Oral Traditions and Storytelling

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Lawrence Aripa, Coeur d'Alene Elder, 1997

The materials on this page are intended for use by students enrolled in ANTH 329 North American Indians. This page and its references are periodically up-dated.

Readings Assignments

Frey 1995:39-216

Gill 1982:15-58


For Indian peoples, the narratives or what are often referred to as the oral traditions convey their most cherished values as well as contribute to the perpetuation of their worlds.  The narratives encompass a variety of categories, two of the most prominent being the stories of creation and the tales of human heroes.  Recognizing the rich variation that comes from the tribal diversity throughout North America, the creation stories typically involve powerful mythic beings, First Peoples, often identified by animal names, who transform a dangerous world and prepare it for the coming of the human peoples.  Among the First Peoples are Sweat Lodge, Moon,  Sedna (Inuit), Changing Woman and her sons Monster Slayer and Child of the Water (Dene - Navajo), Raven (Northwest Coast), Iktomi (Lakota), Napi (Blackfoot), Salmon (Plateau), and the Coyote (who really gets around!) or who is known by the Crow as Isaahkawuattaa (Old Man Coyote).  These ancient personages simultaneously embrace the traits and qualities of human, animal and spiritual beings, and, through their deeds, display tremendous transformative powers.  As in the example of the "earth-diver" accounts among the Arapaho, Blackfeet or Crow, mud is brought forth from the bottom of a primordial sea by a water bird and, with a small piece of the earth, Coyote or Old Man fashions the landscape, creates other animals and plants, helps establish various customs and institutions to successfully transverse the landscape, and ultimately molds from the earth and gives life to the first human beings.  Human hero tales are exemplified in such stories as Scar Face (Blackfeet), Burnt Face (Crow), Curtain Boy and Spring Boy (Crow), and Seal Boy (Wasco).

In this section we will consider not only the content of the oral traditions, but also the storytelling of those stories.  Embedded within the oral traditions are certain "teachings," such as "kinship," "equality," "respect," "meaning," "life-force," and "spiritual transcendence."  Also conveyed in the oral traditions are certain "literary motifs," such as the "trickster" and "orphan quest."  It is these themes and motifs that help define and render the world of the Indian meaningful.  The significance of the oral literature is found not only in what is conveyed, the themes and motifs, but in how the stories are told aloud. This section will thus consider issues of orality and literacy, the techniques of storytelling, and the "power in words."  Concluding this section will be a discussion on the purposes of the oral literature, which include an integrative and creative role, an educational function, and an entertainment role, but not an explanatory function.

As you approach the stories, attempt to place the narratives within their traditional context, and ask the following questions:

  1. When and under what circumstances would the stories be told? (considering the time of the season, and the ceremonial and family cycle and events occurring in conjunction with the telling)

  2. By whom and to whom would the stories be told? (considering who has the right and privilege to tell, i.e., their position in the family, and who is the intended audience)

  3. How are the stories told: what techniques are used, nature of language and delivery mode, how are words understood? (consider such features as terse nature of language, use of  repetition, pauses, hand gestures, links, present verb tense form, audience response, the power of words, and the contrast between orality and literacy)

  4. How are the stories understood and for what purpose are they told: why do the stories continue to be told? (what are the intended consequences)

  5. What is conveyed through the stories: the massages? (consider the trickster and orphan quest literary motifs; and various world view themes)

Study Guide Questions

  1. Who are the Myth Peoples, also known as the First Peoples, and what did they bring about?
  2. What are among the fundamental "cultural themes" embedded in the oral traditions and what are their defining qualities? Or rephrased, what "teachings" are conveyed in the stories?
  3. Discuss the character, role and meaning of the Trickster and Orphan Quest "literary motifs."  Identify specific oral traditions that exemplify each of these motifs and discuss how the motifs are expressed in each oral tradition.
  4. Contrast orality and oral communications with literacy and written communications. What are the implications of orality and of literacy on how oral traditions are understood and conveyed?
  5. What are among the specific techniques of telling used by storytellers in their telling of stories?
  6. What is meant by the phrases, "all my being is song," "to breathe is to make poetry and song," "prayer as performance," and "breaking with the mouth"? What are the implications of these understandings for storytelling and the culture of the Indian?
  7. In considering the techniques often used by storytellers, the dynamics of orality, and the "power in words," how do these three processes coalesce and influence the role of the "listener" of a story? In other words, what are among the primary intentions of a storyteller with regard to his or her audience?
  8. What are among the purposes of the oral traditions? Or rephrased, why are the stories told?
  9. What are some of the particular arguments against suggesting an "explanatory" purpose for the oral traditions?
  10. What is the relationship between the oral traditions and the experiential world of actions and events, between oral narratives and ritual behavior? Or restated, what is the meaning of the phrases, "stories that make the world" and "the world is the story?"
  11. Identify and discuss the four stages in a "rite of passage."  Illustrate each of the stages with reference to specific examples from the oral literature.

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