I’ve always been fascinated by Native American Storytelling. Firstly, it carries inherent wisdom, soul, and spirit grounded in thousands of years of living closely with the land and nature. Hundreds of native tribes lived on the land. Their oral storytelling tradition is compelling in its own right.
What Native American Storytelling Gives Us
Native American stories pass on ancient history, Native American religion, and lore, now essentially lost to us. Yet, they provide an incredible and deep insight into human nature. Often through allegory.
Native American storytelling is deeply connected to the history of America, of course.
And I find that there are many parallels between our modern-day lives and those of ancient peoples.
By the way, it needs to be said that my usage of the word ‘tribe’ and ‘Native American tribe’ is in no way derogatory. The term is used literally. Note that the term ‘Native American’ is not universally accepted among the tribes – I have used it as the most appropriate collective description.
Forms of Native American Storytelling Takes
The stories take many forms depending on the tribe. Still, generally, storytelling is a way to impart traditional wisdom through entertaining the listeners.
Many stories recount the origin of the tribes, the giving of the medicine and spiritual guideposts (such as the Bear Medicine or Warrior Code), or the lives and loved ones of a tribal elder.
Traditional Native Americans communicated through rituals, dances, songs, and stories. Their stories were passed from person to person over time and across many years. Each Iroquois village, for example, had a storyteller.
The stories were carried in an oral tradition. Which is now being preserved in many Native American reservations across the United States. Many of these stories are now available in books, audio, and videos.
Native American writers started to create Native American literature in the early 1900s, as interest in the genre grew. Prior to that, anthropologists and ethnologists documented the tales, in part to cultivate sympathy for the plight of Native Americans.
Native American stories are often about the land or the people in their tribe. The stories themselves are ways to pass down history and knowledge from one generation to the next.
Among the forms that Native American storytelling takes are myths and legends, dreams and visions, dream songs, chants, songs, war dances, and trickster tales.
Trickster Tales are an essential part of Native American storytelling. These stories are about two conflicting forces – one often foolish or dishonest, the other honest or good. These stories are also about the role of balance in life.
According to Richard Erdoes, the Native American Trickster, a mischievous and annoying character, is also “openness to life’s multiplicity.”
The summer native stories were often about animals, hunting, and wildlife. Winter stories dealt with current or future problems. These stories were often used to explain things that happened or might happen. They often served as a history of a tribe or their reasons for doing certain things.
Native people learned about their tribes through these stories.
Myth and legend are two distinct forms of Native American storytelling. The story is made up of a myth, and the main characters are usually supernatural beings or animals. These stories are told to explain the natural forces, the weather and to teach a lesson. A legend is the story of a group of people. For example, a particular tribe.
The vision quest was a sacred ritual and a form of storytelling in which a young person went out to a solitary place to seek a vision. Young men would go out alone into the wilderness until they would have a vision to decide their future.
They learned to live off nature and rely on themselves during this time.
Creation stories are also a form of Native American storytelling. They describe how the world was created, the place of humans, and how the tribes were created. Some stories are about how the land became the way it is.
Dream songs were sung by members of a tribe to gather people, and they were used in a similar way to the story of origin. In addition, they were used for ceremonial purposes. The songs would be accompanied by a dance for the tribe. Placing the body and mind into a higher spiritual state was the purpose of these stories.
Amid the Great Depression, Cherokee playwright and member of the Six Nations Reserve Forest Theatre Lynn Riggs made it his mission to support indigenous theatre. His passion for the craft inspired members of his community to promote it on a national stage.
Story Elements in Native American Storytelling
Many different elements are featured in Native American stories. They include the following:
Native Americans have long been connected to animals, even before the Europeans came to the New World. Many different types of creatures are featured in the Native American stories. For example, coyotes, eagles, and deer. In different tribes, the same animal represents different roles. Some animals are considered medicine. Other animals are part of the family. But the depictions of animals are not always “traditional.”
To the Plains people, eagles are an essential part of the Sun Dance, while to the Navajo, in their Eagle Dance, the Thunder Bird represents storm clouds. For the Navajo, the spider is the keeper of the Earth’s life; for the Lakota, it is the crow. To the Hopi, the spider is the Creator of the Earth’s people, and the eagle represents the sky spirits.
