Oral Tradition in Native America

Though these indigenous groups vary linguistically, geographically, culturally, socially and politically from one another, one universal commonality they share is the presence of a rich oral tradition. The collective knowledge that has been passed down orally from generation to generation is an invaluable piece of preserving tribes’ history, culture, beliefs and sense of identity.


Up until the late 20th century, Western scholars maintained that Native Americans did not possess any “literature” by academic standards. Regardless, European and other non-Native translators began writing down and recording American Indian eyewitness accounts, stories, poems, songs, speeches, and chants. Contemporary academics, historians, ethnologists and a growing number of other academic disciplines, however, have revisited this bias and more recently have grown to appreciate the content, complexity and overall research value in oral traditions.


This incongruence between the West and Indian Country’s recognition of “literature” continues on some levels today. Often, non- Native historians writing about Native American history find themselves culturally at odds 

The Diversity of Oral Tradition

The sources and forms of oral tradition are very diverse. Although storytelling may immediately come to mind, there is actually a wide variety of types of oral tradition present in Native American cultures, including eyewitness accounts, poems, songs, choreography, speeches, and instances of spoken word that have contributed to the development of rituals and ceremonies. Each type of oral tradition varies a bit from the next, although all contribute to the collective identity of a particular tribe.  


Storytelling is the most famous and most often studied form of Native oral tradition. While Western folklorists often divide stories into categories of myth, folktale, and legend, most American Indian people call all of these simply “stories” and believe that listeners will come to their own conclusions in regards to a tale’s meaning/intentions. Some stories are rooted in reality while others have a more spiritual, ethereal setting. 

Although tribes rarely make Western categorical distinctions, most of their stories do follow a pattern similar to the Western categories. For instance, some Native stories are viewed as sacred, true accounts of the ancient past, such as creation stories (similar to myths). A second type of story is similar to Western folktales—these stories are told for amusement, often in social settings, and considered to be fictional. A third type of story is legends, which have a more recent setting than sacred tales, “possess an aura of history” but whose truth cannot be confirmed. An example of a legend follows: 

In the Lakota story, Legend of Standing Rock, a Dakota man had married an Arikara woman. After a while, he took a second wife, which made the first wife very jealous. and As the village was breaking camp to move, the first wife pouted and refused to move from the tent floor. Her husband packed up and left with the rest of the camp. But at noon, her husband stopped the line. He told two of his brothers to go get their sister-in- law and to hurry because he was afraid that she may kill herself. The two brothers left and arrived at their sister-in-law, who was still sitting on the ground. One spoke to urge her to come with them, but she did not answer. He put out his hand and touched her. The brother was shocked to find out that she had turned to stone! The brothers quickly returned to the people and told their story, but no one believed them. The villagers believed that the woman had killed herself, but that they did not want to tell her husband the bad news. The entire village went back to see the woman. There she sat, a block of stone. The villagers were excited because this stone was thought to be “wakan” (sacred). From this time on, the stone was given a place of honor in the center of camp. Whenever camp moved, the stone came along. At last, the stone woman was brought to Standing Rock Agency, where she now sits in front of the Agency office. Today’s Standing Rock Agency derived its name from this stone. 

Eyewitness Account 

In addition to storytelling, another form of oral tradition is the eyewitness account, in which a person describes and passes on information about an event that occurred during the teller’s lifetime and about which the teller has firsthand knowledge. An example of this type of oral tradition is the oral accounts provided by Lakota, Cheyenne, and Crow warriors after the Battle of the Little Big Horn. Little Big Horn was a significant event in American Indian history and the oral tradition surrounding it is historically valid, as it was more accurate than many, if not most, written accounts at that time. This is due to the fact that there were no non-Indian survivors available to describe the event and the larger American newspapers in circulation at the time were East Coast-based and largely reliant on shoddy information. While very informative, eyewitness accounts are not extremely common in oral literature, as the time frame and events of one’s own lifetime can be restrictive in terms of what one may share. 


Poems are another example of oral tradition and usually include a musical component and may include choreography as well. “Sayatasha’s Night Chant” is considered ritual poetry from the Zuni tribe of modern day New Mexico. The poem is chanted during a Zuni ceremony called Shalako. In the ceremony, the kachinas, spirits of the earth’s forces and Zuni ancestors, are said to come to the village with seeds and moisture to renew and continue life in the village for another year. In this example, the successful oral passage of this poem was highly important, as it is an important ingredient of the Zuni’s spiritual practices.   

Visions, Dreams, Hallucinations

Similarly, visions, dreams and hallucinations are types of oral tradition that have contributed to the development of Native American rituals and ceremonies, in which individuals receive information in these forms and then share the knowledge orally. Visions have often served to inform the rituals and ceremonies of indigenous peoples because oral tradition that comes in this form is considered to be communication from the supernatural realm to the living. For example, in the Lakota story of White Buffalo Calf Woman (a wakan-sacred,divine being) she first appeared to two scouts. White Buffalo Calf Woman was a beautiful young woman dressed in white buck skin and one of the men was filled with desire for her and approached her with bad intentions. His companion warned him that she appeared to be a sacred woman, but the man did not listen. The first man embraced White Buffalo Calf Woman, and was reduced to a pile of bones. After this, the second man conveyed a message at her request that she would be visiting their tribe soon and that they should prepare a feast. The distinction between the two young men’s behavior demonstrates which type of behavior is culturally appropriate and which is not, so the story is useful as a tool for instruction. Additionally, it also demonstrates how visions are used in oral tradition. Upon her arrival, the White Buffalo Calf Woman taught the Lakota people the seven rituals and also gave them the chanunpa, or sacred pipe. 

with the people that they are writing about, due to history of conflict, manifest destiny, western expansion, removal, assimilation, termination and a wide variety of many other contributing factors which still continue mistrust and varying perceptions. 


