American Indian Studies
Native American Storytelling
The group of people known as the Native Americans or American Indians are the native residents of the Northern and Southern American continents who are thought to have traveled across the Bering land bridge from Asia. When the new society and the already established, came together, years of imposed philosophy, domination and rebel warfare were begun. The great impediments of religion, ethics and world-views were the three main issues which lead to the culture conflict between the Puritans and the Native Americans. Religion played a very significant role in both Puritan and Native American society, though their beliefs varied significantly. According to Puritan beliefs, God had chosen a select quantity of people to join him in heaven. On the other hand, the Native Americans believed that everyone was the same and that no one was better than anyone else. The Puritans relied on their Bible which detailed their whole religion and held the responses to all likely questions. The Native Americans depended on oral communication of their religion. Therefore, while the Puritans had a constant place to turn to when they wanted to figure out what they believed, Native Americans were required to fill in the blanks amid stories they had heard when it came to their fundamental principles (Culture Clash: The Puritans and the Native Americans, 2011).
The Native Americans do not share a single, incorporated body of mythology. The many different tribal groups each developed their own stories about the formation of the world, the appearance of the first natives, the place of people in the world, and the lives and deeds of gods and idols. Yet in spite of the massive variety of Native American mythologies, certain mythic ideas, characters, and stories can be found in many cultures. “Underlying all the myths is the idea that spiritual forces can be sensed through the natural world — including clouds, winds, plants, and animals — that they shape and sustain. Many stories explain how the actions of gods, heroes, and ancestors gave the earth its present form” (About Indian Mythology, 2012).
Indian religion and mythology are directly intertwined and cannot really be divided. Furthermore, both are so enormous and mystified that any generalization is likely to generalize. “The earliest Indian texts are the Vedas, a series of sacred hymns in honor of the Aryan gods, who personified natural forces such as the sun, storm, fire, soma, and the like. The Vedic religion was materialistic, devoted to obtaining power, prosperity, health, and other blessings by means of ritual and sacrifice” (About Indian Mythology, 2012).
The diverse climates, landscapes, and wildlife of North America inclined the myths American Indians told. Indians in the Eastern part of North America lived in thick forests sprinkled with lakes and rivers. A lot of their myths speak of forest demons, spirits, and monsters. The Eastern Indians also believed the notion of an upper and lower world ruled by a heavenly being. On the flat, grassy plains of Middle America, Indians became skilled buffalo hunters and lived wandering lives after the arrival of horses, brought by Spanish explorers in the 1500’s. Their wandering lifestyle influenced their beliefs. The Plains Indians’ mythology stressed the significance of personal quests to improve their relationships with spirits. In the Northwest, Indians lived in a comparatively mild climate with access to rich provisions of food, especially salmon. These Indians developed prolific ceremonies with detailed decorations, most notably found in massive totem poles. Each tribe had a mythical animal creator. Indians in the Southwest tended to live together in communities in a dry, hot climate. They mostly farmed for their food, and their myths frequently use images of earth as a fertile mother (How Did the Different Regions in North America Influence American Indian Myth, 2012).
Knowledge is gained through ones experiences and others’ as well. It is thought that since human life eventually ends; humans cannot determine everything by themselves. People are educated in a lot of lessons by way of stories passed down from their relatives. Culture is usually passed from generation to generation by way of stories, myths, and re-enactments or rituals and observances. “Oral tradition is the spoken relation and preservation, from one generation to the next, of a people’s cultural history and ancestry. It was traditionally used to transmit religious beliefs because it conveys cultural tradition” (Oral Tradition And Origin Myth, n.d).
One of the most widespread forms of oral tradition is the story. Storytelling is a skill passed down from one generation to another. Just as with any arrangement of art, practice is the key. The storyteller must be able to gain the complete attention of the listeners; otherwise part of the lesson will be lost. The transmission of lessons by word of mouth leaves them susceptible to dissimilar understandings and fading forever. The story can cease to survive if it is forgotten; because there are no backup copies, the people’s memories are the keepers of the scripts (Oral Tradition and Origin Myth, n.d).
One manner in which Native American groups vary is the manner in which they tell stories. For instance, all groups have their own dissimilar origin myth, but the general ideas behind the stories are alike. The source myth tells about the first people, migration, and the origin of family groups. These stories also pass on the ideas that the future does not depend on what one believes and hopes for in the future, but what is going on in the here and now (Oral Tradition and Origin Myth, n.d).
One of the key purposes of these stories is to reflect upon conventional values of the past in order to make sense of the moral changes of the present. Myths, particularly origin myths, normally seek to answer certain questions:
1. “Where people came from
2. Describe the purposes of people and relationship with the Earth
3. Establish relationships with
4. The individual to the universe and spiritual world
5. The nation to the universe and spiritual world” (Oral Tradition and Origin Myth, n.d).
The origin myth of the earth-diver is widely used to answer these questions. Generally the story clarifies that the solid earth, representative of order and haven, appears from a disorganized and shapeless universe. In variances of the stories, collaboration, service, and self-sacrifice bring order into the old disorganized world. These stories teach people that they must allocate power and accountability. If they become self-centered and take too much power and liability, they risk disturbing the order relations of the universe, which will consequence in disorder, anguish, illness, bad luck, and worst of all, death. “The world is supposed to be in a constant state of cosmic give-and-take. Deviance from this will cause unbalance. Oral tradition is a means through which people transmit cultural knowledge. This knowledge preserves cultural history” (Oral Tradition and Origin Myth, n.d).
In the Indian culture a person’s own individual and family history determine their cultural identity and practices, which might change during their lifespan as they are exposed to dissimilar experiences. “The variation of cultural identity can be viewed as a continuum that ranges between one who views himself or herself as “traditional” and lives their traditional culture daily, to one who views himself or herself as “Indian” or “Native,” but has little knowledge or interest in their traditional cultural practices” (American Indian and Alaska Native: A Guide to Build Cultural Awareness, 2010).
Native American storytelling was a way that people passed on beliefs and traditions that they found important to them. It was through the myths and stories that this society formed its sense of self. It was by these stories that these people knew who they were. It was also by these stories that people knew what was wrong and what was right. It was this sense of morality that guided their interactions, not only with each other, but with the world around them.
“About Indian Mythology.” 2012. Web. 20 May 2012.
“American Indian and Alaska Native: A Guide to Build Cultural Awareness.” 2010. Web. 20
“Culture Clash: The Puritans and the Native Americans.” 2011. Web. 20 May 2012.
“How Did the Different Regions In North America Influence American Indian Myths?”
2012. Web. 20 May 2012.
“Native American Mythology.” 2012. Web. 20 May 2012.
“Oral Tradition And Origin Myth.” n.d. Web. 20 May 2012.
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