Both Native American literature and film have been inspired by the oral tradition of passing down stories and cultural folkways, through the spoken word. The personal journey of chronicling these stories in literature and film is very allegorical in that the personal journeys that these writers also parallel their struggle with a literal journey. As such, these stories become full of symbolism for the types of cultural artifacts that cannot be assimilated into mainstream culture; not in the English language, not in the Christian religion, and not in the reservations that hindered spirituality.
There is a theme in all of the texts and in the film that depicts the struggle of trying to determine where the individual and the culture fit into the wider world that knows little of their existence. Other texts provide specific insight into how conversion of Native Americans into Christianity was essential for those of European descent to explain this mysterious group. It becomes apparent that the oral tradition sustained these groups for centuries until the loss of land led to the loss of more freedoms, especially that of having the right to shape ideas about the world without the influence of others.
The film and the Native American writers reviewed all seek to exert their power and use words and motion pictures to explain all the literary and historical meaning of the stories told to them, predating all these modes of communication. Scott Momady in his book, The Way to Rainy Mountain describes the story of the creation of the Kwuda, which was passed down in the oral tradition. What is interesting is that he notes that the names of the tribe did change and there was a sense of this tribe being divided.
“Later still they took the name Gaigwu, a name which can be taken to indicate something of which two halves differ from each other in appearance” (17). It is not only the way that this group of people came into existence but also the diversity and difference within this particular tribe that is extremely important. When Native Americans were forced onto reservations, it was of the utmost importance for the rest of the world not to see all Native Americans as the same, as they were varied with the many tribes and also within tribes.
These oral stories become even more important to dictate into print or film to show how Native Americans viewed the world, themselves, and most importantly to realistically illustrate their heritage with the hopes of changing how many whites viewed them. The allegorical and symbolic divide that came to move all of these authors to write stories that bridged the gap in their own respective lives, also helped to create a film as well.
The movie Dreamkeeper, directed by Steve Barron, shows how a family divided will struggle to keep tradition alive despite the death or disappearance of an important figure. In this film the pressing issues between the grandfather, grandson, and absent father serves as a metaphor for the intrusion on the culture of the family’s tribe versus the tradition of passing down lineage and heritage. The metaphor is that the grandfather is rooted in the past, the grandson is heading into an uncertain future, and the father is the only link to the present.
These cultural threats are more than just the loss of land or the loss of a father, it is the changing of times into a future that is being mapped out by another group entirely, that being white Americans. These maps, so to speak, or the oral tradition that has mapped out the history of entire tribes and families has been written about by other prominent Native Americans in their journey and tragedy of trying to fill this divide between past and present all the while wondering what the future will hold.
These types of worries were normally settled by spiritual means, but loss of land meant loss of the ability for Native Americans to go on their spiritual quests. Charles Alexander Eastman in his passage from “The Soul of an Indian” writes about the mystical quest undertaken by Native Americans in his native Sioux tribe that required several nights away from camp in meditation. He also writes of the divide of the Native American, a common theme in all the reviewed works. “The red man is divided into two parts,-the spiritual mind and the physical mind.
The first is pure spirit, concerned only with the essence of things, and it was this he sought to strengthen by spiritual prayer” (767). Because of this loss of land, essentially the loss of spirit or at least the ways in which spiritual rituals were conducted came to an end. Also, the fear of the future was replaced by Christian ideals to help Americans of European descent understand how these natives fir into their Bible. In this way the Native Americans, already concerned with loss of identity were split even further in a divide that led them to an uncertain and uncharacteristic future.
It was only through the oral tradition of preserving identity that Native Americans could attempt to achieve a personal wholeness while the many tribes and family members within tribes became scattered and disillusioned. It is through the personal journeys of the writers that it becomes apparent how the loss of land impacted not only an entire civilization, but individuals, who lost identity and did whatever was necessary to try to discover, rediscover, and preserve all that was left. Gertrude Bonnin, in passages from “Impressions of an Indian Childhood” talks about living what could be considered a double life.
