Native American mythology and literature of North America

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The Native American mythology and literature of North America encompasses the orally transmitted narrative traditions and the written testimony of the Native Americans who live in the United States and Canada . The texts can be formulated in any of the 300 to 500 tribal languages, English or French.

Oral traditions

The oral tradition can be divided into two broad areas: religious literature and secular. While the religious texts are supposed to maintain continuity, but are not always reproduced verbatim, there is a great variety of secular texts, depending on individual creativity.

The Indians did not develop a script, although there were rock paintings and communication systems that used pictograms , a kind of shorthand on notch sticks, beadwork or knotted cords.

The religious literature and mythology of the Indians include various myths , legends, cult dramas and sacred chants , depending on the tribe . They deal with the creation of the world, the Supreme Being and its helpers and opponents, natural forces. Often they are only allowed to be told by specific people and passed on to selected people. The creation myth of the Keres- speaking Pueblo Indians tells how the mother and maize goddess Iyatiku sends her children, the Pueblo, through four subterranean zones up into the human world. The Californian Miwok consider "grandfather coyote" to be the creator of the people he creates from bird feathers. For the Iroquois , the Mother of All Men falls from heaven onto the earth pulled out of the sea by the turtle. This myth can only be passed on from mother to daughter. The coyote , bison and trickster characters have central importance in the myths . Occasions for starting sacred chants are initiations of boys or girls into adulthood, hunting or harvesting, wedding, death, war and peace agreements.

Secular traditions include fairy tales, songs for all occasions (lullabies, work songs for example during the corn harvest, love songs) and speeches. One of the great rhetoricians of the Seneca, like the Indians in general, was Red Jacket (around 1756-1830), whom the French of his time admired.

The oral traditions were first conveyed to the whites beyond the respective tribe by missionaries (French Jesuits in Canada), soldiers or traders such as the Englishman William Henry, who was a prisoner of the Iroquois in 1755. The early testimonies often distorted the Indian tradition or used polemical comments. After 1800, Indians began to record their traditions in writing, often as part of an autobiography. Now white scientists are also interested in Indian literature as valuable cultural evidence and part of world literature. The first translations of Indian poetry were published by Henry Rowe Schoolcraft in the context of ethnographic works from 1839 . They served Henry Wadsworth Longfellow as the basis for his epic about the cultural hero Hiawatha as the inventor of an Indian script. Important early collections were: DG Brinton , Library of Aboriginal American Literature , 8 volumes (1882–90), the same, American Hero-Myths (1882); E. Petitot , Traditions Indienne du Canada du Nord-Ouest (1886); Natalie Curtis , The Indians' Book (1907)

In the present, the storytelling and speaking tradition lives on not only through festivals and rituals such as the potlatch , but is also promoted through native Indian media. There are around 30 radio stations such as the reservation station KTNN in Arizona , which belongs to the Diné .

Written documents from the 17th to the early 20th century

With the onset of colonization, Indian writing systems arose among the northern Canadian peoples (carrier script). In 1819 , the Cherokee Sequoyah (around 1770-1843) invented a syllabary made up of 85 characters, which was taught in the tribal schools until 1903.

Native American writing moves between adapting to the culture of the white conquerors and fighting. The authors want to unite the many Indian splinter groups and advocate land ownership, human rights for the so-called two - legged panthers , and ultimately sheer survival in the American genocide . For this purpose, Indians appropriated the weapons of the whites, including writing, newspapers and literature.

The Cherokee Phoenix , a weekly newspaper , appeared as early as 1828–34 . Its editor Elias Boudinot (1804–39) wrote the articles in Cherokee and English and had subscribers in Europe. Boudinet discussed the resettlement of the Cherokee and other tribes to Oklahoma without being able to prevent them. In the short story Poor Sarah, or The Indian Woman (1833), Boudinot advocated the need for schooling. The Yavapai Carlos Montezuma (1866–1923) was a trained doctor and published the Wassaja from 1916 to 1923 , a battle sheet that earned the Indians respect.

Evidence of assimilation comes from the ranks of Indians who had mission schools: sermons, letters, diaries and life stories. Samson Occom (1723-92), a Mohegan , was the first to publish a sermon A Sermon Preached at the Execution of Moses Paul, an Indian (1772). Posthumously published Occoms autobiography , in which he criticized the white Indian policy.

The first tribal history comes from Tuscarora David Cusick : Sketches of the Ancient History of the Six Nations (1825-27). The Mahican Hendrick Aupaumut created historical essays that he published in A Short Narration of My Last Journey to the Western Country in 1827 . The Seneca Maris Bryant Pierce described in 1838, the contemporary life of their people in the address on the Present Condition and Prospects of the Aboriginal Inhabitants of North America ... . William Apes , a Pequot, described in A Son of the Forest 1829 Indians as representatives of nature and naturalness, whose lives are marked by violence and loss of culture. Most of these life stories show less the individual than the representatives of the Indian people. Yellow Bird aka John Rollin Ridges delivered the first novel by an Indian in 1854 with Life and Adventures of Joaquin Murieta . George Copway , a Canadian Anishinabe , worked as a newspaper editor, non-fiction author and poet.

