In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Native American Oral Literatures

  • Introduction
  • Anthologies
  • Journals
  • Theoretical Works
  • Ethnography
  • Literary Studies and Ethnopoetics
  • Novels, Poetry, and Short Stories Reflecting the Oral Tradition
  • Songs, Dances, and Material Culture
  • Native Alaskan, Northwest Coast, and Arctic
  • California
  • Central America
  • Great Lakes
  • Northeast
  • Indian Territory, Oklahoma
  • Plains
  • South
  • Southwest

American Literature Native American Oral Literatures
Timothy Powell
  • LAST REVIEWED: 29 August 2012
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 August 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199827251-0070


The oral traditions of Native Americans, Native Alaskans, and First Nations in Canada provide a wealth of insights about the history of literature on the North American continent. Regrettably, however, these traditions are often overlooked by scholars and students of American literature. “Native American oral literatures” is defined here in a fullness that transcends disciplinary boundaries, such that the article will be valuable to the fields of Native American studies, American literature, anthropology, history, religious studies, and folklore, as well as appeal to nonacademics who simply enjoy the art of storytelling. Because there presently are more than five hundred Native American tribes in the United States alone, it is impossible to encompass the geographic and cultural scope of the subject. The temporal scope of the subject is equally daunting, ranging from at least 2000 BCE to the present. The formal borders of the field are similarly vast and included oral performances, videos of storytellers, films, novels, short stories, poems, ethnographies, dances, songs, graphic novels, cartoons, and various forms of material culture. What follows, then, is a suggestive rather than definitive bibliography that ranges from the Arctic to Mesoamerica, from oral narratives about rock art to Pulitzer Prize–winning novels. Because Native American oral literatures are extremely difficult to date according to the chronological scale of Western history, a more indigenous form of temporality is evoked. Rather than imagining a linear timeline, perhaps a better way to think of time in this context is as a dance that circles around, bringing very old stories to life so that they can be adapted to an ever-changing present. The temporal depth of the stories is such that they recount a time when animals could still talk to humans, when the Hero Twins walked the Earth, and when tricksters like Coyote had their way. As the tricksters teach us, it is best to remain skeptical of eternal truths and to consider carefully the unexpected. Thus, the term “oral literatures” should be seen as a purposefully elusive term that can be written down but is always more fluid than black marks on the white page.

Reference Works

This section includes reference works focused on a variety of themes. For an inclusive overview of the vast number of Native American, Native Alaskan, and Canadian First Nations cultures, see Sturtevant 1978–2008, Trigger and Washburn 1996, and Adams and MacLeod 2000. Dillehay 2000 provides a useful research tool to help students and scholars understand the millennia before European contact. Bataille and Lisa 2001 provides a useful resource for scholars and students interested in the biographies of Native American women. Johansen and Grinde 1998 provides a more expansive reference work for Native American biographies. Hirschfelder and de Montaño 1998 is a valuable tool for researching contemporary Native American communities. Wiget 1996 provides a particularly helpful reference for understanding the oral tradition.

  • Adams, Richard E. W., and Murdo J. MacLeod, eds. The Cambridge History of the Native Peoples of the Americas. Vol. 2, Mesoamerica. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

    A follow up to Volume 1, on North America (Trigger and Washburn 1996). Includes two parts, both focused on Mesoamerica. Volume 3, also in two parts, focuses on indigenous cultures of South America.

  • Bataille, Gretchen M., and Laurie Lisa, eds. Native American Women: A Biographical Dictionary. 2d ed. New York: Routledge, 2001.

    Originally published by Garland in 1993, contains entries for nearly 250 Native American women. The historical range of the collection spans from the period of contact to the present and is a valuable resource for including Native American women in a history that was long focused largely on Indian men.

  • Dillehay, Thomas D. The Settlement of the Americas: A New Prehistory. New York: Basic Books, 2000.

    A good reference tool for understanding the history of indigenous cultures prior to European contact. A useful work because of its overview of debates within the field, which frequently undergoes dramatic revisions with the discovery of new archaeological materials.

  • Hirschfelder, Arlene, and Martha Kreipe de Montaño. The Native American Almanac: A Portrait of Native America Today. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1998.

    Includes a wide variety of information on treaties, tribal governments, languages, education, religion, games, and indigenous people in films and videos. The list of addresses for all US tribal governments is a valuable resource for those working on contemporary issues. First published 1993.

  • Johansen, Bruce E., and Donald A. Grinde Jr. The Encyclopedia of Native American Biography. New York: Da Capo, 1998.

    Originally published by Henry Holt in 1997, this resource provides a sweeping overview of important Native Americans from the time of early contact through to the present. Also contains information on non-Indians, such as Benjamin Franklin, who played a significant role in Indian–white relations.

  • Sturtevant, William C., ed. Handbook of North American Indians. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution, 1978–2008.

    The definitive work on North American Indians, spanning fifteen volumes to date, with a total of twenty planned. The handbook contains information about all indigenous cultures north of Mesoamerica. The articles include a wealth of material: cultural and physical aspects of the tribes, linguistic analysis, history, and precolonial history. Well indexed with extensive bibliographies.

  • Trigger, Bruce G., and Wilcomb E. Washburn, eds. The Cambridge History of the Native Peoples of the Americas. Vol. 1, North America. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

    A comprehensive reference work that includes articles by distinguished scholars on a wide range of topics focused on cultures north of Mesoamerica. The essays feature regional descriptions and thematic issues, such as “Native People in Euro-American Historiography” and “Indigenous Farmers.” As with the other volumes in the series, there are two parts.

  • Wiget, Andrew. Handbook of Native American Literature. London: Taylor & Francis, 1996.

    Written by one of the leading scholars of Native American oral literature, the work contains information on both the written and oral traditions. Particularly notable for its detailed analysis of oral literature from different regions of North America.

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