Native American Poetry Analysis

Oral traditions of the South American Indian

(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

The categories of verbal arts among peoples with oral cultures are not always the same as genres in written literatures. The English category of “verse,” for example, has no counterpart in many North American Indian literatures. Speakers of indigenous languages may say, “We have no poetry in our language,” meaning that spoken, metered verbal artifacts are not composed; the same languages may, however, have a highly developed song tradition, which will be recognized as comparable to the European concept of lyric. For example, the O’odham (Papago) of southern Arizona maintain that “poetry” as it is defined in English does not exist in their language, but they have many songs. Moreover, songs belong to a special category of verbal production; they are composed in a unique language used only for songs, and special composition processes and performance requirements go along with the production of songs. The following Papago song illustrates some of these characteristics:

In the great night my heart will go out.Towards me the darkness comes rattling,In the great night my heart will go out.

The words and music were not consciously composed by the song’s “owner” but were received in a dream from a person who had died. “Song dreaming” is a feature of traditional Papago literary composition. The function of the song, as part of a ritual intended to heal the sick and prevent death, is also characteristic of many oral poetic traditions.

Lyric poetry

(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

In Native American Literature (1985), Andrew Wiget identified two major types of American Indian poetry: lyric poetry and ritual poetry. Lyric poetry, while it may have ritual or religious subject matter, is personal, expressive, and often highly emotional. Although composers and their audiences would be likely to divide songs into very different categories, non-Indian readers of translated lyrics may recognize familiar classifications such as love songs, elegies for grief, or lyrics of exultation and boastfulness. An elegy translated from Tlingit, a language spoken in coastal British Columbia, is by a woman whose brothers were drowned; it alludes to the place and manner of their death as she expresses the grieving emotions of sorrow, denial, and despair: “Your reef has beaten me, Kagwantan’s children./ But take pity on me.”

Not all lyrics are tied so closely to personal experience or emotion. Like other peoples, Native Americans have a large store of songs identified with various functions of daily living. Some recognizable categories are work songs, such as corn-grinding songs or rowing songs (which accompany the carrying out of repetitious tasks), lullabies, hunting songs, and gambling and game songs, such as the many songs still being composed to accompany the widespread hand game. Numerous traditional corn-grinding songs, some very old, are part of the literatures of the agricultural peoples of the Southwest. This corn-grinding song from the pueblo of Laguna, New Mexico, has characteristic forms and devices:

I-o-ho, wonder-water,I-o-ho, wonder water,Life anew to him who drinks!Look where southwest clouds are bringing rain;Look where southeast clouds are bringing rain!

Like many others, this song contains vocables; these untranslatable syllables or phrases may be remnants of archaic languages, they may be part of the special poetic language reserved for songs, or they may simply be rhythmic units incorporated into the total structure of the song. Rain, water, and clouds appear repeatedly in all the songs and stories from this arid region. Directional signals are important for the continual expression of the people’s relationship to the center of their universe; the balancing of southeast and southwest integrates the life of the community with the four cardinal directions.

Ritual poetry

(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

Ritual poetry, in relation to lyric poems, is more communal and less personal in expression, composition, and performance. While the actual texts of ritual poems may appear quite short, often elements are intended to be repeated many times. In other cases, individual passages or poems may be part of much larger performance productions, great ceremonies lasting as long as eight or nine days, which could be considered whole poems or dramatic productions in themselves.

Wiget subdivides ritual poetry into integrative, restorative, and transformational modes. Integrative rituals function as rites of passage, assisting the individual to pass safely from one stage of life, or identity, to another. Thus there are ceremonies for birth and naming, for puberty and initiation into adulthood, for death and dying. Among the integrative songs, Wiget also includes healing songs intended to enable the sick or dying individual to make safe passage back to the community.

One of the most widely known healing songs is a lyric that forms part of the Navajo Night Chant. The Night Chant is a major ceremony of healing for the Navajo people; when performed in full it lasts ten days and nights and involves many ceremonial observances such as face and body painting, ingestion of medicines, dry painting of sacred pictures, and feasting and dancing. The poem is sung as part of the ceremonial activities of the third day; the words allude to a particular place, which is said to be the House of Dawn, and also to sacred or holy beings that are part of the spiritual reality of the Navajo people.

