Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor


For the Indian peoples of the Plains, narratives, or what are often referred to as oral traditions, convey their most cherished values and contribute to the perpetuation of their worlds. The narratives encompass a variety of categories, two of the most prominent being stories of creation and tales of human heroes. While recognizing the rich variation of narratives that issue from the tribal diversity of the region, it can be generalized that creation stories typically involve powerful mythic beings, often identified by animal names, who transform a dangerous world and prepare it for the coming of the human peoples. In the "earth diver" accounts among the Arapahos, Blackfoot, and Crows, for example, mud is brought forth from the bottom of a primordial sea by a waterbird and, with a small piece of the earth, Coyote, or Old Man, fashions the landscape, creates other animals and plants, helps establish various customs and institutions, and ultimately molds from the earth and gives life to the first human beings. These ancient personages simultaneously embrace the traits and qualities of human, animal, and spiritual beings, and, through their deeds, display tremendous transformative powers.

Paramount among these creation mythic beings is the trickster, known by the Blackfoot as Napi or Old Man, by the Crows as Isaahkawuattee or Old Man Coyote, by the Lakotas as Iktomi or Spider, and by many tribes simply as the Coyote. While acknowledged as a benevolent creator, the trickster can also exhibit a self-serving character. Old Man Coyote might attempt to apply deception and trickery to gain a free meal, the woman of his dreams, or some other object of his desires. Yet Coyote's elaborate schemes to outwit an opponent are just as likely to end in failure, with himself being duped by his own trickery and made to look foolish.

Hero tales express the ideals of courage, brotherhood, generosity, and self-effacing valor. In the "Scar Face" (or "Burnt Face") stories of the Blackfoot or Crows, for example, the protagonist finds himself disfigured, poor, and ostracized, and consequently unable to obtain full adult status and marry. Alone, he sets out on a great journey to face seemingly overwhelming obstacles and challenges. Because of his bravery, generosity, and "heart," Scar Face receives a guardian spirit and its powerful assistance, his physical shortcomings are removed and any antagonists overcome, his family position is restored, he is allowed to marry, and he goes on to live a full and bountiful life. In the Blackfoot story, Scar Face, like other culture heroes, also brings an important ceremonial institution, the Sun Dance, to his people.

Embedded within the oral traditions are essential values and discernible lessons. Key among these values is the understanding that the world and its many inhabitants are spiritually endowed and maintained, that the animal peoples share in a fundamental kinship with the human peoples, and that reciprocity is the means by which one should relate to other kinsmen, whether human or animal. An elk is addressed as a "brother" and will offer its meat to a hunter when properly respected. An eagle can become a "father" as a result of the food and water sacrifices offered during a vision quest, and, from the spiritual medicine bestowed during the vision, the eagle can guide, nurture, and bring health to a person throughout his life. From the narratives one learns the likely consequences of being a selfserving Coyote, and from the hero tales one is encouraged to seek the assistance of a guardian spirit and strive to benefit others.

Because the narratives of the Plains Indian emanate from an oral-based medium, the act of storytelling is an essential component of the story. In the past, a storyteller had to have the right to tell stories, typically having inherited the authority. Both men and women could become accomplished storytellers. For most tribes it was only during the winter season, from the first frost in the fall until the first thunder heard in the spring, that the stories of Coyote should be told. Again, acknowledging variation from storyteller to storyteller, it can be said that among the various styles and techniques exhibited by storytellers were the use of repetition of phrases to signal key actions within the narrative, the singing of associated songs, the dramatic use of intonation and pauses, the accentuation of body movement and hand gesturing, and the requirement that listeners of the story affirm their involvement in the story by periodically saying aloud, ée (yes), or motioning in some other fashion. Should the storyteller fail to receive such acknowledgments, the telling would immediately cease for the evening.

The act of storytelling is made particularly potent through the use of Native language. For example, when told in the Crow language, the words of the story are understood as having the power to bring forth and manifest that which is being spoken. This pivotal notion is conveyed in the Crow term dasshússua, literally meaning "breaking with the mouth." That which comes though the mouth has the power to affect the world. The understanding of the creative power of language, coupled with the various techniques used by storytellers, encourages listeners to become participants within the story, traveling the same trails alongside the Coyote or Scar Face.

In addition to disseminating the knowledge and wisdom brought forth by the heroic and mythic figures celebrated in the narratives, oral traditions have another essential role. The narratives help re-create and revitalize the worlds of the Plains Indians. In the act of telling of the deeds of Coyote and Scar Face, that which is conveyed in word and gesture is brought to life, viewed, and engaged in by the participants in the oral tradition. A landscape is renewed and a people are reinvigorated. Today, the telling of the oral traditions remains an essential act of tribal affirmation, identity, and perpetuation, and is a testament to the continued vitality of the Plains Indian life.

See also LITERARY TRADITIONS: Oral Traditions / NATIVE AMERICANS: Crows / RELIGION: Sun Dance.

Rodney Frey University of Idaho

Dorsey, George. Traditions of the Arapaho. 1903. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1997.

Lowie, Robert. Myths and Traditions of the Crow Indians. 1918. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1993.

Wissler, Clark, and D. C. Duvall. Mythology of the Blackfoot Indians. 1909. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1995.

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