The Sun Still Rises in the Same Sky
Few peoples have been as appreciated and, at the same time, as misrepresented as the many different cultures today called “American Indian” or “Native American.” Images of “Indians” are central to mainstream America, from Longfellow’s misnamed epic poem The Song of Hiawatha (which actually tells the story of the Chippewa hero Manabozho, not the Iroquois Hiawatha) to the “cowboys and Indians” tradition of movies about the Old West. Yet it’s only recently that the authentic literary voices of Native Americans have received serious attention. Native American literature has been a living oral tradition, but it was never treated with the same respect as European, or Western, literature. But Western literature itself has its roots firmly planted in the oral tradition—such ancient classics as the Odyssey and Beowulf, long before they were written down, were stories kept alive by word of mouth. The vast body of American Indian oral literature, encompassing dozens of epic narratives and countless thousands of stories, poems, songs, oratory, and chants, was not even recognized by Western scholars until the late 1800s. Until then, it was assumed that Native Americans had no literature.
Part of the problem scholars had in recognizing the rich traditions of American Indian literature was translating the texts from hundreds of different languages—a task often best done by Native Americans themselves. Over the decades, various American Indian writers—N. Scott Momaday, Louise Erdrich, Simon J. Ortiz, and Leslie Marmon Silko, among others—have revitalized Native American literature by combining their fluency in English with a deep understanding of their own languages and traditions.
We can make some important generalizations about American Indian oral traditions. First of all, Native American cultures use stories to teach moral lessons and convey practical information about the natural world. A story from the Abenaki people of Maine, for example, tells how Gluskabe catches all of the game animals. He is then told by his grandmother to return the animals to the woods. They will die if they are kept in his bag, she tells him, and if they do die, there will be no game left for the people to come. In this one brief tale, important, life-sustaining lessons about greed, the wisdom of elders, and game management are conveyed in an entertaining and engaging way.
American Indian literature also reflects a view of the natural world that is more inclusive than the one typically seen in Western literature. The Native American universe is not dominated by human beings. Animals and humans are often interchangeable in myths and folk tales. Origin myths may even feature animals as the instruments of creation.
All American Indian cultures also show a keen awareness of the power of metaphor. Words are as powerful and alive as the human breath that carries them. Songs and chants can make things happen—call game animals, bring rain, cure the sick, or destroy an enemy. For Native Americans, speech, or oratory—often relying on striking similes drawn from nature—is a highly developed and respected literary form.
Passed on from generation to generation, oral traditions preserve historical continuity. But these traditions are also, like the Native American peoples themselves, tenacious, dynamic, and responsive to change. The American Indian worldview is not that of a progressive straight line, but of an endless circle. This cyclical nature of existence is reflected both in the natural world itself, with its changing seasons and cycles of birth, death, and rebirth, and in Native American ceremonies repeated year after year. Each summer, for example, the Lakota people have their Sun Dance. In pre-Columbian times, they went to the Sun Dance on foot; after the coming of the Spanish, they rode horses to the annual event. Today, the Lakota arrive by automobile. While a European eye might see the technology of transport as the important point of this anecdote, to a Lakota the issue of changing transportation is unimportant. It is, after all, only a different way of getting to the same place. The sun still rises in the same sky.
The Sky Tree
as retold by Joseph Bruchac
In the beginning, Earth was covered with water. In Sky Land, there were people living as they do now on Earth. In the middle of that land was the great Sky Tree. All of the food which the people in that Sky Land ate came from the great tree.
The old chief of that land lived with his wife, whose name was Aataentsic, meaning “Ancient Woman,” in their long house near the great tree. It came to be that the old chief became sick, and nothing could cure him. He grew weaker and weaker until it seemed he would die. Then a dream came to him, and he called Aataentsic to him.
“I have dreamed,” he said, “and in my dream I saw how I can be healed. I must be given the fruit which grows at the very top of Sky Tree. You must cut it down and bring that fruit to me.”
Aataentsic took her husband’s stone ax and went to the great tree. As soon as she struck it, it split in half and toppled over. As it fell, a hole opened in Sky Land, and the tree fell through the hole. Aataentsic returned to the place where the old chief waited.
“My husband,” she said, “when I cut the tree, it split in half and then fell through a great hole. Without the tree, there can be no life. I must follow it.”
Then, leaving her husband, she went back to the hole in Sky Land and threw herself after the great tree.
As Aataentsic fell, Turtle looked up and saw her. Immediately Turtle called together all the water animals and told them what she had seen.
