Five Characteristics of Native American Literature

by Lee Millisaw

Native American literature often features a combination of oral storytelling techniques and tribal mythology with European literary forms such as the novel or short story. Many works of Native American literature are strongly rooted in myth and symbolic archetypes. Some representative writers as of the early 21st century include Louise Erdrich, Sherman Alexie and Leslie Marmon Silko.

Hero Initiation

Rituals and initiation in Native American tribes.

One recurring motif in Native American literature is that of the young man who undergoes ritual initiation and eventually accomplishes an heroic act. Often the young man is born under divine circumstances or has mixed parentage. He neither fully belongs to his native tribe nor to the European settler world and must prove himself by some daring feat. In the end, the hero often dies tragically and becomes revered by those of his tribe.

Trickster

Animals represent tricksters in Native American culture.

Another common motif is that of the trickster. For the Lakota tribe, for instance, the trickster is represented by the spider. For the Kiowa, it's embodied by the coyote. The trickster may be a foolish figure who reveals human avarice. Often the trickster's selfish or mean-spirited actions result in being punished. Although the trickster may hurt others or act wrongly, it is nonetheless regarded as a cultural hero in tribal stories.

Symbolic Landmarks and Mythology

Totem poles.

Another characteristic of Native American literature involves attributing human characteristics to landmark formations or inanimate objects. This is part of a more generalized anthropomorphic tendency in Native American folk traditions. Additionally, animals may be given human behavioral characteristics such as a greed or jealousy. Inanimate objects and animals may be accorded an equal place with humans in the cosmos, and this equality emerges in Native American literature.

Oral Tradition

Native American woman who is part of literature.

Much Native American literature is rooted in the vitality of the oral tradition. Thus, many novels or poems may incorporate storytelling techniques such as song or repetition. The novels of M. Scott Momaday and Leslie Marmon Silko use techniques often associated with oral storytelling. Native American poetry especially shares many of these characteristics and may even be written for performance and involve instruments and refrains.

About the Author

Lee Millisaw has been writing since 1998. He's been published in "Beyond Baroque Magazine," "Bordercrossing Berlin" and the "Berkeley Poetry Review." His work has also been featured on National Public Radio. He has a Bachelor of Arts in rhetoric from University of California, Berkeley.

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