The Night Chant ceremony of which the song is a part is performed to cure and reintegrate the individual into a healthy, viable community. The title of N. Scott Momaday’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, House Made of Dawn (1968), comes from this poem; the novel depicts the struggle of an alienated young man to heal himself of deep psychological distress and reintegrate himself into his Pueblo community. In the novel, the poem appears as sung by one of the characters; it becomes part of Abel’s healing.

The words of this song, as translated by Washington Matthews, express fundamental Navajo ideas regarding the ideal relationship of the individual to the universe:

Happily, with abundant dark clouds, may I walk.. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .May it be beautiful all around me.In beauty it is finished.

The English word “beauty” is used to translate a Navajo term that encompasses concepts of balance, harmony, and movement through time. Balance is expressed in the alternation and repetition of parallel figures and tropes: Dawn and evening light, clouds and showers, and plants and pollen are paired and joined in the poem. The rhetorical pairing and...

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Recording oral poetry

(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

The collection of written texts of Native American oral poetry begins with the preservation of some few of the great codices of the Mayas and the Aztecs of Mexico and Central America; many of these works were transported as curiosities to collections in Europe, and translations into European languages have been attempted from time to time. Serious attempts to transcribe and translate North American oral literatures began in the 1830’s, when Henry Rowe Schoolcraft transcribed the legends and myths told to him by his wife and members of her Ojibwa family.

Somewhat later in the century, after the American Civil War, a major movement to record Native American languages and preserve records of native cultures was launched under the sponsorship of major museums, folklore societies, and, especially, the United States government through the Bureau of American Ethnology. The impetus for the project in “salvage ethnography” was a perception that American Indian cultures were inexorably disappearing, and it was important to preserve as much of their remains as possible before the expected end came. The preservationist motive led to collecting of texts primarily for purposes of linguistic study and ethnographic information, rather than as aesthetic objects in their own right. Nevertheless, some of the finest examples of literary translation come from this period; the translations of Matthews from Navajo and the studies of the musician Frances Densmore are particularly noteworthy. Such poems as were translated were published as parts of government reports, bulletins of learned societies, or articles in scholarly journals. From these sources were mined the selections presented in the earliest anthologies of traditional American Indian poetry.

A very early compendium of American Indian literature and song texts is Natalie Curtis’s The Indians’ Book (1907, 1968). Curtis intended her book to permit Indians to speak for themselves as much as possible; she took pains to use graphics by Indian artists, as well as to include musical notation to encourage performance of the songs. Her translation method remains the model for translating such texts today: Her fourfold presentation of each text included a transcription from the original language, a separate transcription with musical notation, an interlinear (“non-grammatical”) literal translation, and a more “literary” poem text.

Curtis’s collection was followed by The Path on the Rainbow (1918), edited by George W. Cronyn and reissued as American Indian Poetry (1962). Unlike...

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Modern written poetry

(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

By contrast with the long and rich history of oral poetry, written poetry by Native Americans is of relatively recent date. Two nineteenth century poets are noted by A. LaVonne Brown Ruoff in her introductory book American Indian Literatures (1990): John Rollin Ridge and Pauline Johnson. These two poets wrote conventional nineteenth century verse; they were followed in the first half of the twentieth century by writers such as Alexander Posey, who primarily produced fiction, satire, humor, and nonfiction and who wrote little if any poetry. After World War II, in the 1950’s and 1960’s, a Native American Renaissance in literature began to take place; it continued in the 1970’s and 1980’s with a virtual explosion of...

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Laguna and Acoma

(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

The Keresan-speaking pueblos of Laguna and Acoma in New Mexico, and their environs, have been home to four of the most productive younger Native American poets. Leslie Marmon Silko, Simon Ortiz, Paula Gunn Allen, and Carol Lee Sanchez all have family or childhood roots in the area.

