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Fall 1995, Volume 12.3

Essay

 

Jami Huntsinger Hacker

Traditional Voices Speak: Storytellers in Contemporary Native American Texts


Jami Huntsinger Hacker (M.A., University of South Dakota) is a graduate student at the University of New Mexico. Her work has been published in
El Nopa, The Proceedings of the Fifth Annual Southwest Symposium: A Tag Production, and South Dakota Leaders: From Pierre Chouteau, Jr. to Oscar Howe.

 

In Tracks, Chippewa writer Louise Erdrich writes about Fleur Nanapush, one of the few survivors of a smallpox epidemic; this character lives with an old man named Nanapush who teaches her the traditional ways of the Chippewa. One night, enticed by the "lake monster, Misshepeshu," living in the lake's icy depths, she wanders into the water and disappears (8). The next day, she reemerges and finds that she is now feared by many of those around her (106). Fleur and the people of the community know of the lake man; the stories of his existence are a part of their consciousness, their cultural identity. Erdrich's storytellers, like Nanapush, provide a world filled with sacred stories, explaining creation and the mysteries of life, such as the mystery of Misshepeshu. These fictional, textualized storytellers invoke and incorporate a "world found within oral traditions," a fictional, textual world of cultural identity (Owens 9).

When creating fictional storytellers, Native American writers are influenced by their knowledge of the traditional storytellers found within Native American societies. These traditional storytellers, who are responsible for passing the culture from generation to generation, have safeguarded ancient stories, customarily telling them when the wind whips through winter's white snows. Within long-standing oral traditions, Native Americans rely upon the spoken word to record religious beliefs and historical events. In The Sacred: Ways of Knowledge, Sources of Life, Peggy Beck includes a passage which helps to explain the importance of storytellers in Native American societies: they possess "one of the most admired skills a person can have" (59). The storytellers in Native American societies remember the sacred stories of their cultures, and, hence, the essence of who their people are, of their place in the world. The storyteller's consciousness becomes the truth of cultural experience: "A good storyteller is able to communicate the universality and the timelessness of certain themes that never change" (59).

Native American writers, like Louise Erdrich who writes of Fleur's experience with Misshepeshu, include in their texts a fictional oral tradition as adaptive and dynamic as the oral tradition itself. According to Louis Owens, critic and novelist of Choctaw-Cherokee-Irish descent, these writers find themselves writing their stories within traditional Western forms of expression, "a medium for which no close Indian prototype exists" (10). Therefore, Native American writers use storytellers to "graft the thematic and structural principles found therein upon the 'foreign' (though infinitely flexible) and intensely egocentric" forms of Western expression. These writers give the narrators of their texts characteristics of traditional storytellers; these characteristics are a "requisite of cultural survival," an insurance that beliefs and philosophies are articulated and safe-guarded (9).

Many Native American writers indicate that their narrators are, in fact, modeled after traditional storytellers, and they do so by including subtle references to them. Leslie Marmon Silko, of Laguna, Hispanic, and Anglo ancestry, creates a storyteller out of the narrator of her story, "Yellow Woman." According to Paula Gunn Allen (Laguna Pueblo-Sioux), the Yellow Woman stories "are always female-centered, always told [by the storytellers] from Yellow Woman's point of view" (226). With respect to this Pueblo tradition, which specifies that these stories are told from a female point of view, Silko opens "Yellow Woman" with the following line: "My thigh clung to his with dampness, and I watched the sun rising up through the tamaracks and willows" (54). In this passage, Silko uses the word "my" to indicate a point of view, and we soon discover that the pronoun "my" refers to a woman. As the story unfolds, we learn that this woman is actually living a Yellow Woman story; the character recognizes the similarities between her experiences and the experiences of a Yellow Woman in a story she has heard. And, of course, Silko herself is a storyteller of one version of a Yellow Woman story; through Silko's consciousness, the reader discovers a mythic and contemporary Yellow Woman.

In addition to including a narrator who tells the story from the female point of view, Silko includes a male storyteller in the narrative of her text. She tells how the female character within the story has learned about Yellow Woman: "My old grandpa liked to tell those stories best" (55). Her grandpa assumes the role of a traditional storyteller, and through his consciousness, the contemporary Yellow Woman in the short story is aware of the Yellow Woman from mythic times. Grandpa's words create reality; the female character lives a story he has told. By including a Yellow Woman story which contains both a female point of view and a reference to a male storyteller, Silko connects both the past with the present and the written text with the oral tradition.