These spiritual meanings of different animals have been carried down for centuries.
Fantasy and Realism:
Native American storytelling also encompasses both fantasy and realism. For example, in the stories, animals can talk and be funny. Sometimes magic is a part of the story. Another example of realism is the idea that living creatures exist in all worlds – the sky is one world, the water is another, the Earth is another, and so on.
There are many different stories about places. These stories express the importance of a specific location for the tribespeople. These have to do with various landmarks. For example, a particular cave is where they gave birth to their tribe or where buffalo are found.
Native American people believed in a trickster. The trickster was an essential part of their stories. The trickster is often a deceiver or a foolish creature, but he often was a bringer of messages. The trickster can be a comic figure or a wily animal, like the coyote in the stories.
Native American stories, in many cases, can include a Creator. The Creator is seen in many different ways. For example, a bird creates the Earth. Or the tale of how a turtle lifts himself out of the water and onto a rock. This Creator is vital in understanding how the Earth and nature came to be.
The hero is another familiar character in Native American stories. The hero often has a problem to resolve. He faces death or defeat, but his indomitable spirit, knowledge, or actions help him fulfill his quest.
Native American Storytelling became a means whereby the social order was described and validated. The tales explain the way of life and the place of the people in society. It described their history and validated their place in the world.
People of higher rank were often the main characters in stories, although there are warriors with extraordinary powers. The stories reinforce the roles of family members, hierarchy, and duties. It played a vital educational role in life lessons for the younger generations.
Rites of Passage:
The ceremony for a child leaving adolescence is still vital in Native American culture. It not only marks adulthood but helps the youth to develop and understand their place in the tribe. Stories were used to explain the meaning and purpose of rites of passage, like marriage or death.
Disaster stories are a part of the oral tradition as well. These stories were used to explain why certain things happen. Still, they were also used to prepare for disasters like natural disasters and the end of the world.
The stories of the Tar Baby – retold by Joel Chandler Harris – and The Flood are among the Native American stories.
Classic Native American Tales
One of the issues of documenting Native American stories is that many were written down by non-Native anthropologists, with deliberate and mistaken errors and omissions. Nor were secret and sacred rituals respected. It is simply not the same thing as hearing it directly from a Native American storyteller.
Nevertheless, here are some well-known stories stemming from just a handful of the many tribes. To give a sense of the stories, and native culture, I’ve included very brief summaries:
‘Man Who Helped the Eagles‘
This Native American myth tells how an extremely poor Apache picked up scraps of food to eat. He was lowered down a cliff face to where two young eagles sat. The man took off the rope and stayed with them. Then, many eagles came from the sky, but long wings on him, and they flew to the sky hole. As he arrived there, the man tired and started to fall – but was carried up.
‘How the Thunder Pipe Came’
This Native American legend recounts how a man dared to visit the lodge of Thunder after the Wolf had told him that all creatures fear him and cannot run away. He met the Raven, who gifted him some medicine. On arriving at Thunder’s lodge, made of stone, the man searched for his wife and found her eyes hanging from a string. Thunder stared at him with baleful eyes, but the man used the Raven’s medicine and shot an arrow through the wall of the lodge, allowing sunlight to enter. Thunder allowed him to take his wife’s eyes and gifted a pipe with which to call for rain in spring and pray to Thunder.
‘Origin of Strawberries’
A man and a woman quarreled, and the woman left. She walked towards the Eastland, towards the land of the Sun. However, Sun felt sorry for the man and started to make berries of different kinds for the woman. She refused them all until he made a beautiful patch of strawberries, at which she stopped, picked some, and turned back to the man.
The Role of Myth
Mythology plays an integral part in Native American culture. It is utilized in ceremonial settings to do so correctly or perform the correct ceremony. It provides a means of conveying information about tribal history. To the Native American people, though, their mythology provides their identity.
It gives indigenous people a sense of where they came from and gives them more purpose for life.
Creation myths–stories that explain how their tribe came to be, are fundamental in Native American culture. Each tribe had its own creation myth, each with its own god and its own origin. Different tribes gave these myths to explain why they were here. The anthropologist and ethnologist Elisabeth Tooker has analyzed these myths.
