Americanize the first Americans. Give them freedom to do their own thinking; to excercise their judgmeent; to hold opem forums for the expression of their thought, and finally permit them to manage their own personal business. Zitkala-Sa, “Bureaucracy Versus Democracy”
A couple of weeks ago, one of my readers asked if there were any sources of Native American literature that pre-dated Europeans. This post is my attempt to give you some idea of what is available out there for those who are interested.
I’ve entitled it “First American Literature” in honor of a term given by Zitkala-Sa, a very gifted and erudite writer and activist whose works are also on this list. I think, out of all the ones which are used to describe Native Americans, “First American” is one of the best, if not the best out there. They were here first, after all.
This is only an overview. There’s more out there than you realize, just as there is with anything else in the world. So, I encourage you to actively search, make it part of your reading goals for the coming year, and encourage others to read too.
I have included links to most of these sources so you can find them for your own library. The links are not part of any affiliate program whatsoever. I don’t profit monetarily if you make a purchase. If, however, you do follow those links and read those books, I will consider it profitable. My aim with this blog is to get more people to read classic literature.
If you end up doing that, it’s a win for me.
Three Caveats to First American Literature
1. Most of what we have was recorded and/or translated by Europeans.
As I mentioned before, the oral tradition was the status quo for most First Americans, even well into the 20th century. We have as much as we do of the Cherokee legends because they had a written language. Most tribes in North America did not.
So, Europeans were some of the first to write down some of the legends. This is to be expected and no, the Europeans who wrote these down did not do so because they wanted to “possess” it for their own. I think you’ll find most of the men who took the trouble to gather these tales and publish them did so because they were afraid of them dying out and wanted those tales preserved.
We’re talking about an era where you had to make your own pens and inks most of the time, where the paper was expensive, and where word processors had not yet been invented. Writing was even harder work then than it is now. It was physically hard work in ways we can’t imagine
I think you can safely relegate any racist or colonial attitudes to the minority of people who tried to preserve what they could.
2. You have to be very specific when searching for sources and you have to search under all the terms.
We’re used, by now, to using more politically correct terms like “Native American” or “Indigenous American.” But, historical texts often still refer to American Indians as their default. I had a book in college that I rather foolishly got rid of some years back. It stuck in my memory because it had a variety of stories from the First Americans and it had divided them all by topic and by tribe.
I couldn’t find it at first because I was searching under “Native American.” I should have been searching under “American Indian.” I have, of course, located and replaced it.
So, be aware of your search terms. Not because you don’t want to give offense, but because some sources are still listed under “American Indian.” Does this make those sources “problematic”? Well, if it does, then I have to tell you that I searched a few tribal websites and nearly all of them used the term “American Indian” too.
So, just be aware of the terms you’re using, and don’t be afraid of using one which you think is offensive. There are some excellent sources out there, even if they don’t have the terms you think are correct.
Also, try to be very specific when you search. You’ll get better results if one of your search terms is the tribe’s name. For instance, Mohawk, Iroquois, or Sioux. This is especially true if you’re going through online databases like Project Gutenberg.
3. Variations are more prevalent because most of the stories were in the oral tradition for so long.
This means that you need to keep in mind that most of the stories and tales you’ll read have probably gone through several iterations in their long lifetimes. The legend you read today may not have been as it was told in 1400. Therefore writing these tales down is so important. This is why writing your tales is so important.
So, if you’re not sure if the story you have to write is worth writing, read some of these and then get to work. Don’t rely on the oral tradition alone.
That’s what the Pan-Celtic people of Europe and the British Isles did and we nearly lost everything. Our mainland cousins did lose everything and now nothing remains that isn’t slightly Germanic.
American Indian Myths and Legends by Richard Erdoes and Alfonso Ortiz
This is the college textbook I got rid of and regretted. By far, the best and most comprehensive book of First American literature you can get on the market, in my opinion. The collection has over 160 different tales from 80 tribes and is divided up by topic, with each story clearly labeled as to originating tribe.