Native American writers also model their narrators after storytellers through their use of structural devices. In "She Sits on the Bridge," Navajo writer Luci Tapahanso acknowledges the presence of one storyteller. In this short story, line breaks, much like the poetic breaks, indicate breaks in the narrative. These breaks, in effect, create an absence of words, places of silence which signify times when storytellers pause to collect their thoughts to take a breath, to stop the narrative, or to include a song: "An elder who tells stories usually prepares himself for at least two or three days and nights. This is how long it takes to tell the whole legend with the songs" (Beck, et.al. 59). These breaks bring to life on the page one aspect of the atmosphere present in a live storytelling session. The storyteller is not a bard who recites a poem continuously from beginning to end; she or he varies the telling of the story, stopping occasionally when the need arises.

Tapahanso also uses spacing between words, which cuts up the narrative just as the line breaks do, to create the presence of a storyteller. However, this spacing, which is physically smaller than the line breaks, indicates the places where sounds, such as a sudden howl of the wind or the cries of a baby, might interrupt the telling of the story. In both instances, the line breaks and spacing indicate a voice behind the words, a voice which does not necessarily flow continuously from an individual. These structural devices suggest that a storyteller is present, one who interacts with the collective life of the community of listeners.

Native American writers also create and express the cultural identity of their people by including a community of voices, a community of storytellers who share in the creation of the complete narrative. Paula Gunn Allen suggests that including a community of storytellers in textual fiction helps create cultural identity, and this is an essential addition to the texts written by Native American writers: "Literature is one facet of a culture. The significance of literature can be best understood in terms of the culture from which it springs…" (54). The community of voices is part of what Gunn Allen refers to as "assumptions" behind the texts. Understanding that many storytellers in traditional Native American societies tell oral stories from their own perspectives helps us realize the importance of the compilation of voices that may make up one large narrative within the written texts. Writers working in this tradition include multiple narrators or storytellers to invoke one similarity with the world of oral tradition.

Lakota writer Elizabeth Cook-Lynn brings a community of voices alive in her short story, "The Clearest Blue Day." She divides the story into four parts, each part representing a differing version of the story about the experiences of those attending a traditional ceremonial dance, about the communal experiences of one celebration. One storyteller, a black missionary, sees the dance as an alien, paganistic form of tribal expression; consequently, she does not see its spiritual or religious significance. For the old Lakota man, the dance is one of the highest forms of religious experiences, and he is transported to a time before the disruption of his culture. He feels the beat of the drum, the sacredness of the day. For him, it is "the clearest blue day." Even though not all of the narrators in her story are Native Americans who would traditionally fill the role of storyteller, Cook-Lynn suggests that a story can be told by different people, that the story is not owned by any one person. The reader finds a diversity of perspectives within these experiences, just as a listener would hear a diversity within stories often about the same events told on long winter nights. The short story contains a community of voices, which in turn helps Cook-Lynn express an important aspect of storytelling and thus cultural identity: "Each story originates with and serves to define the people as a whole, the community" (Owens 9).

Within traditional societies, the same stories are told from different perspectives, each storyteller determining which details are to be included or excluded; however, even though the details differ, the essential truth of the story remains intact. Paula Gunn Allen illuminates the cultural importance of the changes which storytellers make within the stories they tell:

The oral tradition is more than a record of a people's culture. It is a creative source of their collective and individual selves.…The oral tradition is a living body. It is in continuous flux, which enables it to accommodate itself to the real circumstances of a people's lives. (224)

Traditional storytellers share essential truths of cultural identity through the telling; the differences within these stories recited from memory reflect a sacredness of the stories. Leslie Marmon Silko explains how these differences become a sacred part of Native American culture:

As with any generation/ the oral tradition depends upon each person/listening and remembering a portion/ and it is together—all of us remembering what we have heard together_that creates the whole story/the long story of the people. (Storyteller 6-7)

The whole story is created through a community of voices, voices that may tell differing versions of the stories. And these variations reveal a very important aspect of the culture from which they spring: "Traditional storytelling is a syncretic process, necessary to the adaptive, dynamic nature of Native American culture" (Owens 9). As the culture changes, so do the stories. However, the essential truth of the stories, "the idea itself," remains "as crucial and complete as it ever was" (Momaday 4).

