Native American Poetry Oral traditions of the South American Indian

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.