Gertrude sometimes refers to herself as her Sioux name, Zitkala-Sa, which means Red Bird. She was born on a reservation to a Sioux mother and her white father was absent in her life. She struggled between the old ways that her mother tried to teach her in the oral tradition and the ways that people conducted themselves outside of the reservation. She became torn and decided that the reservation life was not for her and the American way of treating Native Americans was not appealing either.
So she began compiling all the information she could gather from what was relayed to her by her mother in the oral tradition and then wrote these stories in English. She abhorred the fact that the language of her ancestors had disappeared and she was just as concerned as Eastman was about the loss of spirituality for all Native Americans under the conversion to Christianity. Bonnin writes, “I prefer to their dogma my excursions into the natural gardens where the voice of the Great Spirit is heard in the twittering of birds, the rippling of mighty waters, and the sweet breathing of flowers” (939-940).
It becomes clear that for the spirituality of Native Americans to thrive, then land uninterrupted by industrialization was needed in order for this group to be who they had always been before they were removed to reservations. So taking their land was not a simple geographic issue, this also took these peoples’ essence and spirituality from them. It is therefore important for these texts and films to exist as reminder of what was lost, not just space, but a place in history for people who had to rely on a few to pass on as many of the stories given to them in the oral tradition and put it in print or in film.
All three written pieces reviewed and the film help to show the importance of the land that was taken from the Native Americans, as well as the influence of the oral tradition of passing down stories and spiritual pathways to each ensuing generation. The film and the written works display both a metaphorical divide in the ways of the respective authors and tribes and the bigger community, showing that differences need to be acknowledged as well as the common goal of this group to gather their cultural artifacts that would have disappeared into an assimilated America.
Also, the allegorical journey that all these contributors took to discover their part in history is akin to an epic and a tragedy. Scholars, as well, have looked at the impact of the spiritual strivings of Native Americans and the ultimate need for tribes to achieve a new identity in a foreign land to them, a land that was once their own. It was the need for Christian legitimacy on the part of European settlers that led to a need for Native Americans to be stripped of their spiritual roots and forced to resign to religious conversion.
The mission of these Christians “absorbed Native Americans into a Christian world view that made them comprehensible to Euro-Americans, who were otherwise faced with a population whose mysterious origins threatened to call into question the explanatory value of the Bible” (Wyss, 162). So as Euro-Americans sought to explain the discrepancies with Native Americans and their absence from the Bible, Native Americans had to wrestle with their own identities that were being challenged by these settlers for purposes other than just the acquisition of land.
What then became an issue was the questioning of creation on the part of settlers and the “lost tribe theory” (162) that proposed that Native Americans were part of a tribe that was not thoroughly explained in the Bible. All the while many Native Americans asserted their own creation myths while other Natives tried to assert superiority over whites with the reasoning that if Natives were a part of Israel’s lost tribes then, therefore, they were closer descendants of Jacob.
This hierarchy of Biblical place did play an important role on the identity of Natives during their assimilation into Euro-American culture, though the oral tradition certainly did support a different idea for the origins of each tribe. Even those Native Americans that did subscribe to a Christian ideal were “defined by a constant deferral of home, or the constant movement, both geographical and cultural, of a fragmented people” (165).
It seems then that the roots of all Native Americans, who were fragmented and spread across the nation, was entrenched in the oral tradition of creation stories and spirituality. However, the many Native American stories that were told and passed down led to they idea the Euro-Americans had as Natives being savage and mythical, making their stories, even true encounters appear to be false.
This led to the Natives “invisibility in the annals of encounter: constructed as tellers of myth and as peoples of myth, they are denied a place in the national story and a voice in recounting it” (Bellin, 99). This created the powerlessness found in Natives attempting to assert their place in the new America that was founded on laws, both the divine and those conceived by Europeans. The fact that Natives had stories, spirituality, and kinship was not enough to place them in a position of asserting their power in any way that seemed rational to Euro-Americans.