The adaptability of the stories, the expression of the collective and individual selves, is a characteristic of storytelling and storytellers we can see in Louise Erdrich's Love Medicine. Erdrich, like Cook-Lynn, includes storytellers as an essential part of the telling of her narrative, and these storytellers help the reader see the creative source behind the stories. In structuring this novel, Erdrich creates a complex narrative that includes the perspectives of seven different people who spin versions of similar tales; the layering of these tales gives the reader a deeper understanding of life on the North Dakota plains. Even though the details differ, the essential ideas remain intact. For example, many of the characters expose Lulu, one of the main characters in the novel, as a wild woman, a woman loving the attention of a number of men within the community. We then get Lulu's version of the story. She admits that she is in "love with the whole world and all that lived in its rainy arms" but explains that this "love" is not why people find her actions objectionable (216). From her point of view, the people of the community dislike her because she has "never shed one solitary tear" (217). The essential idea of the story is the same; she has slept with many men; however, the details varythe characters give differing reasons for her actions. By including a community of storytellers who change the details of the stories, Erdrich preserves a very important part of Native American culture: "There have always been the voices" (Ortiz vii).

In traditional societies, the interaction between storyteller and listener is paramount to the existence of the oral tradition. Simon Ortiz (Acoma Pueblo) explains this important relationship in the following passage:

And it has been thought the words of the songs, the prayers, the stories that the people have found a way to continue, for life to go on. It is the very experience of life that engenders life. (viii) By becoming a participant within the myth itself, Native Americans bind themselves to their ancestors; they enter into a collective consciousness of the ages. This engendering of life is brought about in part through the interaction between storyteller and listener; the listeners "could be counted upon to contribute a wealth of intimate knowledge to the telling of any story." (Owens 13)

Direct address can be found in the works of several Native American writers, indicating that readers are an essential part of the storytelling process, just as listeners are an important part of the process within traditional societies. Louise Erdrich uses direct address in "Old Man Potchikoo," a poem included in Jacklight, her collection of poetry: "You don't have to believe this, I'm not asking you to" (74). The word "you" draws the reader into the text, and in doing so, indicates a relationship between the reader and the poet as storyteller. Kiowa writer N. Scott Momaday also uses direct address to invite his readers into the text. In The Way to Rainy Mountain, a collection of myths, legends, and tales about the Kiowa people, Momaday includes a myth about creation: "You know, everything had to begin, and this is how it was: the Kiowas came one by one into the world through a hollow log" (16). In this opening sentence, Momaday suggests that a storyteller is inviting the reader to participate by using the phrase "you know." By using second person, both Erdrich and Momaday directly address the reader; there is a storyteller talking to a reader. They initiate a line of communication between the narrator and the reader, similar to the communication that takes place between traditional storytellers and their listeners.

Sometimes, the writer actually gives the reader directions which ex plain how to enter a traditional, mythic text. In Storyteller, Leslie Marmon Silko offers such directions: "The Laguna people always begin their stories with `humma-hah' that means `long ago.' And the ones who are listening say `aaaa-eh'" (38). These directions prompt the readers to participate in a traditional ritual which opens the telling of mythic stories. Silko tells the readers that storytellers always begin stories with the words "humma-hah." Silko herself is the storyteller; she implies that if she were with us, just as the storyteller would be with us in a storytelling session, she would say "humma-hah." She then instructs the reader that the proper response to her words would be "aaaa-eh." She initiates the ritualistic interaction between storyteller and reader by using the present tense verb "say"; this implies that while the readers are engaging in the text, at that precise moment they are expected to participate. Through this invitation, Silko evokes a communal interaction between the teller and the reader.

Native American writers also include mythic language, which is a necessary and constitutive part of storytelling sessions. One aspect of mythic language which can be seen within Native American texts is the power of creation. Ernest Cassirer, in Language and Myth, helps to illuminate why this power exists:

In the creation accounts of almost all great cultural religions, the Word appears in league with the highest Lord of creation, either as the tool which he employs or actually as the primary source from which he, all other Being and order of Being, is derived. (46)

The word makes living beings come to life. For example, storytellers reveal this power of language in a Laguna myth about Thought Woman. They tell their listeners that Thought Woman, all alone, begins to think. She thinks and then speaks the world into being (Allen 29). Another example of the power of language can be seen in the Acoma myth about the sacred clowns:

Iatiku [one of the sisters who help to create the world] had three more things in her basket. She knew that here were two eggs, parrot, and crow, but the third thing she did not know, so she decided to bring it to life, and see what it was. So she said, "Come alive! Let us see what you are like." And at her words it came alive. (Beck, et.al. 295)

In this creation myth, "Iatiku" makes the sacred clown, the first man, live through speaking the words "come alive." Language is the force that makes the clown become or be. For N. Scott Momaday the importance of the spoken word in the oral tradition is that "A word has power in and of itself. It comes from nothing into sound and meaning: it gives origin to all things" (33).

