Language study in Native American

Storytelling is one of the most important ways Native American children learn the lessons of their elders their rich heritage, central standards such as truth, respect, and love, and the significant part played by each creature, whether the creature walks, flies, crawls, or swims. Through stories children learn concerning creation and planetary peace and about the need for two-leggeds to be accountable stewards of the Earth. Teaching stories exemplify the consequences of ethical and non-ethical behavior. Stories often deal with daily dilemmas. Some expose human foibles by poking fun at different aspects of life. According to Native storytellers, one reason of storytelling is to let people know ultimately that their behavior is inappropriate.

Within tribes, elders often take on the role of storyteller, sharing their sagacious advice with younger members. Some storytelling consists of sharing personal experiences. For instance, Lakota warriors were anticipated to boast about their exploits; they commonly did this through telling a story. Native Americans use storytelling to pass on epic exploits, tribal history, cultural beliefs and values, communal roles and norms, and humorous human foibles. Some storytellers travel from tribe to tribe telling of heroic deeds, predicting future events, and relaying news of births and deaths.In an oral tradition, listeners remember only some stories. Some tales die with the storyteller. By definition, stories that get passed from one generation to another are especially engaging and enchanting.

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They typically deal with timeless themes or with themes that different people can adapt in different ways.Because Native Americans tell stories orally, the act of storytelling entails direct communication with audiences. Stories are meant to be told to audiences consisting of several people rather than read aloud to one or a few children or read silently by one. Listeners typically sit in a circle, often on the Earth. The circular formation assists to make listeners an active part of the story. Whereas many American stories try to lull listeners to sleep, Native American stories try to stay listeners engaged and involved. The personalized, individualized type of communication concerned in the storytelling of Native Americans strengthens the oral tradition and the messages passed on through it. Stories draw people closer, forming communions between adults and children, adults and adults, and children and children.

Native American stories are also rendered active by many inclusion of dialogue; almost all their stories entail characters who talk. The dialogue form invites listeners to participate in the stories. As the stories progress, listeners can pursue each twist and turn of logic. They can hold in imaginary verbal banters with the interlocutors, and, in general, participate in the interaction of the stories. Since most stories not only effect but also reveal popular roles, ideas, and values, they permit listeners to see parts of themselves reflected back upon them, thereby confirming and intensifying these roles, ideas, and values.Native American stories deal with a plethora of topics. Ojibway George Copway states, “There is not a lake or mountain that has not connected with it some story of delight or wonder, and nearly every beast and bird is the subject of the storyteller.”A large number of stories talk about creation, giving listeners a sense of where they came from and who they are.

Numerous stories explicate peculiarities of nature such as “Why Trees Lose Their Leaves.” Many, if not most, stories include animals, often explaining why animals look or behave in the ways they do. The following story names exemplify this: Why the Chipmunk Has the Black Stripe (Haudenosaunee), How Mosquitoes Came to Be (Tlingit), Why Mole Lives Underground (Cherokee), How Coyote Got His Cunning (Karok), and Why the Owl Has Big Eyes (Haudenosaunee). Other common topics of stories include the coming of corn; the changing of seasons; the sacred four directions; the four elements of nature (earth, water, fire, air); the birth, death, and rebirth of people and nature; and the celebration of war heroes (George Copway, 1977).

The language of Native American stories is typically concrete and colorful, and, according to American standards, is often off-color.Many of the details in the stories of Native People concern place — specific geographical locations, remarks concerning the terrain, comments about the climate, and so forth. Whereas American stories, like American culture, seem to stress time, Native American stories, like Native American culture, seem to center on place. In his foreword to Barry Lopez’s book on Coyote, Barre Toelken ascribed this characteristic to the live contexts of the original stories.

He wrote,A sense of locality, a feeling for place — both geographic and sacred — infuses these dramatic narratives. Small details of geography, seemingly minor references to the color of a feather, the direction of the wind, the smell of grass or water, are all signals which awaken memories, trigger recognition, and allow for the re-experiencing of the texture and quality of a life locally known as it becomes a context for Old Man Coyote’s universal adventures (Toelken, J. Barre 1977).So as to maintain interest and survive through the ages, most Native American stories use poignant, descriptive language and an overabundance of metaphors, allowing listeners to see and hear the messages.

Like imagery in the rest of their discourse, most of the metaphors come from nature. As they are delivered orally, the language is more colloquial and informal than in most American stories. Circuitous trains of thought and ungrammatical sentences, particularly in their original languages, often creep into stories. Listeners take for granted gaps in logical reasoning. Native People talk about the Earth as animate and all parts of the Earth as equal and interrelated. They say an inextricable relationship exists between the physical and spiritual worlds. They believe all things possess a spirit, together with things that Euro-Americans consider inanimate. Given these cultural assumptions, Native Americans talk concerning everything as figurative and metaphorical.

