the reader's eyes, vividly portrayed in a short narrative. In this break from the standard discursive mode of folkloric analysis, which often focuses on secondhand, reported speech, Jackson avoids the common pitfall of overly objectifying his subject matter, instead portraying the community in terms of living social interactions as they unfold in the field.

Oral expressive culture takes center stage in Chapters 3 through 5, which Jackson explores through the lens of the Yuchi language with its unique traditions of trickster tales, ceremonial speeches, and even gender roles. In two chapters of this section, Jackson draws on the expertise of his collaborator, Dr. Mary Linn, an expert on the Yuchi language and its oral traditions. The concept of voice makes an appearance in Chapter 3, as Jackson and Linn examine the structures of Yuchi trickster tales, where the tellers frequently alternate between their own perspectives and those of their elders, even those of the opposite sex. The stories are often told in Yuchi first then translated into English before the audience, but one feature that is lost in translation to English is the regular tracking of Yuchi versus non-Yuchi status in these stories, a salient marker of identity that, curiously, even applies to non-human animal characters. It is this play of perspective that makes the stories so lively in the multilingual consciousness of Yuchi storytellers, who regularly pass between languages. In another examination of voice, Chapter 4 takes on questions of authorship regarding oratories delivered before a dance. Given that gifted oratory specialists deliver speeches on behalf of chiefs, a similar play of perspective unfolds in these dance call performances, where a mastery of Yuchi is critical to the sense of identity even if the meaning is opaque to the many non-speakers in the community. …

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