By André Bastos Gurgel, OAB and Erik Ogle, M.A.
Though mostly in oral form, Native Americans have produced some real literary treasures that have been passed down by word-of-mouth for thousands of years. In the following article I’ll be discussing three Native American tribes and their most famous examples of oral poetry.
The Apache tribes have traditionally lived in what is now Eastern Arizona, Northern Mexico (Sonora and Chihuahua), New Mexico, West Texas, and Southern Colorado. Their first contact with Europeans was with the Spanish and, out of all the tribes in the region, they were considered the bravest. There isn’t a single Apache language per se, but instead a number of related dialects. Navajo is actually very close to Apache, and there’s a good deal of mutual understanding between the two languages.
Here is a poem produced in the Jicarilla dialect of Apache. It explains how humans obtained fire thanks to Coyote, who stole it from the flies.
id , o o y di n a.
oo he hoo h d n i o ‘ ól n a.
oo he ot l yiis n a.
oo Mai ee h hon a.
ot l jiis ee, Mai ts a a ee naan a hishn a.
oo itsee ts n i on a.
Long ago, there was no fire.
Then only those who are called Flies had fire.
Then the Flies held a ceremony.
And Coyote came there.
At that place where they held the ceremony,
Coyote danced around and around at the edge of the fire.
And he continually poked his tail in the fire.
(Translated by Harry Hoijer)
Lushootseed is the language of several Native American tribes in Washington State. Rather surprisin ly, the rammar of their lan ua e isn’t as complicated as other Native American languages and is similar in many ways to a number of European languages. Still, it has a highly complicated phonetic system. Unfortunately, this language is almost extinct today, with no native speakers and just a limited number of people who know it as a second language. Since 2013, though, some institutions have worked to revitalize the language, and in 2016 the University of Washington’s Tacoma campus offered an adult immersion program in Lushootseed. Lushootseed is, in fact, one of the most well-documented languages of the Americas; there are grammars, learning texts, and hundreds of pages of myths and stories, as well as a comprehensive dictionary.
Here’s a sample of some prose written in Lushootseed. It’s the beginning of one of the tales featuring Mink, a character who often plays tricks on both people and animals.
ʔah dəgʷi, siʔab dsyaʔyaʔ.
tu ʷəxʷ čəd ɬuyəcəbtubicid, tituyəhub ʔə tudiʔ tuslu lu čəɬ.
tuyəcə tu čəd ʔə tiʔiɬtudyəl yəb.
hay čəd ɬuyəcəbtubicidəxʷ,dəgʷi siʔab dsyaʔyaʔ.
Ah, you my honorable friend.
I am merely going to tell you, a story that came, from our ancestors.
I was told this story by my ancestors.
Now, I am going to tell to you now my honorable friend.
(A traditional story told by Edward Hagan Sam)
The Arapaho are a tribe who originally lived on the plains of Colorado and Wyoming. They were well known for their skilled riders and fierce warriors who fought against other Native American tribes and, later, against European settlers. Arapaho, however, is dying nowadays, with only between 250 and 1,000 speakers in Wyoming and Oklahoma, most of whom are more than 80 years old. The Arapaho, though, are working to revitalize their language and teach it to a new generation.
Here’s a sample of poetry written in Arapaho. It is a hoox(oh)oenoot, a “replacement/exchange song”, also known as a “good-time song”.
‘Oh ciiciixóotéé’ ciineihíít
Noh howóó hee’ínowoo.
“It is good to be young, but old age is not far away. I know this well myself.”
(Sung by Mary Kate Underwood to Andrew Cowell.)
I hope you’ve enjoyed this sampling of Native American oral literature. The songs and stories of the original inhabitants of the New World are too often ignored by scholars and the general public alike, and I hope more people will come to understand the necessity of preserving the languages of America’s original inhabitants.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
André Bastos Gurgel, OAB (Order of Attorneys of Brazil), Academic Advisor for the Carmenta Online Latin School, is a life-long student of both modern and ancient languages. Mr. Gurgel is fluent in English, Portuguese, Mandarin, Spanish, French, Italian, German, and Latin (the last of which he learned with Carmenta) and has a working knowledge of Danish, Hebrew, Ancient Greek, and Sanskrit. Mr. Gurgel is currently studying Old English through Carmenta as well.
Click here to read Mr. Gurgel’s full profile.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Erik Ogle earned his BA in Classics and Linguistics in his native Colorado, where he focused on Latin, Greek, and American Indian languages. He also worked as a tutor for the University of Colorado at that time in French, Swedish, Latin, and Ancient Greek. Prof. Ogle then went on to complete his MA at the University of Chicago in the Humanities with a focus in the Classics. Afterward, he spent a few years in South Korea and Mongolia teaching English (and a little bit of Latin). Since coming back to the States, he’s been working as an independent tutor of various languages and subjects. Prof. Ogle currently tutors Latin, Ancient Greek, as well as many other ancient and modern languages for Carmenta Online PhD Tutors.
Click here to see Prof. Ogle’s full profile on the Carmenta Faculty Page.