For people reared in the Western tradition, the Native view of symbolism, as expressed in their discourse, may be hard to understand. When a North American speaker uses the word sun as a metaphor, the speaker means the sun represents light or some other quality. But when a Native American speaker uses the word sun figuratively, the speaker is saying the sun represents light, becomes one with light, and is light. The sun and light are one with the speaker, listeners, and people who read the speech.

And since everything in the cosmos is linked, the speaker is saying the sun is one with everyone and everything.For Native Americans, metaphors, symbols, and images are not just figures of speech to add expressiveness and interest to messages. Joseph Rael, Picuris Pueblo writer, directly states that “a metaphor is not simply a figure of speech: “Metaphor is how God is present in our lives. Metaphor is energy that is in a state of action, breathing life into ceremony.” Instead of figures of speech, Native People speak of metaphors, symbols, and images as another sign that everything is inherently interrelated and one.

For example, Native People speak of the image of a spider’s web to represent the unseen threads that weave everything together (Joseph Rael, 1998, p. 1).John Lame Deer, a Sioux medicine man, and Paula Gunn Allen, a modern Laguna Pueblo and Sioux writer, identify significant differences between how Americans and Native Americans perceive symbolism:We Indians live in a world of symbols where the spiritual and the commonplace are one. To you, symbols are just words, spoken or written in a book.

To us, they are a part of nature, part of ourselves — the earth, the sun, the wind and the rain, stones, trees, animals, even little insects like ants and grasshoppers. We try to understand them not with the head but with the heart, and we need no more than a hint to give us the meaning. (John Lame Deer and Richard Erdoes, 1994)“Symbols in American Indian systems are not symbolic in the usual sense of the word. The words articulate reality — not “psychological” or imagined reality, not emotive reality captured metaphorically in an attempt to fuse thought and feeling, but that reality where thought and feeling are one, where objective and subjective are one, where speaker and listener are one, where sound and sense are one” (Paula Gunn Allen, 1992), p.

Pulitzer Prize-winning Kiowa writer N. Scott Momaday often discusses the living vitality of language in a culture immersed in an oral tradition. He clearly illustrates how sound, symbols, and images bring words to life with his telling of the figurative story of the arrow maker. The story passed down through many generations goes as follows:Once there was a man and his wife. They were alone at night in their tepee. By the light of a fire the man was making arrows. After a while he caught sight of something. There was a small opening in the tepee where two hides had been sewn together. Someone was there on the outside, looking in. The man went on with his work, but he said to his wife, “Someone is standing outside. Do not be afraid.

Let us talk easily, as of ordinary things.” He took up an arrow and straightened it in his teeth; then, as it was right for him to do, he drew it to the bow and took aim, first in this direction and then in that. And all the while he was talking, as if to his wife. But this is how he spoke: “I know that you are there on the outside, for I can feel your eyes upon me. If you are a Kiowa, you will understand what I am saying, and you will speak your name.” “But there was no answer, and the man went on in the same way, pointing the arrow all around. At last his aim fell upon the place where his enemy stood, and he let go of the string. The arrow went straight to the enemy’s heart” Momaday discusses how language determines the identity and reality of the arrow maker: “Language is the repository of his whole knowledge, and it represents the only chance he has for survival.” The metaphorical qualities of the story, says Momaday, are obvious since “The arrow maker is preeminently the man made of words. He has consummate being in language; it is the world of his origin and of his posterity, and there is no other.

Momaday’s discussion of language illustrates how images for Native Americans are more like holograms than pictures. They possess multiple dimensions, they change constantly, they replicate off themselves. The parts are separate but they work together. Only when seen together, every part in relationship to each other part, do they take on a life of their own.Listeners in any culture may experience symbols on many levels, but Native symbols seem to possess many more layers and levels than the symbols used in western cultures. Tuscarora Chief Elias Johnson explained, “And when you have learned all that language can convey, there are still a thousand images, suggestions, and associations recurring to the Indian, which can strike no chord in your heart. The myriad voices of nature are dumb to you, but to them they’re full of life and power.

” For Native People the number of layers and levels of symbolism seem limitless; they talk about imagery as complex and multifaceted (Elias Johnson, 1972, p. 32).Many Native American stories involve the number four — do things four times, do things over four days, carry four bundles, and so forth. Native People believe the number four sacred since there are four directions, four stages of life, and four elemental forces — earth, air, water, and fire. Lame Deer declared, “We Sioux do everything by fours.” (Lame Deer and Erdoes, Lame Deer, p. 115)Storytellers communicate large portions of their messages nonverbally. Some include American Sign Language as part of their presentation. Rate, volume, pitch, emphasis, accent, inflection, rhythm, pace, pronunciation, and articulation comprise just some of the ways storytellers communicate with their voice. They also use eye movements, facial expressions, hand gestures, and body motions to take on their audiences. Speaking stories forces words to come alive. The words carry the storytellers’ breath, tone, mood, and feelings.