An additional challenge is that often Native Americans and historians have varying definitions of what is important from a historical point of view. For Native Americans, history is rarely concerned with dates, although it is the opposite for many Western academics. Rather than dates, place and homeland are very important in Native oral tradition, such as the Lakota belief that the Black Hills are the “heart of all that is.” Thus, the topic can be a complicated one. In the end, Cavender Wilson (2000) suggests that the melding of oral history and written accounts will produce “more balanced interpretations” of Native American history. Thorny though it may be, scholars and non-academics alike generally have realized that oral tradition is worth studying. In addition to its cultural importance, it is often filled with humor and insights regarding Native worldview, moral instruction and aesthetic sensibility. 

The trickster figure is common in oral storytelling. One of the most common trickster characters is Coyote, who is considered a cunning figure who sometimes experiences bad luck. Other tricksters include Iktomi (spider), Veeho, Rabbit, Skeleton Man, and Raven. Trickster stories are often used to teach moral lessons to children, such as portraying a situation in which being a trickster is being deceitful, but does not achieve their objective, proving that dishonesty doesn’t pay. 

Trickster Characters

Many stories convey practical information about nature. Native Americans, like many other cultures, used storytelling to help make sense of the natural world. For example, in the Dakota legend, How Turtle Flew South for the Winter, the story explains mysteries of nature including why turtles’ shells are cracked and why turtles hibernate in the winter while birds fly south. A child who hears this story is simultaneously entertained and informed about nature. 

Teachings about Nature 

Role of Animals

In comparison to Western literature, the Native perspective on animals is often elevated and highly respected. In many myths and folktales, animals and humans are interchangeable and considered equals. Origin stories may even feature animals as taking part in creation and animals often offer insight and impart wisdom to human beings. 

Words Have Power

 The rain dance, was traditionally performed by Southwestern tribes in the USA. These rituals and the words to say were passed down through oral tradition and still survive today. In 2014, tribes and other individuals in drought-stricken California have been holding weekly rain dances. To Native Americans, as individuals chant, “Amani, amani, amani. Rain, rain, rain…” these words bear power.


Use of Repetition           

A last key element in oral tradition is repetition, a literary device used often in oral literature. Repetition is often used to create expectation and to jog a storyteller’s memory. The Navajo Nightway Ceremony includes about four hundred songs that are sung over nine days and eight nights. Here is an excerpt from one of these songs that relies heavily on repetition: 

Songs and chants can make things happen—call game animals, bring rain,

cure the sick, or destroy an enemy.” ~ Bruchac

May it be beautiful before me.
May it be beautiful behind me.
May it be beautiful below me.
May it be beautiful all around me.
In beauty it is finished.


Key Elements of Native American Oral Tradition


Poems are another example of oral tradition and usually include a musical Lastly, speeches are a part of oral tradition. One of the most famous oratories ever given is by Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce in his “surrender speech:”  

Tell General Howard I know his heart. What he told me before, I have in my heart. I am tired of fighting. Our chiefs are killed. Looking Glass is dead. Toohoolhoolzote is dead. The old men are all dead. It is the young men who says yes and no. He who led on the young men is dead. It is cold and we have no blankets. The little children are freezing to death. My people, some of them, have run away to the hills and have no blankets, no food; no one knows where they are----perhaps freezing to death. I want to have time to look for my children and see how many I can find. Maybe I shall find them among the dead. Hear me, my chiefs. I am tired; my heart is sick and sad. From where the sun now stands I will fight no more forever. 

The speech is considered to be eloquent, appealing to both logic and emotion, and is also important in a historical context, as Chief Joseph resisted the white takeover of his people’s lands in the Oregon Territory by trying to flee to Canada, traveling over 1500 miles with his people through Oregon, Washington, Idaho, and Montana. In the end, Chief Joseph surrendered 40 miles from the Canadian border, but about 150-200 Nez Perce, including his wife and child, made it into Canada and there are Nez Perce descendants still there today. Yet, there is controversy over the origin of these words attributed to Chief Joseph. C.E.S. Wood, an aide to General Howard, stated that he wrote down Chief Joseph’s words verbatim, but some historians have doubted Wood’s claim. The dispute over this speech may possibly be the longest over the authenticity of a text in western American literature and illustrates some of the issues that arise when Western scholars are asked to accept oral tradition as literature. 

Closing Considerations 

Above all, Native oral tradition in all its forms is a way of remembering a people’s past. Preserving the past is of vital importance, as it informs a people’s present and future. To American Indians, the oral tradition of past generations is seen as a valid source of history and a source of knowledge of the sum total of a people’s past experiences. This historical knowledge helps to explain the how and why of present-day conditions and also offers possible solutions to current challenges that Native people face. For example, many believe that oral tradition contains information on how one should live his/her life and that some of the problems we now face are because many have turned away from those guidelines and truths that were provided by prior generations.


The rich oral tradition of Native Americans has served to preserve vital information that may not have otherwise survived. American Indian storytelling serves the purposes of entertainment, conveying lessons to listeners, and defining the culture and beliefs of indigenous nations, in years past and still today. Thus, the ability and motivation to continue to carry on oral tradition is not only a defining characteristic of Indian nations, but of vital importance to Native identity.



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