Storytelling Traditions of Native Americans
For Native Americans, the telling of stories passed down from generation to generation remained their primary form of wisdom communication even after the written word had spread across the globe. Native American oral storytelling traditions allowed tribes to transmit their mythological, spiritual and historical understandings of themselves and the worlds they inhabited to their children and their children’s children. This all but guaranteed that members of each individual Indian nation would never forget their roots or lose sight of important knowledge that would allow them to continue to exist in harmony and cooperation with the natural world. In order to make this critical information memorable, Native Americans translated practical prescriptions along with subtle and sophisticated ideas about the Great Mystery of life and existence into allegories filled with heroes and villains, comedic twists and dramatic encounters and lessons learned the hard way through suffering and eventual transcendence.
Native American stories were always intended to either explain or teach. Some of the categories they could fall into included:
- Creation myths
- Interactions with spiritual teachers
- Lessons learned about right living and behavior
- Magical tales of cultural and/or individual transformation
- Explanations for natural phenomena
- Instructional stories about the evolution of survival skills, such as hunting, farming, or building
- Wisdom teachings from animal masters
The Critical Role of the Shaman
Shamanism or out-of- body spiritual travel, is a fixture of indigenous life and this was certainly the case with many Native American peoples. Often portrayed simply as medicine men and healers by those with limited understanding of native traditions, shamans (or their North American equivalent, since “shamanism” technically refers to indigenous religious practices in Siberia) were actually prophets and teachers more than anything else, tasked with bringing back wisdom from beyond the borderlands that separated dimensions. Animals almost always feature prominently in Native American storytelling – but rather than existing only as creatures that lived in an every-day ecological world, animals were seen as embodiments of spiritual archetypes who existed in concrete form in the netherworlds explored by traveling shamans. Wisdom animals who lived in these regions could talk and think just like humans and they had much wisdom to share with the shaman who traveled to see them as a representative of his people. Because not everyone could be a spiritual traveler, however, the best way to pass on this wisdom to the people was in story form. Not surprisingly animals who could talk and reason and operate in both this world and the next in highly intentional and intelligent ways were usually major player in these stories.
Native American spiritual travelers relied on drugs such as peyote or hallucinogenic mushrooms, sensory deprivation, rhythmic drumming, frenetic dancing or fasting to achieve altered states of consciousness, and while in these states they could experience visions of past and future. Most origin myths of native peoples may have had their genesis from these transcendent experiences. In addition, prophetic visions of significant future events where common in these altered states and these visions could galvanize and inspire fellow Indians.
One famous example of this phenomenon was the vision of imminent heaven on earth that entranced Paiute spiritual teacher Jack Wilson in the 1880s. Jack Wilson’s stories of the coming changes swept across Native American lands, and a series of ceremonies designed to bring a cleansing of evil from the world soon spread among many Indian nations. Especially enraptured by these stories and ceremonies were the Sioux of the Plains region, and their performance of these rhythmic rituals, which came to be called the Ghost Dance, created fear and suspicion among whites in the west. The US Army massacred almost 300 Sioux, mostly women and children, at Wounded Knee in the Dakotas in 1890 in a confrontation fueled by this hostility to the rising Ghost Dance mythology. Apocalyptic stories and prophecies in general became more common after native contact with Europeans, as Indian mythology evolved to include Christian ideas and imagery.
What is important to realize is that Indian peoples had a different understanding of dimensional travel than western anthropologists and self-styled “Indian experts.” For Native Americans, alternate dimensions where animals had human-like qualities and the wise spirits of dead ancestors resided after leaving the earthly realm were real places. In fact they were more real than this world, which was just a shadow of these transcendent realms – a view strikingly similar to that of the founder of western philosophy, Plato. The western, scientific approach, however, was to dismiss the shamans as essentially con men, and to see Native American storytelling as always and only metaphorical and allegorical.
But Native peoples did not recognize strict boundaries between the real and the allegorical. For them, the universe was a complex and mysterious place and the stories they told used the spiritual world as a foundation and a background for putting their spiritual and metaphysical knowledge into a more personalized, orally transmittable form. While the Bible is filled with stories that can be examined and understood as literature, it is also taken as a source of true and real wisdom and revealed knowledge by Christians - and so it is as well for Native Americans and the shamanic dimensions.
The Trickster as Cultural Transformer
The most popular and omnipresent character in Native American storytelling was the trickster. The trickster was an interdimensional figure, an animal with human characteristics that would confound human beings by his clever and endlessly provocative behavior. Tricksters did indeed play tricks but they did so with a purpose. Surviving by wits alone, the trickster broke down conventional categories and violated societal restrictions with glee. But in the end, this work was designed to help create a new and better order out of the chaos the trickster caused. Tricksters lived in the borderlands between nature and culture, between this world and the next and between change and tradition. As such, they abhorred hard categories and rigid thinking. Society and culture had to learn and evolve to survive, and tricksters guided humans through this painful process by showing them how foolish and prideful they were when they tried to cling to the outmoded rules and structures of the past. Tricksters could be any animal, but the coyote was by far the most common trickster in Native American tales.
By violating the rules and upsetting the old order, tricksters helped human beings see through their limited ways of thinking. Native Americans needed to use their imagination and their creativity to survive in a world where circumstance changed and the forces of nature could turn suddenly hostile, and the trickster helped show them how to be adaptable and flexible in all situations.
Native American Storytelling Traditions, Past, Present and Future
Native American storytelling was focused on helping people understand their place in the natural world. Native American tales were - and still are - part metaphorical, part real, part spiritual, part mythological, part instructional and part transformational. Most of all, however, they were entertaining and memorable to the audiences who heard them. This guaranteed these stories would be remembered and passed down to the coming generations, who needed to understand who they were, where they had come from, and why the world is the way it is, if they were to survive and prosper in the challenging times that were – and still are - always just ahead.