Storytellers communicate messages not simply through words and nonverbal behaviors, but also through silences. The placement of pauses and the duration of pauses are important rhetorical tools. Dennis Tedlock, Professor of Anthropology and Religion at Boston University, claims, “The spoken word is never delivered in the gray masses of boxed-in words we call prose; indeed, according to Frieda Goldman-Eisler, as much as half the time spent in delivering spontaneous discourse is devoted to silence, and ‘pausing is as much a part of the act of speaking as the vocal utterance of words itself.'”

Storytelling is a communal experience, involving storyteller to listeners and listeners to each other. Storytelling also links all too past generations who have heard the same story and to future generations who will heed the same story. Stories, then, bond generations together in an oral tradition. Shared histories, hopes, fears, legacies, and safe harbors get passed along in whispers.Another major difference between Native American stories and American television or books is the constituent of time. On television, all problems are resolved before the end of the program. The size of a book indicates the length of the story. Since children do not know how long a story will last, they also do not know if central characters will resolve their problems in the next two minutes or in the next two hours. And, since all stories do not have a happy ending, listeners do not even know if the central characters will resolve their dilemmas at all. This anticipation gives stories a spellbinding excellence, seizing listeners like a good suspense novel.A related issue is that all elements in a story occur in the moment, encouraging listeners to focus on the present.

Abenaki Joseph Bruchac explains, “When Native People speak of the time when animals could talk, they are speaking in the present tense” (Bruchac, Roots of Survival, p. 16).The stories of Native People usually include structural markers. Typical beginnings include “Would you like to hear a story?” (Haudenosaunee), “When the world was new” (Seneca), and “They say it happened long ago” or “Long ago” (Pima and Papago). Typical endings include “That is all” (Haudenosaunee), “That is the end” (Abenaki, Pima, and Papago), “And so the story goes” (Abenaki), and “That is the center of the basket” (Pima and Papago). This last phrase means that the different parts of the story have been woven together.Sometimes storytellers use beginnings that involve the audience by asking them to respond. Zuni storytellers typically begin by saying, “Now we are taking it up.

” Audiences reply, “Yes, indeed.” Storytellers continue, “Now it begins to be made.” Audiences again reply, “Yes, indeed.” More simply, Yakima storytellers usually begin, “This is the way it was,” and listeners respond, “Yes. “Involving the audience by having them contribute often occurs throughout the story. For example, storytellers may tell listeners to say “Hey” every time the storyteller says “Ho.” Having audiences respond all through stories helps to keep them awake, aware, and involved.Native American stories are rich with everyday details, vivid imagery, and short, straightforward thought units. The ease of stories makes them easier to digest. They often use the techniques of exaggeration, distortion, and misrepresentation. Although many stories employ humor, few are raucously funny; rather, they seek to make listeners smile while understanding a serious point.Native American stories affect and replicate their beliefs that people and the natural world are linked and that no being is superior to any other.

In story after story, the sun, moon, stars, trees, rocks, clouds, and animals are alive, possessing a soul, and endowed with feelings. They often interact in stories with people. In some stories, people change into animals or animals change into people.Stories give insights into the fears, values, and feelings of a people. All people have a story to tell, and all people’s stories entail pleasure and pain. But what constitutes pleasure and what constitutes pain vary across diverse people and different cultures. For example, whereas American stories often depict nature as frightening and dangerous, most stories of the Native People present nature as gentle and accommodating. Almost all Native stories comprise nature since almost all stories take place outdoors.

The values usually advanced in Native American stories differ from those typically put forth in American stories. Whereas American stories can be compared to report talk, Native stories may be compared to link talk because they often focus on cooperation, compromise, sharing, interdependence, pride in the success of the community, and connections between the personal and the planetary. They stress the significance of establishing, nurturing, and negotiating relations with oneself, other people, and everything in the world. They support the importance of people, Earth, and place — even while the stories are not about such matters (Deborah Tannen, 1990).

The Cherokee story How the Milky Way Came to Be shows neighbors concerned with one family’s problems. The people meet and give everyone an equal chance to speak. They find a solution without hurting the dog in the story. Cooperation and community triumph (Blanche, Native American Reader, pp. 58-59).In the Onondaga tale The Earth on Turtle’s Back,” a duck, beaver, loon, muskrat, and turtle all work to broach the Earth and place it on the back of the turtle. The determination of the muskrat is especially noteworthy; he succeeded where others had failed.The Spokane story Speela and Wood-Tick advises listeners to act suspiciously, warning that if people treat people and animals without kindness and respect, they will suffer negative consequences in the end.