After the end of the American War of Independence , Americans became increasingly interested in Indians both as opponents and as role models or fellow men. Indian autobiographies were particularly popular. Some of them were written down by whites, such as that of Black Hawk (1833), Geronimo (1906) or Crashing Thunder (1926, by Paul Radin ). In some cases, such autobiographies were also written by Indians autonomously. The Pauite Sarah Winnemucca authored the autobiography Life among the Piutes: Their Wrongs and Claims in 1883 .

Emily Pauline Johnson (Canadian Mohawk ) has given dramatic readings in Canada, USA and Europe. Her short stories often centered on women and appeared in The Mocassin Maker in 1913 . Johnson published several volumes of poetry: The White Wampum (1895), Canadian Born (1903) and Flint and Feather (1917, posthumous ). The novel Queen of the Woods (1899) is attributed to the Potawatomi Simon Pkagon , from whom the speech The Red Man's Greeting (1892 on the occasion of the World's Fair in Chicago ) came.

Modern Indian literature in the 20th / 21st centuries century


After the First World War, the mood for the Indians became more favorable and their commitment bore fruit:

  • In 1924, the Indians received US citizenship
  • In 1928, Charles Curtis , a Kansa , became vice president under Hoover
  • In 1934 the Indian Reorganization Act was passed in the USA , which was supposed to prevent the division of the reservations and give the Indians a greater degree of self-determination.

The autobiography in particular continued to be cultivated in Indian literature. In the beginning of the 20th century, Indian intellectuals published their life stories in order to dispel the stereotypes of the Indian image. Among them are the Sioux Charles Eastman and Luther Standing Bear , the Omaha Francis La Flesche and the Native American-African American author Buffalo Child Long Lance . The latter, however, had pretended to be an Indian and was able to gain considerable personal advantages (he should not be confused with the actor Silkirtis Nichols , who also calls himself "Buffalo Child Long Lance", sometimes just "Buffalo Child".)

In addition, a wider range of genres developed: poetry, short stories, novels and dramas. The authors dealt with the tribal history and the Indian theme beyond general social issues and tried their hand at modern genres such as the detective novel. Todd Downing wrote crime novels as early as the 1930s.

The life story of Black Elk alias John G. Neihardt Black Elk Speaks, Being the Lifestory of a Holy Man of the Oglala Sioux (1932) has lost none of its popularity to this day . The work described the biography of a member of a generation exposed to strong upheaval, who is seen embedded in and out of his youthful vision.

Lynn Riggs Green was the first Native American playwright to write Grow the Lilacs (1931). The piece formed the basis for the musical Oklahoma! that thrilled on Broadway in 1943. Another Broadway success was Riggs' Borned in Texas (= Roadside , 1930). The drama The Cherokee Night (1936) was about Indians in Oklahoma. Later Gerald Vizenor , Leslie Marmon Silko , James Welch and Linda Hogan also wrote dramas.

Mourning Dove published the novel Cogewea, the Half-Blood (1927). The Indian Christine Quintasket probably shared the authorship with a white sponsor. The records of Lakota chief John Ocute Sica on the history and legends of his tribe, the authentic reports on the Battle of Little Bighorn and the murder of Sitting Bull , which he handed over to Lieselotte Henrich-Welskopf in 1963 , could only be published long after his death .

Sundown , a 1934 novel by the scientist John Joseph Mathews , and its protagonist remained exemplary until the 1980s. He described a young half-Indian who had to find his identity. If he initially opted for the white world, he finally turned back to his Indian roots. A similar problem was found again and again with members of other North American ethnic groups such as the African American or the Jews. Even Philip Roth addressed the conflict situation with the example of Coleman Silk in The Human Stain in 2000th

In the United States and Canada, however, there were setbacks in the 1960s and 1970s because Indian privileges were to be abolished. Canada occasionally declared a tribe to no longer exist in order to no longer have to support the reservation. Indians responded with increased protests


Around 1970 there was a renaissance of the Indian movement and literature. The poets Simon J. Ortiz , Duane Niatum and James Welch initiated the boom . N. Scott Momaday , also instrumental in the literary renaissance, was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for his first novel House made of Dawn (1968) . He also had success in Germany with another work, In the Constellation of the Bear .

The boundaries between autobiography, fiction and poetry became blurred in the work of many authors such as Momaday ( The Names , 1976), Leslie Marmon Silko ( Storyteller , 1981), Gerald Vizenor ( Interior Landscapes: Autobiographical Myths and Metaphers , 1990) or Ray A. Young Bear ( Black Eagle Child , 1992).

