James Ruppert (essay date 1980)
SOURCE: "The Uses of Oral Tradition in Six Contemporary Native American Poets," in American Indian Culture and Research Journal, Vol. 4, No. 4, 1980, pp. 87-110.
[Ruppert is an American educator and critic who specializes in Native American literatures. In the following essay, he discusses Cook-Lynn's use of oral tradition in the poetry collection Then Badger Said This.]
[Then Badger Said This] contains purely descriptive passages as well as oral history, but like Momaday's The Way to Rainy Mountain, [Cook-Lynn's] approach to history is not the cold, unimaginative one of literal history, but a highly oral process where the personal and the cultural merge. Reflective of this holistic approach to Sioux culture and history, she includes old stories, contemporary poetry, oral history, song, personal narratives and art work.
For Cook-Lynn, the past is not a cold stone tablet; it is a living vital force. As she watches the changes of the present world, it becomes easier for her, and subsequently for us, to understand and believe the changes of history and legend. The personal leads to understanding and confirmation of the mythic, for they are not as separate as some would think. In her description of the flooding behind the Missouri River Project, section II, we are brought to that understanding as we see the people and the land sharing the same fate. They are tied together under the flooding of the dominant culture as they have always been tied together. Section XIII tells of a scene, timeless in location, where a woman, her child and the child's father are fixed in a confluence of the ritual and the personal. The ritual, itself timeless, patterns their perceptions as it does their movements. As the woman contemplates her past, the man and the child, she comes to the painful realization, "The past is always past as it is always present."
This requires a change in perception for those of us who look on history as the rational accumulation of facts. In her preface we are warned to open our minds, ears and eyes to the insight, clear in oral cultures, that history also consists of memory and imagination. To understand history is to imagine, but also it is to hear, to listen…. [Cook Lynn] proposes that literalist history is flawed because it has no sound. However indefinite sound may be, it is essential to identity and survival. Survival may depend on listening to sounds around one and this important process eventually gives one language and history. Cook-Lynn tells a variant of the story of the arrow-maker in his shelter. Swan, the young warrior, is working on his arrows while in enemy country. He hears the hoot of an owl nearby and sees the reflection of an enemy in a bowl of water. He lines his arrows up, pointing them in all directions until he surprises the enemy and slays him. The gathering of sensory detail (and attention to it) allows the warrior to survive. The Sioux would agree that the owl spoke to Swan, and "the gathering of sensory detail available to you gives the process of language." The history of the young warrior requires imagination and the memory of sensual detail on the listener's part. A literal historian would not understand where the Sioux would....
(The entire section is 1338 words.)