“What should be done?” Turtle said.
Beaver answered her. “You are the one who saw this happen. Tell us what to do.”
“All of you must dive down,” Turtle said. “Bring up soil from the bottom, and place it on my back.”
Immediately all of the water animals began to dive down and bring up soil. Beaver, Mink, Muskrat, and Otter each brought up pawfuls of wet soil and placed the soil on Turtle’s back until they had made an island of great size. When they were through, Aataentsic settled down gently on the new Earth, and the pieces of the great tree fell beside her and took root.
The Earth Only
composed by Used-As-A-Shield, translated 1918
wica’ yaka pelo’
|The old men
You are right.
from The House Made of Dawn
from the Navajo tradition, translated by Washington Matthews
In the house made of dawn,
In the house made of evening twilight,
In the house made of dark cloud,
In the house made of male rain,
In the house made of dark mist,
In the house made of female rain,
In the house made of pollen,
In the house made of grasshoppers,
Where the dark mist curtains the doorway,
The path to which is on the rainbow,
Where the zigzag lightning stands on top,
Where the he-rain stands high on top,
Oh, male divinity!
With your moccasins of dark cloud, come to us. . . .
I have made your sacrifice.
I have prepared a smoke for you.
My feet restore for me.
My limbs restore for me.
My body restore for me.
My mind restore for me.
My voice restore for me. . . .
Happily I recover.
Happily my interior grows cool.
Happily my limbs regain their power.
Happily my head becomes cool.
Happily I hear again.
Happily I walk.
Impervious to pain, I walk.
Feeling light within, I walk.
With lively feelings, I walk. . . .
Coyote Finishes His Work
from the Nez Percé tradition, retold by Barry Lopez
From the very beginning, Coyote was traveling around all over the earth. He did many wonderful things when he went along. He killed the monsters and the evil spirits that preyed on the people. He made the Indians, and put them out in tribes all over the world because Old Man Above wanted the earth to be inhabited all over, not just in one or two places.
He gave all the people different names and taught them different languages. This is why Indians live all over the country now and speak in different ways.
He taught the people how to eat and how to hunt the buffalo and catch eagles. He taught them what roots to eat and how to make a good lodge and what to wear. He taught them how to dance. Sometimes he made mistakes, and even though he was wise and powerful, he did many foolish things. But that was his way.
Coyote liked to play tricks. He thought about himself all the time, and told everyone he was a great warrior, but he was not. Sometimes he would go too far with some trick and get someone killed. Other times, he would have a trick played on himself by someone else. He got killed this way so many times that Fox and the birds got tired of bringing him back to life. Another way he got in trouble was trying to do what someone else did. This is how he came to be called Imitator.
Coyote was ugly too. The girls did not like him. But he was smart. He could change himself around and trick the women. Coyote got the girls when he wanted.
One time, Coyote had done everything he could think of and was traveling from one place to another place, looking for other things that needed to be done. Old Man saw him going along and said to himself, “Coyote has now done almost everything he is capable of doing. His work is almost done. It is time to bring him back to the place where he started.”
So Great Spirit came down and traveled in the shape of an old man. He met Coyote. Coyote said, “I am Coyote. Who are you?”
Old Man said, “I am Chief of the earth. It was I who sent you to set the world right.”
“No,” Coyote said, “you never sent me. I don’t know you. If you are the Chief, take that lake over there and move it to the side of that mountain.”
“No. If you are Coyote, let me see you do it.”
Coyote did it.
“Now, move it back.”
Coyote tried, but he could not do it. He thought this was strange. He tried again, but he could not do it.
Chief moved the lake back.
Coyote said, “Now I know you are the Chief.”
Old Man said, “Your work is finished, Coyote. You have traveled far and done much good. Now you will go to where I have prepared a home for you.”
Then Coyote disappeared. Now no one knows where he is anymore.
Old Man got ready to leave, too. He said to the Indians, “I will send messages to the earth by the spirits of the people who reach me but whose time to die has not yet come. They will carry messages to you from time to time. When their spirits come back into their bodies, they will revive and tell you their experiences.
“Coyote and myself, we will not be seen again until Earthwoman is very old. Then we shall return to earth, for it will require a change by that time. Coyote will come along first, and when you see him you will know I am coming. When I come along, all the spirits of the dead will be with me. There will be no more Other Side Camp. All the people will live together. Earthmother will go back to her first shape and live as a mother among her children. Then things will be made right.”
Now they are waiting for Coyote.