The Oral Tradition
N. Scott Momaday (Kiowa), who calls himself a “man made of words,” links the oral tradition with print work by saying “the writer, like the storyteller, I think, is concerned to create himself and his audience in language.” Momaday sees the oral tradition not only as a part of a continuum spanning epochs but also as fundamental to the process of shaping language into meaning. By casting images into words at the moment of immediate response to a visual or aural stimuli, the storyteller (or poet/singer) can be working close to the point where consciousness and perception are linked in language. Simon Ortiz (Acoma Pueblo) connects the oral tradition to what he designates as “lifestyle,” which he describes as the “whole process of that society in terms of its history, its culture, its language, its values, and subsequently its literature.” Ultimately, he feels, “man exists because of language, consciousness comes about through language, or the world comes about through language. Life = language. Language is life, then.”
In addition to the crucial link between written literature and the oral tradition, Ortiz, Momaday, and many other Native American writers have stressed the importance of a historical record which was preserved when the First Nation peoples were almost annihilated during the first two centuries of the American republic. Ortiz recalls his father “trying to express certain views about how important it was for him and for the people to retain their heritage.” For Silko (Laguna Pueblo), storytelling was so much a part of her life that when she was a student at the University of New Mexico and was given an assignment to write a character sketch, she thought “I had thousands,” and when she was told “We want a story,” she thought, “Is he serious? Is this all it is? I just cashed in on all those things I heard.” Emphasizing the commonality of stories in her life, she has observed “The best thing, I learned, the best thing you can have in life is to have someone tell you a story; they are physically with you.” Gerald Vizenor (Chippewa) has developed the concept of the word as a weapon in his book Wordarrows: Indians and Whites in the New Fur Trade (1978), in which he says that “the arrowmakers and wordmakers survive in the word wars with sacred memories,” and Paula Gunn Allen (Laguna- Lakota) has published a collection of stories by Native American women under the title Spider Woman’s Granddaughters: Traditional Tales and Comtemporary Writing by Native American Women (1989) because, in a Cherokee account, Grandmother Spider brought “the light of intelligence and experience” to a people “who have been in a state of war for five hundred years.”
Shaping Words into Text
The sustaining power of the oral tradition is so strong that John Rouillard, a Santee Sioux and the director of a university Native American studies program, asked semiseriously at a meeting of the Modern Language Association, “Do Indians write novels?” His point was that perhaps it was “un- Indian” to be a published writer rather than a storyteller. Although his audience understood that he was setting up a false dichotomy, and Allen responded by saying that a novel is a long story weaving “a number of elements into a coherent whole,” the relationship between the story as it existed through time—supple, flexible, and changing with each narration; shaped by the personality of the storyteller; altered by the experiences of the community; ordered by some aesthetic principles common to First Nation ways of thought—and the fixed form of the printed version raised some crucial issues that have had a significant impact on both spoken and written imaginative fiction.
Considering the enduring power of the oral tradition and the way in which some of its most accomplished practitioners have produced artifacts with some core similarities to the short story as it has existed in the United States at least since the work of Washington...
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