An eloquent author is Hyemeyohsts Storm , whose early historical novel Seven Arrows (1972) is controversial among the Cheyenne . In 1994 Storm published the autobiography Lightning Bolt .

In addition to dramas and poetry, the Laguna-Pueblo Leslie Marmon Silko also wrote novels. In 1977 she introduced the mythical creator Thought Woman as the narrator in Ceremony . The novel Almanac of the Dead (1991) presented a moral history of North and South America. The best-known Indian playwright is now Hanay Geiogamah with Foghorn, 49 and Body Indian (1980).

The novels by James Welch Winter in the Blood (1974) and The Death of Jim Loney (1979) combined realistic portrayals with black humor. In The Indian Lawyer (1990) he designed a social novel about modern America, in which he linked love, politics and crime. Martin Cruz Smith also became known with his crime novel Gorky Park (1981).

Paula Gunn Allen , who has Laguna Indians, Sioux Indians, Scots and Lebanese among her ancestors, formulated feminist positions in her works such as The Woman Who Owned the Shadows (1983) and gave the anthology Spider Woman's Granddaughters: Traditional Tales and Contemporary in 1997 Writing by Native American Women (1997). With "Slash" Jeannette C. Armstrong wrote the first Canadian indigenous novel in 1985, which is now also available in German. This novel uses the story of two Okanagan youths to reflect the indigenous Red Power movement of the 1960s and 1970s.

Since 1990

Louise Erdrich , who was descended from Germans and Chippewa , broke with the patterns of Indian educational novels and developed her own cosmos of fantastic realism in which Indians and whites meet ( The Antelope Wife , 1998). Erdrich's often traumatized protagonists cannot rely on any tradition and have to invent themselves in their multiple identities.

In the 1990s, the Lakota Mary Crow Dog provided insights into the Indian women's movement with her autobiographical works Lakota Woman (1990) and Ohitika Woman (1993), which also became known in German-speaking countries . In addition to aspects of gender relations in Indian and white North American culture, she dealt with the role of women in the uprising of the American Indian movement against human rights violations in the USA in 1973 at the Wounded Knee in collaboration with the human rights activist ( Richard Erdoes ).

Sherman Alexie , who wrote poetry, short stories and novels, has received numerous awards . One of his short stories is the basis for the film "Smoke Signals". He relentlessly and often with black humor exposes the dreary conditions and turmoil of reservation and city Indians.

Other contemporary novelists and works are: James BraveWolf (with his book about the Apache warrior Lozen From Now on I'm a Warrior , 1992), Linda Hogan ( Mean Spirit , 1990), Louis Owens ( Wolfsong , 1991), Thomas King ( Medicine River , 1990; Green Grass, Running Water , 1993) and Gerald Vizenor ( Darkness in Saint Louis Bearheart , 1978; The Trickster of Liberty , 1988; The heirs of Columbus , 1991).

An anthology of stories by indigenous authors from the French-speaking province of Québec was published in 2020.

See also


  • Werner Arens and Hans-Martin Braun (eds.): The song of the black bear, songs and poems of the Indians. CH Beck, Munich 1992, ISBN 3-406-36736-4
  • Wolfgang Hochbruck: I Have Spoken, The Representation and Ideological Function of Native American Orality in North American Literature . Gunter Narr, Tübingen 1991
  • Karen L. Kilcup (Ed.): Native American Women's Writing, 1800-1924, An Anthology. Blackwell, Oxford 2000, ISBN 0-631-20518-7
  • Hartmut Krech (Ed.): Indian life, Indian women and men tell their lives. Books on Demand, Norderstedt 2009, ISBN 978-3-8391-1047-8
  • Holger Möllenberg: The rhetoric of Indian literature. The conceptual prerequisites for modern literature by the Indians of North America and their rhetorical use to influence a differentiated readership . RG Fischer, Frankfurt 1982
  • Hubert Zapf (ed.): American literary history. Metzler, Stuttgart 2004, ISBN 3-476-02036-3
  • Renate Zwillus: Today talks in yesterday's voice: central themes and their narrative design in contemporary Indian novels . Peter Lang, Bern 1989

Indigenous about indigenous literature

Web links


  1. ^ The Glorious Impersonator
  2. ^ 90 years of Karl May Verlag
  3. Cherokee Wigwam
  4. John Okute Sica: The Miracle of the Little Bighorn: Tales from the World of the Ancient Lakota. Chemnitz 2009, 2nd edition 1017.
  5. Michel Jean (Ed.): Amun. Novellas. Authors of the First Nations / Premières Nations of the French-speaking Canadian province of Québec. Translated from the French by Michael von Killisch-Horn. Klagenfurt 2020.
  6. ^ Fontaine