Leslie Marmon Silko includes these words which "give origin to all things" in Ceremony. Her narrator tells about Tayo, a young Laguna man, who enlists in the Marines during WWII and finds himself in the jungles of a Pacific Island. It is raining and damp, a climate unlike that of the New Mexico desert where he was raised. Cold and wet, Tayo prays "the rain away" (13). In keeping with the belief that mythic language can create, Silko reveals to the reader that Tayo believes he can stop the rain: for six years there has been a drought in New Mexico; Tayo "could see the consequences of his praying" (13). The narrator tells the reader of the power of these words: Tayo believes he has created the drought. The oral tradition of the Lagunas, and its cultural significance, is brought to life in Ceremony through mythic language which has the power to create.

Another excerpt from Ceremony serves to illuminate Native American writers' use of mythic language. Silko explains that a devastating power has created the decaying modern world because a witchery took place. Many witches gather at a conference to demonstrate the extent of their powers. During that conference, one of the witches begins to tell a story, which is the source of her power, the source of her witchery. The other witches laugh at her. She responds by saying "Okay/ go ahead/ laugh if you want to/ but as I tell the story/ it will begin to happen" (141). Silko points out that the telling of the story, the words, bring about a series of events, one of which is the creation of white people who will bring destruction, disease, and death to the Native American world. The words set into motion the creation of events: "It's already turned loose. It's already coming. It can't be called back" (145). Through these words, Silko illustrates the power of a storyteller's words, the power of mythic language, as well as the power of words to initiate cultural identity within written texts.

In contemporary Native American texts, the storyteller lives, assuming a role as vital and important within the fiction as the role of storytellers within Native American communities. The writers, by including storytellers, their presence, their interactions, and their words, illustrate a respect for and the importance of the oral tradition, a tradition that preserves the myths, legends, and tales. The storytellers emerge within these texts and weave stories within the fabric of the stories of contemporary Native American writers. Their voices are heard, their presence felt, pulling the readers into a world before conscious memory, to a world where Native American people reaffirm who they are. These storytellers help contemporary Native American writers safeguard their culture, ensuring that their identities and survival are incorporated within traditional Western forms of expression. 

 

WORKS CITED

Allen, Paula Gunn. The Sacred Hoop: Recovering The Feminine in American Indian Traditions. Boston: Beacon Press, 1986.

Beck, Peggy V. et. al. The Sacred: Ways of Knowledge, Sources of Life. Tsaile, Arizona: Navajo Community College Press, 1990.

Cassirer, Ernest. Language and Myth, Trans. Susanne K. Langer. New York: Dover Publications, 1946.

Cook-Lynn, Elizabeth. "The Clearest Blue Day." Power of Horses and Other Stories. New York: Arcade Publishing, Inc., 1990.

Erdrich, Louise. "Old Man Potchikoo." Jacklight. New York: Holt,Rinehart, 1984.

____.Love Medicine. New York: Bantam, 1984.

____. Tracks. New York: Henry Holt, 1988.

Momaday, N. Scott. The Way to Rainy Mountain. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1969.

Ortiz, Simon J. "Introduction." Earth Power Coming. Ed. Simon J. Ortiz. Tsaile, Arizona: Navajo Community Press, 1987.

Owens, Louis. Other Destinies: Understanding the American Indian Novel. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1992.

Silko, Leslie Marmon. Ceremony. New York: Viking/Penguin, Inc.,1977.

____. Storyteller. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 1981.

____. "Yellow Woman." Storyteller. New York: Little, Brown and Company,1981. 54-62.

Tapahanso, Luci. "She Sits on the Bridge." Earth Power Coming. Ed. Simon J. Ortiz. Tsaile, Arizona: Navajo Community Press,1987.

 

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