The Winnnebago story How Skunks Came to Be has a similar message, but puts it in a form similar to Aesop’s Fables: The last line of the story tells the moral. Thus, this story ends, “Moral: Don’t be vain.” (Blanche, pp. 62-64)While the heroes in American stories tend to be large and influential, the heroes in Native American stories are often the small and powerless. For instance, in the Pawnee story Song of the Wren,” a priest feels enchanted by the beautiful sound of a bird. He then discovers that the bird is a wren, “the smallest, and the least powerful of birds that seemed to be most glad and to pour out in ringing melody to the rising sun its delight in life.” The priest concludes, “Here is a teaching for my people. Everyone can be happy; even the most insignificant can have his song of thanks.

”?(“Song of the Wren”, in Streep, The Sacred Journey, p. 17). ConclusionsStorytellers are crucial members of tribal communities. They provide as conduits of the oral tradition from one generation to the next. They are rememberers, educators, entertainers, historians and carriers of tradition.In the Native American way of thinking, where the physical and spiritual worlds are one, the idea of “myth,” as most Americans understand the term, does not exist. Native People do not differentiate between stories, myths, legends, fables, parables, and tales. No story of any sort is considered fictitious. All tell the truth.As a group, Native People follow the adage, “There are only two things we can give our children. One is roots. The other is wings.

” Stories give children a firm base of roots in the Earth from which to grow. Allowing children to determine the outcome of some of the stories gives them wings to fly like eagles, soaring higher and higher. Just as learning is a never-ending process, so too, people can never impede learning from stories. Stories deal with timeless topics, varied vistas, infinite choices, and expanding horizons. Native People say the act of storytelling constitutes a ceremony. Taos Pueblo Terry Tafoya, Executive Director of Tamanawit Unlimited, an international consulting firm, puts it this way: “Every time we tell a story it’s a ceremony. In English, we translate it that when you tell a story you ‘wet it with your breath.’ You give it life, just as when you give water to a seed it blossoms. ” (Terry Tafoya, in Crozier-Hogle and Wilson, Surviving in Two Worlds, p. 135).Stories continue to live long after they are told. People ponder their purposes, meditate about their meanings, and study their symbols. They interact with the stories as if the stories were close friends. Greg Sarris, Miwok and Pomo, and Professor of English at the University of California, Los Angeles, say, “The way Western man is taught to read is to find the meaning, the symbols. Instead I say no, a story is not something you figure out the meaning of, but something you carry with you the rest of your life to talk back and forth with.” (

Work Cited

  1. Blanche, Jerry D., ed. Native American Reader: Stories, Speeches, and Poems E98.F6 N385 1990.
  2. Bruchac, Joseph. Roots of Survival. Golden: Fulcrum Press, (1996).Deborah Tannen, You Just Don’t Understand (William Morrow & Company, Inc.
  3. , 1990).Dennis Tedlock, The Spoken Word and the Work of Interpretation (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1983), p. 48.Elias Johnson, Legends, Traditions, and Laws of the Iroquois or Six Nations (Lockport, NY: 1881), p.
  4. 220 reprinted in Cry of the Thunderbird, ed. Charles Hamilton (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1972), p. 32.George Copway, Traditional History and Characteristic Sketches of the Ojibway Nation, 1851; reprint, (New York: AMS, 1977).
  5. Greg Sarris, Surviving in Two Worlds: Contemporary Native American Voices (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1992), p. 229Jone Lame Deer and Richard Erdoes, Lame Deer: Seeker of Visions ( New York: Washington Square Press, 1994), pp. 107-108Joseph Rael, Ceremonies of the Living Spirit ( Tulsa: Council Oak Books, 1998), p. 1.
  6. Lame Deer, John (Fire). Lame Deer, seeker of visions New York : Simon and Schuster, 1972.Paula Gunn Allen, The Sacred Hoop: Recovering the Feminine in American Indian Traditions (Boston: Beacon Press, 1992), p. 71.
  7. Scott Momaday, The Man Made of Words (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1997), pp. 9-10.Streep, “Song of the Wren”, The Sacred Journey, (William Morrow & Company, Inc.
  8. , 1990). p. 17.Terry Tafoya, in Crozier-Hogle and Wilson, Surviving in Two Worlds, p.
  9. 135.Toelken, J. Barre. “Foreword” to Giving Birth to Thunder, Sleeping with His Daughter.
  10. Coyote Builds North America, by Barry Lopez, xi-xiv. New York: Avon, 1977.

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