As well the illiteracy of Native Americans certainly did not assist this group in gaining any type of recognition for having much to offer the Europeans in their stories. “the oral nature of much Indian narrative has been taken to explain both the Indians’ irrelevance to history-for what could illiterates offer? -and their inability to remember and record it” (102). As well, Native Americans stories were not just told, they were animated through acting, making the stories more meaningful to the Native audience but meaningless to a person outside of a tribe.
It is fair to say that the identity of Native Americans was not only in their oral tradition, but in the ways in which stories were acted out. This is something that is lost even if a story is recounted by a Native to as close to the original message as possible. Much is also lost in translation further undermining any attempts that Natives could make when forced on reservations, where their land and language was taken along with the ties of spirituality that sustained them.
It also makes the spiritual identity of Native Americans more complicated when they are not only placed in an Anthropological category of uncivilized, the literary category of completely mythical, and finally over romanticized by scholars, who do not understand the deep meaning behind Native American spirituality and ritual. These rites and rituals are meant to cement a community of people together and individual identity can be created within these rituals.
Instead, many times, these acts and stories are perceived as more universal and therefore there is the mistaken implication that Native American spirituality can be lumped into a religion that can be used by all. This has placed and continues to place the sense of community outside of the purposes intended and sadly many people use information gleaned from Native spirituality for profit or for writing scholarly articles that do not take into account the private lives of a single Native, but instead combine individuals into a whole.
With a fragmented sense of history and culture, it is right to note that there has been and continues to be fragmentation in the Native American communities, but for an individual, a sense of self requires both community identity and a complex set of cultural artifacts to make that individual whole and not a watered down, assimilated version of the Euro-Americans. To be more clear, the text versions of Native Americans stories involving spirituality and rituals many times do not take into account the personal nature of these events.
It is not only a matter of entire communities of Native American feeling the need to forge and reclaim their converted or dismissed identities as a whole, but the essence of the individual in a tribe, separate from others that must do the same. “Nicknames, shadows, and shamanic [sic] visions are tribal stories that are heard and remembered as survivance [sic]. These personal identities and stories are not the same as those translated in the literature” (Grim, 44).
This lack of voice to individual Native Americans and stereotyping of all communities and persons being inherently the same in their spirituality and other social activities makes more important the voices, such as the Native authors and filmmakers reviewed all the more important. These artists have shown how gender, tribe, place, and, politics, to name just a few social forces can affect an individual struggling for acceptance within him or herself and in the larger world.
All these factors must be considered when looking at film and literature, separating the individual from the group while at the same time seeing the struggle for those individuals as being the best representation available for a group without a strong voice. In conclusion, the film and the literary works of Native Americans highlight the voice of a specific individual, attempting to speak for their community. Taken with scholarly research, it can be seen the effect of colonialism and religious conversion on the vulnerable Native American population.
Their history has many gaps in that the myths and traditions were many times dismissed and the absence from the Christian Bible made their existence confusing and unsettling to the settlers. The voices that have been stifled serve to help save the history of the mainstream at their expense, and this powerlessness and absence from history can only be reconstructed in the best way possible. Though even stories passed down in the oral tradition are lacking in the gestures and actions of the storytellers, which is the essence of oral storytelling.
Works Cited Joshua David Bellin, The Demon of the Continent: Indians and the Shaping of American Literature, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001. Gertrude Bonnin, “Impressions of an Indian Childhood” in The Heath Anthology of American Literature Vol. 2. Ed. Paul Lauter, Lexington: D. C. Heath and Company, 1994. Dreamkeeper, Dir by Steve Barron, Hallmark Entertainment Productions, 2003. Charles Alexander Eastman, “The Soul of an Indian” in The Heath Anthology of American Literature Vol. 2. Ed.
Paul Lauter, Lexington: D. C. Heath and Company, 1994. John A. Grim, “Cultural Identity, Authenticity, and Community Survival: The Politics of Recognition in Native American Religions” in Lee Irwin Native American Spirituality: A Critical Reader, Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2000. Scott N. Momaday, The Way to Rainy Mountain, Albuquerque: University of New Mexico, 1969. Hilary E. Wyss, Writing Indians: Literacy, Christianity, and Native Community in Early America, Boston: University of Massachusetts Press, 2000.
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