Early encounters by Westerners with Indian cultures led to numerous misconceptions about Native American oral traditions. Most Native American literatures, before European contact, belonged to the oral tradition. Works were originally conceived for dramatic presentation, often with music and dance, and as lyrics to songs, rather than as texts for the printed page. Some tribes made pictographic records, but this was not typical. Western readers, with the expectations of readers of printed works, erroneously concluded that Indian literature, which featured the repetition and strong parallelism of song and oratory, was primitive. Native American literature was also, understandably, pagan. Beginning with Spanish explorers, Europeans suppressed and destroyed Indian cultural creations. The great variety of Native American cultural life was largely replaced with European languages and culture and with a few stereotypes. Stereotypes about Indians have proved remarkably durable.
Early European writings were historical accounts of first encounters with Indians, for example those described in John Smith’s The General History of Virginia, New England, and the Summer Isles (1624), William Bradford’s History Of Plymouth Plantation (1856), John Eliot and Roger Williams’ studies of native languages, and descriptions by Captain Edward Johnson and Daniel Gookin. Smith’s account of Pocahontas became an American myth, for example, retold in The Indian Princess (1808) by James Barker, the first American play on an Indian theme.
After historical accounts came personal ones, the captivity narrative being central. Mary Rowlandson’s best-selling nonfiction story of her captivity, published in 1682, established the genre of factual and fictional Indian captivity narratives. The full title of her work is The Soveraignty and Goodness of God: Together with the Faithfulness of His Promises Displayed: Being a Narrative of the Captivity and Restauration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson. Some narratives were reasonably accurate; others were sensational. The captivity narrative endured into the twentieth century, Thomas Berger’s Little Big Man (1964) being an example.
Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin wrote of their interest in Indian government, which was based largely on oral tradition. Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia (1784) praises Indian oratory, and Franklin advised the Albany Congress of 1754 to study the principles of the Iroquois Confederacy and oral tradition epic from which it came. The principles of the Iroquois Confederacy subsequently influenced the United States Articles of Confederation and the United States Constitution. Other oral tradition epics included the Walam Olum chronicles of the Leni-Lenape or Delaware tribe, which were recorded as pictographs on birch bark and later translated into English in 1833.
Oral tradition was also the source for the stories collected by ethnologist Henry R. Schoolcraft in Algic Researches: Comprising Inquiries Respecting the Mental Characteristics of the North American Indians (1839). This and other volumes by Schoolcraft and others (for example, John Gottlieb Heckewelder’s Account of the History, Manners, and Customs of the Indian Nations of Pennsylvania and the Neighboring States, 1819) who had conducted research among Indian tribes were among the sources used by poets and fiction writers who, with little personal experience of their own with Indians, wrote about Indian characters. The poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s The Song of Hiawatha (1855) was intended to help supply the United States with a legendary past; it makes highly, even grossly, inaccurate use of the legends and customs recounted by the researchers. Longfellow created a romantic, sentimentalized myth of Indian life that continues in American popular culture. Portrayals of Indians in early American literature appear in poems by Sarah Wentworth Morton, James W. Eastburn, Robert C. Sands, William Cullen Bryant, John Greenleaf Whittier, and...
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