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ANTH 543 / ANTH 497: Indigenous Ways of Knowing

Native American Oral Tradition

Native American Oral Tradition
Margaret A. Boyer

Contemporary Native American literature is grounded in the oral traditions of the various indigenous groups of peoples who have and who do live on the American continent. While the differences among the many different cultural groups are great, there are commonalities as well among these orally based traditions. The following is a general overview of the Native American oral tradition which informs the works of contemporary Indian writers.

A. La Vonne Brown Ruoff's American Indian Literatures: An Introduction, Bibliographic Review, and Selected Bibliography, published by MLA, 1990 is the major source of this information.

Markers of oral tradition

1. Oral literature is a performance. Storytellers, within the specific culture's structure established for myth, song or ceremony, have the freedom to create their own interpretations of the traditional stories; the versions must be acceptable to the entire community, the specific performance appropriate to the situation and the desired result of the performance achieved. Most traditions usually consider there to be one valid version of a story with the inevitable changes adding allusions to recent events. Important to the telling are specific gestures and vocal techniques to dramatize contents or to prompt a response from the audience.

2. The sense of community is integral to the oral tradition. The stories and their context are community centered; they both are products of the community and are told for its sake rather than for the individual telling the stories or for those outside the community.

3. Oral literature is a living tradition. Simon Ortiz, an Acoma Pueblo poet stated in a 1990 interview that for him and those that have grown up in it, "[t]he oral tradition . . . is that whole process . . . of that society in terms of its history, its culture, its language, its values, and subsequently, its literature."

4. A love of language and playing with language marks oral literature; a native audience can note the puns, metaphors, and humor which are integral to an oral tradition's telling of its history, its place in the world and the values important to the community.

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