Traditional Native Attitudes

Unfortunately, most Americans who read Indian literature aren’t reading literature written by Indians.  Instead, they are reading literature written by whites with an Indian setting.  Why would such “fake” literature, which is not truly representing Native experiences, preferred over “the real thing”?  I want to set these ideas out here for you so that we can avoid some silly-looking statements about “how Natives are” which might be based on the literature that poses as Native American.  In this class, we’ll read only authentic Native American literature, and we will come to understand the difference between it and the stuff that mass audiences and publishers prefer.  We’ll even look at why they might prefer the inauthentic literature.

So, let me outline some traditional Native American features in the debate over the what is and what was. . . .

Expect Native Authors to Play with the Traditional

We would be doing a disservice to the contemporary Native American authors we will read if we overlooked the flexible ways they make sense of the past.  These authors are not relics, antiques.  They are, I think, complex individuals whose writings reveal an ability to negotiate between vastly different cultures.  They are interested in how cultures interact.

Each one of use negotiates with our past.  I’ve noticed that, for some reason, students sometimes don’t want to allow these authors to have a real, complex relationship with their culture and its traditions.  It’s much easier to read these authors as mere mouthpieces for past traditions.  I hope that doesn’t sound vague to you.  It’s just important that you read closely, looking for ways in which these authors characterize their relationship with their traditions.

Credit these authors with complexity.  They are not hiding behind an Indian mysticism.  Instead, they are creating characters and plots which are modern, complex, and alive with the problems we face today.

Using this Lecture

(The following progression is adapted from pages 24-5 of James Wilson’s informative history, The Earth Shall Weep: A Native History of North America.)  Note that the scope of our discussion (and the class) are incredibly general, so we can’t take this too far.  Still, here are some common threads you may see in traditional Native American poems, songs, and cultural beliefs:

Sacred Power

This is the idea that everything in the universe was interconnected and possessed a spiritual force or energy that could affect the lives of “the people” and of all other living things.  Gaining power and the aid of powerful beings was absolutely vital: for success in hunting, plentiful crops, good health, thriving children and victory in battle.  But power was also dangerous.  By wrongdoing or negligence you could easily offend one of the spirits and see your food supply dwindle, your family stricken or your community defeated.


Experience and understanding are embodied in stories and legends that often offer the profoundest guide to how a people perceive reality.  Stories may change greatly over time, but the fact that they are told over and over–and are memorized–gives the oral tradition a conservative cast.  Also, think about the strength of a told story.  It has a power that poetry has; the performance of a known story is a binding social event.  On the other hand, think of how much tradition could be lost if key members of a group died due to disease or war.  In this sense, Native American groups have lost much, and there is a need to re-search their culture for what has survived, for what is authentic and lasting.

Ritual & Ceremony

By following the prescribed instructions, “the people” were able to secure the favor and assistance of powerful spiritual forces. . . . Because everything in the universe was interrelated, and because “the people” were at the center of it, their rituals not only regulated their own relationship with the sacred and with other living beings but also ensured that the whole natural order was properly maintained.

What rituals do you go through in your own life?  Do you think we have fewer rituals than traditional oral cultures?

Why is it important to do the ritual “just right”?

Do cultures with lots of rituals tend to be liberal or conservative?

The Animal Master

Animal masters are spiritual “masters” (or “keepers” or “owners”) who controlled the game on which hunters depended for food.  For example, there might be a buffalo king who tells his people where they are to graze, or when they should migrate.

Animal masters reflect the idea that the animal does not die.

Planting cultures had differing myths of dismemberment and ritual planting/sacrifice.

If game was killed in the wrong way or without the proper ritual, if the meat was treated disrespectfully, wasted or not shared generously among the whole group, then the animal masters would become angry and withhold food in the future.

Tricksters are often a play on the animal master.  The trickster figure is found in many cultures, and constitutes a richly creative personality in folklore and myth.

Animal characters are often given human traits like the ability to speak.  Animals are often characterized by a predominant personality trait.

Questions and Ideas

  • To what extent is the view that Native Americans hold the land sacred a valid statement?
  • What do you think about the land/area in which you live?
  • In The Power of Myth, Joseph Campbell, a noted scholar of mythology, likens the 19th century Indian view of reality to calling everything a Thou.  He contrasts this with a typical white attitude in which animals and the land were seen as merely Its.  Consider this contrast as you read our assigned texts.
  • Is ownership of land a ridiculous idea?  From what point of view might it seem ridiculous?  What “value” is there in this point of view?  Do you “buy” it?
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