Many different patterns emerge from her research. One of the main patterns is that there were three ways to create the world in the Native American culture and their creation myths. One of the ways was through a bond with spirits. Another way was through a mishap with the Spirits. The third way in which they created the world was through a verbal genesis.
Where Can I Experience Native American Storytelling?
The best way to experience Native American storytelling is by visiting a tribe’s reservation. You can learn about Native American heritage, traditions, culture, and way of life. Tribes will often welcome you, and you can know more about their way of life. Some tribes will entertain you with arts such as storytelling. Some of these tribes include the Navajo, the Sioux, and the Cherokee.
Indeed, Native Americans actually get together and tell stories, and personal stories. They also tell stories to their children when teaching them tribal or cultural history. The stories connect them to their heritage. You can celebrate Thanksgiving at a powwow. Many tribes commemorate the harvest. Celebrate the harvest with a Native American group.
Centers dedicated to preserving the oral tradition of Native Americans are also an excellent resource.
An often overlooked resource is the writings of the Native Americans themselves. Old Native American pamphlets and books are great resources for finding those who are still willing to tell their stories and understand these amazing people’s past and traditions.
What Can We Learn About Storytelling from Native Storytelling?
So, what can we learn about storytelling from Native American storytelling? One obvious lesson is the value of storytelling among Native American tribes. These stories have shaped the culture of the Native Americans.
Stories have given them purpose and meaning, with an origin and history. Their tradition is their identity, customs, and indigenous culture. Thus, their identity and customs are significant and valuable.
It represents a very rich oral tradition.
Native Americans have stories that teach values. These values may be values that you do not believe in. However, they teach people important lessons and have guided the Native Americans for thousands of years. Therefore, it is vital to be aware of the values and traditions of Native Americans and learn about them.
It’s important to learn about the traditions, customs, and values to understand the stories. The stories are more meaningful when you know the context in which they are told. Thus, there is a vibrant cultural context which is the history of the Native Americans.
Such storytelling has been going on for over 8,000 years. If it seems like an ancient tradition, that’s because it is. What they got so right, and we still get wrong, is the atmosphere.
Native storytellers create an atmosphere that is conducive to storytelling.
Most of us in the West have stood around at a party and tried to hold a good story. We’re all trying to outdo each other, and it just doesn’t ever work. No one is interested.
The West has forgotten that stories are meant to be heard and enjoyed. Reading a story to someone else just doesn’t have the meaning that listening to a story has. You are part of the story.
Think of being at one of those gatherings around the campfire. You are sitting there, with other tribal members, listening to a story, and you are getting scared. You are imagining the scene unfolding before you. You don’t know what is going to happen.
Native Americans believe that stories have meaning. Most stories mean more than is mentioned.
They are stories that deal with the pragmatic. Practical living is a big part of Native American storytelling. But they also tell stories that deal with morality. These stories deal with issues such as greed and anger and are meant to teach a lesson.
They also tell stories intended to teach about life, death, and our purpose in the world.
Meditation and Music
I don’t think I can complete this article about Native American Storytelling without mentioning music. Especially Canyon Flute music, which I find to be very inspiring and meditative.
Many narratives recount how different indigenous peoples of the Americas invented the flute – including that woodpeckers made holes in hollow branches that the wind played on.
How Does Native American Storytelling Connect to the History of America?
The truth is that Native American history was, by and large, a disaster. Vast numbers of them died due to warfare and at the hands of settlers. Many more died in marches to reservations. In addition, native American culture was contaminated by the West. Alcohol, disease, and greed led to an increase in death among Native Americans.
They were forced to give up their culture and traditions. These actions were devastating to traditional Native American life.
However, the survival of the narrative tradition was crucial to Native Americans’ survival as a people. They preserved their identity through stories.
Even today, many Native American tribes have their origin story as part of their oral history. Without these stories, Native Americans would lose their identity. To be Native American is to be descended from a long line of ancestors who are proud of who they are, and of their cultural traditions.
These stories are not just idle tales. They connect Native Americans – and us – to the past, the present, and the future. Those who tell the stories are the ones who will keep the stories alive.