Native American Oral Traditions

Native American Oral
The value and power of storytelling
Oral tradition
 Purpose and cause
 American Indian oral tradition
and teachings are used to
transmit culture and preserve
the history of American Indians.
 American Indian oral traditions,
which include storytelling,
teachings, family and tribal
history, as well as contemporary
Indian literature, lie at the heart
of tribal culture.
PowerPoint: information adapted from “AMERICAN INDIAN HISTORY,
CULTURE AND LANGUAGE: Curriculum Framework.” Office of Indian
Education, Minnesota Department of Education.
Ojibwa Myths and Legends, Sister Bernard Coleman, Ellen Frogner,
Estelle Eich; Ross and Haines, Minneapolis, 1962.
Oral tradition
 It is largely through oral
tradition that American Indian
cultures have been
preserved and transmitted
through the generations.
 American Indian stories,
teachings, and oral histories
are rich in cultural context.
 They provide great insight
into the worldview, values
and lifestyle which are an
integral part of the heritage
of American Indians.
Oral tradition
 Effects
 American Indian oral
tradition expresses the
truths, wisdom, and
humor of human
 The themes are
Oral tradition
Oral tradition tells
how the Earth was
 It explains that
people have a
special responsibility
to all living things
with whom we share
the Earth.
Oral tradition
 Many of the stories are
about a person with both
human and mystical
 The Dakota call the
sometimes hero,
sometimes trickster,
 To the Anishinabeg he is
Waynabozho (Nanabozho,
Nanabush, Manabozho).
Oral tradition
Through his actions
American Indian
children for
generations have
learned how to
behave and have
learned what is
expected of them
as adults.
Oral tradition
 Many of the stories are
 Most often, the winter months
are the season for stories.
 For example, the Dakota believe
that the time to tell sacred
stories is when snakes and other
animals that hibernate
underground are covered with
 Their spirits, if above ground,
would use the sacred knowledge
against the storyteller.
Oral tradition
 For the Ojibwa of Minnesota,
the reasons for winter stories
are varied.
 There was more time during
the long, cold winter months,
which prompted the need for
a diversion.
 The Ojibwa also believed
that if stories were told in the
summer, the animal spirit
beings would then hear
themselves spoken of.
Oral tradition
 Frogs, toads, and snakes were
particularly feared.
 It was thought a tremendously
large toad or giant frog would
come out of the pond at night
and pursue the storyteller.
 Snakes may have been held in
awe because of association with
the mythological theme of the
continuous warfare between the
giant snakes and the Ojibwa
culture hero, Nanabozho.
Oral tradition
 For the Anishinabeg, the
belief may differ from area to
area, but the practice is
 Sacred stories, particularly
those about Nanabozho are
to be told only in the winter.
 Other stories can be told
throughout the year.
 If possible, elders in the
community should be
consulted regarding timing
and customs for specific
Oral tradition
 Storytellers were held in
high esteem. Often an older
member of the family was
the narrator.
 However, there was often a
man or woman especially
talented in storytelling and
perhaps even in acting
stories out.
 This person was regarded a
virtual professional.
Oral tradition
 It is customary on the part
of one who requests a
specific story to offer
tobacco or some other gift
to the storyteller.
 The storyteller uses
tobacco to show respect for
the spirits who live in the
stories and whose names
are mentioned.
Oral tradition
 Types of stories
 Some are humorous; others
are serious (and at times,
 The humor lies in absurd
situations, roughness, and
vulgarity – often offering a
jovial poetic justice.
 The serious or tragic appears
in themes of cruelty, infidelity,
death, misfortune, and
struggle for livelihood.
Oral tradition
 Categories include (but are
not limited to):
 “Once upon a time” stories.
 Legendary history.
 Stories told to teach.
 Stories of Nanabozho.
 Nature lore, magic
practices, and omens.
Oral tradition
 Threads with contemporary Native
American literature:
 “Stories of resilience, defiance, power,
vision, toughness, pain, loss, anger,
sarcasm, a humiliation built on welfare,
a humor built on irony. There is
awareness of nature and the spirit
world. Respect of elders. Families.
Children running everywhere. Tell-mewho-your-relatives-are-and-I-will-tellyou-who-you-are. A way of life that
involves sharing and relationships.
Stories in which time is not always
linear, but circular, and not so hurried
and defined as white-time.”
 Diane Glancy, “Braided Lives: An
Anthology of Multicultural American

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