Leslie Marmon Silko

Leslie Marmon Silko’s best-known work, the novel Ceremony (1977), appeared a few years after her poetry collection Laguna Woman (1974); some of the poems from that volume as well as new works were incorporated into the later mixed-genre book Storyteller (1981). Although her theoretical emphasis is on narrative forms and she has spoken extensively on the process of...

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Ojibwa and Chippewa

(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

Louise Erdrich and Gerald R. Vizenor, Ojibwa poets, both have roots in the woodlands area of the Great Lakes, though Erdrich belongs to the displaced Turtle Mountain Chippewa of North Dakota.

Louise Erdrich

Widely recognized for her series of North Dakota novels as well as collaborations with her husband, Michael Dorris, Louise Erdrich published the poetry collections Jacklight (1984) and Baptism of Desire (1990). Both collections expand her exploration in her fiction of the clashes and dissonances brought about by membership in and loyalty to both Euroamerican and Native American traditions. The two books contain retellings of oral tales featuring the folk hero Potchikoo. The poignant poem series “The Butcher’s Wife” in Jacklight explores the delicacy of feeling and violent passions of ordinary, unremarkable people. In Baptism of Desire, Erdrich celebrates, in a series of poems based on popular hagiographies, the Catholic folk beliefs that provide much of the comedy of her novels; other poems in this collection express her continuing fascination with various occult symbol systems. Critics note her interest in exploring the tension between Christian and Anishinaabe belief systems, no doubt due to her own experiences as a person of mixed heritage. In 2003, she published Original Fire: Selected and New Poems, which contains her earlier poetry collections plus new poems, including a section “Original Fire,” in which she focuses on relationships.

Gerald R. Vizenor

Gerald R. Vizenor is one of the most prolific of American Indian authors, producing journalism, fiction, criticism, screenplays, and autobiography as well as poetry. He has lived in Asia for extended periods, first in Japan with the armed forces and then as a visiting professor in the People’s Republic of China, and has incorporated into his work an appreciation for Asian literatures, particularly the very short Japanese form of haiku. Seventeen Chirps (1964, 1968) and Slight Abrasions (1966) are collections of Vizenor’s haiku; appreciation of the imagistic compression of haiku also informs Vizenor’s reworking in Summer in the Spring (1981) of Densmore’s translations of Chippewa lyrics. In 1984, much of Vizenor’s poetry was collected in Matsushima: Pine Islands.

Other Native American poets

(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

Joy Harjo, Carter Revard, and Linda Hogan are joined by a common heritage in Oklahoma, the old Indian Territory.

Joy Harjo

Joy Harjo, a distant relation of Creek writer Alexander Posey, is a musician as well as a painter and poet. Her poetry seeks an organic synthesis of visual and sound effects in what is often a dreamlike sense of metamorphosis and dissolution of cognitive boundaries. “Rainy Dawn,” from her major collection In Mad Love and War (1990), is one of several prose vignettes in the volume; like many of her poems, it is dedicated to a family member. Later, she wrote two more collections of poetry: The Woman Who Fell from the Sky (1994) and A Map to the Next...

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Defining Native American

(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

Native Americans or American Indians (the terms themselves are misleading) are no monolithic group: Although contemporary Native American poets are sometimes friends, colleagues, and collaborators, they do not form a distinctive school of poetry. Their formal allegiances are largely to experimental modes, although the first-person free-verse lyric tends to predominate, even in such apparently public modes as satire. Two major motifs can be identified as characteristic: on one hand, an abiding sense of continuity with the land (as distinguished from landscape), and on the other, a pervasive social consciousness stemming from the historical and personal experience of injustice. Ties to land, and meaning derived from survival within a...

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(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

Erdrich, Heid E., and Laura Tohe, eds. Sister Nations: Native American Women Writers on Community. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2002. Foreword by Winona LaDuke. An anthology of short fiction, poetry, and essays, in which forty-nine women record their experiences as members of Native Americans communities. Includes brief biographies of the contributors and information about their tribes.

Fast, Robin Riley. The Heart as a Drum: Continuance and Resistance in American Indian Poetry. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1999. The author, who also has written on traditional American poets such as Emily Dickinson,...

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