Native American Oral Literatures

Timothy Powell

in American Literature

ISBN: 9780199827251
Published online August 2012 | | DOI:
Native American Oral Literatures

Show Summary Details


The oral traditions of Native Americans, Native Alaskans, and First Nations in Canada provide a wealth of insights about the history of literature on the North American continent. Regrettably, however, these traditions are often overlooked by scholars and students of American literature. “Native American oral literatures” is defined here in a fullness that transcends disciplinary boundaries, such that the article will be valuable to the fields of Native American studies, American literature, anthropology, history, religious studies, and folklore, as well as appeal to nonacademics who simply enjoy the art of storytelling. Because there presently are more than five hundred Native American tribes in the United States alone, it is impossible to encompass the geographic and cultural scope of the subject. The temporal scope of the subject is equally daunting, ranging from at least 2000 bce to the present. The formal borders of the field are similarly vast and included oral performances, videos of storytellers, films, novels, short stories, poems, ethnographies, dances, songs, graphic novels, cartoons, and various forms of material culture. What follows, then, is a suggestive rather than definitive bibliography that ranges from the Arctic to Mesoamerica, from oral narratives about rock art to Pulitzer Prize–winning novels. Because Native American oral literatures are extremely difficult to date according to the chronological scale of Western history, a more indigenous form of temporality is evoked. Rather than imagining a linear timeline, perhaps a better way to think of time in this context is as a dance that circles around, bringing very old stories to life so that they can be adapted to an ever-changing present. The temporal depth of the stories is such that they recount a time when animals could still talk to humans, when the Hero Twins walked the Earth, and when tricksters like Coyote had their way. As the tricksters teach us, it is best to remain skeptical of eternal truths and to consider carefully the unexpected. Thus, the term “oral literatures” should be seen as a purposefully elusive term that can be written down but is always more fluid than black marks on the white page.

Article.  11334 words. 

Subjects: Literary Studies (American)

Full text: subscription required

How to subscribe Recommend to my Librarian

Buy this work at Oxford University Press »

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content. Please, subscribe or login to access all content.