What happens when an oral culture is colonised and dominated by a written one? Laura Burns explores the Native authors of North America, and how their work crosses and transcends the boundary between the written and spoken, with stories that reinvigorate the present with the pastAs a writer and storyteller, I often experience a tension between the different processes needed for writing and speaking, and it is this space between written and spoken literature, and the ways in which it is navigated, that fascinated me when I first encountered Native American literature. I stumbled across Native authors during my undergraduate degree, and have been reading them ever since: writers including Joy Harjo, Gerald Vizenor, Simon Ortiz, Leslie Silko, Paula Allen Gunn and Louise Erdrich. I was lucky enough to meet Vizenor recently in London; his eyes twinkled as he told me about ‘coyote’ – one manifestation of Vizenor’s favourite subject, the trickster – reminding me that it’s the aliveness of the written word that the true storyteller evokes.This ‘aliveness’ comes from the liveliness of Indigenous oral literatures that have been practised for thousands of years in ceremony, song, story and prayer. Oral culture suffered hugely with the arrival of written culture and the beginning of colonialism in North America. However, since the mid-20th Century, there’s been a growing field of written Native American literature that is testament to the survival of a people weaving their mythology into contemporary media, and so reclaiming Indigenous culture and identity.Native American literature became widely acknowledged in 1968 when the Kiowa author N Scott Momaday won the Pulitzer Prize for his first novel House Made of Dawn. The seventies saw publications such as James Welch’s Winter in the Blood (1974), Gerald Vizenor’s Bearheart (1974) and Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony (1977) all gaining international acclaim. Native writers were demanding a long-overdue exploration of colonial history – its legacy of racism and patriarchy, which had disrupted matriarchal societies and Indigenous ways of being and knowing the world. These writers were refusing to let US culture ignore its Native voices.Although its writers came from diverse regions, languages and cultures, there were shared concerns across Native American literature. Most notable was a desire to maintain Native community, coupled with a belief that language and story came from the animate land. Estimates of the Native American population in 1492 range from a few million to more than 18 million; by 1900, the number was down to approximately 250,000, with small dots on the map marking Native territory. Given such a history, it’s hardly surprising that many Native writers deal with the break-up of community and identity, and the loss of land and people. Silko’s Ceremony and Momaday’s House Made of Dawn are two of my favourite contemporary novels, both showing mixed-blood protagonists in broken-down, post-war Native communities. However, amid the trauma of loss there is a vitality, spirit and endurance, which draw strength from mythology and animism.What struck me most when reading this literature was the way the spoken word was revered; the power of it bleeds into written literature. In Erdrich’s Tracks, Nanapush explains his talkativeness, saying “During the year of the sickness, when I was the last one left, I saved myself by starting a story.” For Momaday, “there is no difference between the telling and that which is told.” To tell stories is to remake a sacred connection between place, memory, spirituality and the animate world; to tell stories is to survive.This sentiment is at the core of Native American culture and therefore writing; it makes the words on the page spring out to meet you; the outside world you are reading from is changed by that very reading. It gives one a sense – as when being told a traditional story – of the voices behind that particular telling stretching back beyond the present, drawing from a shared ancestry and mythology. Common themes like creation mythology, trickster characters, heroes, and animal narratives emerge in mixed-genre literature such as Silko’s Storyteller. Silko weaves stories of the Keres Yellow Woman with personal narrative, rebuilding a communal identity that stands against an individualist one. This extends beyond the human community and into the material and animal world. As a result, Native literature is hugely ‘ecological’; by placing myth, animal and land at the centre of this communal identity, it challenges a human-centric worldview.A writer who does this beautifully is Joy Harjo. Her “Deer Dancer” from In Mad Love and War reveals how the Indigenous relationship to time is cyclical, with place and ancestry reconstructing a communal identity, enabling her words to tread the line between despair and salvation: “The woman inside the woman who was to dance naked in the bar of misfits blew deer magic. Henry Jack, who could not survive a sober day, thought she was Buffalo Calf Woman come back, passed out, his head by the toilet.” When a strange woman enters the bar, she reveals both the loss and hope of the community: “She was the promise of feast we all knew was coming.” Just watching her, the community is once again able to identify with their sacred ancestral history: “She was no slouch, and neither were we, watching.” The last line reveals a sentiment reflected in Native American literature, that the power of words and story, dreaming and imagination, will keep a culture alive and re-imagining itself: “I wasn’t there. But I imagined her like this, not a stained red dress with tape on her heels but the deer who entered our dream in white dawn, breathed mist into pine trees, her fawn a blessing of meat, the ancestors who never left.”This re-imagining manifests itself in vibrant mixed-genre writing, using English language in a way that maintains a Native relationship with story, orality and place. For author Jeannette Armstrong:
Speaking to newcomers in their language is dangerousfor when I speakhistory is a dreamerempowering thoughtfrom which I awaken the imaginings of the past
Armstrong sums up the incredible ability of Native American authors to express the dangers of losing language and culture, the pain of having been taken over by a dominant culture, and in the same breath proving that Native language and story are surviving, despite the coloniser. This is a literature that is both innovative and powerful, sharing with the world not only an important worldview, but a perspective on language and story that changes our experience of the written word.About the authorLaura Burns is a poet, non-fiction writer and performance storyteller. Specialising in Native American literature, her non-fiction follows Indigenous resurgence movements that have literature and oral storytelling at their core. Her performance practice draws on exploring this centuries-old oral tradition, and finding its intersections with poetry and literature. Her poetry and reviews have been published in independent magazines such as Under the Radar, Tears in the Fence, Exeunt, This is Tomorrow, Earthlines, and she is currently working on her first poetry collection.Her website is: http://lettucemelodies.wordpress.com/Additional informationThe Origins Festival of Indigenous art and culture is taking place this October and November, and will include First Nations and Native American theatre and scholars.The Idle No More movement continues to protest for Indigenous land rights in Canada and America.For more on the politics behind Indigenous literatures, please see the Decolonization website here.