Most of the stories are short and all of them are easy to read. It’s a must-have on any bookshelf. I’ve been enjoying it again and it’s definitely going to be featured on the blog again at some point.
American Indian Stories, Legends, and Other Writings by Zitkala-Sa
This is published by Penguin books and it’s a must-have on EVERY shelf whether you’re literary or not. Zitkala-Sa was born on Yankton Sioux Reservation in South Dakota in 1876—the same year as the Battle of Little Big Horn. She was a teacher, an activist, and a very eloquent writer. I found her essays particularly well-reasoned and eloquent.
She is also the reason I’ve named this post “First American Literature.” It was the least I could do for a woman of so little fame these days.
This book is divided into three sections, myths, stories, and articles. The first is Zitkala-Sa’s attempt to preserve the legends from her own people. They feature in her short stories too because she tells of the elders gathering around the fire and telling them after supper.
We People Here: Nahuatl Accounts of the Conquest of Mexico, edited and translated by James Lockhart.
This was another college textbook—one which I refused to get rid of even long after I graduated. It is precisely as the title says: the accounts of the Nahuatl people in Mexico. At first, it was translated into Spanish and then into English. This edition has both side-by-side as well as the original Nahuatl artwork.
You may have to splurge a bit to get this book, but it’s well worth the money to do so because it not only provides a First American account of what the Spanish did when they conquered, but it shows that someone on the Spanish side cared enough to preserve the language of the Nahuatl and their art.
There is a valuable historical lesson there for those who will see it. And while it doesn’t negate any of the evil done, it should at least show that the evils of history must at last give way to something better.
Myths of the Cherokee by James Mooney
Available on Project Gutenberg, this is one of my favorite finds. It’s from a longer report to the U.S. Government about the Cherokee, but Mooney took the time to not only detail, sometimes painfully, the original territory of the Cherokee, but their language, name(s), and their tales.
I absolutely love the detail Mooney put into this work and it’s far better than anything I was ever taught in school.
Lewis Spence was a Scottish writer and folklorist of some repute in the early 20th century. He wrote several books of mythology, three of which are First American tales:
- The Myths of the North American Indians
- The Popul Vuh: The Mythic and Heroic Sagas of the Kiches of Central America
- The Myths of Mexico and Peru
I can’t speak to their accuracy–I’ve only skimmed a few pages thus far, but he was a celebrity in his day and definitely influential if considered slightly eccentric.
And he was a modern Druid to boot. Some in the post-modern world may consider him slightly racist as he clearly had a preference for those of Celtic descent, but if you are familiar with the long history of the Celts and their descendants, then this doesn’t exactly hold water in light of the facts.
I’ll be looking at some of his work in January, hopefully.
Additional sources are out there if you know where to look.
Most of the North American tribes have their own websites by now, and some, like the Delaware tribe, have included a section specifically for their stories. This is a great way for you to get in touch with American history and literature. Not to mention show your support for the continued effort to restore and preserve what you can.
As always, Project Gutenberg has a wealth of information and source material for free. It’s where I found James Mooney and Lewis Spence, after all.
Some western writers, especially Louis L’Amour, were inspired by First American myths and legends too. My favorite L’Amour book, The Haunted Mesa is jointly based on Pueblo and Aztec legends. It’s a wonderful novel with some science fiction elements and will whet your appetite for more.
What are you planning to read?
Let me know in the comments below or add your own favorite discoveries. There’s more out there than what I’ve just mentioned too.
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3 thoughts on “First, or Native American Literary Sources for the Interested”
Thanks for this! I’ll have to check out your recommendations. Hopefully I’ll find the time to read at least one of them in the coming year 🙂
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My pleasure, and thank you for reading! Let me know which one you pick and if you enjoyed it! If you need something quick, the first two on the list give you bite-sized chunks to enjoy and you can skip around a bit.
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I put the one by Zitkála-Šá on my TBR, but I have some other books I want to read first. I’ll let you know how it goes after I get to it, though! Probably will end up as a post on my blog 🙂