Ruppert, James. “The Old Wisdom: Introducing Native American Materials.” Teaching the Literatures of Early America. MLA Options in Teaching Series. Ed. Carla Mulford. New York: MLA, 1999. 11-26. Print.
In his article “The Old Wisdom: Introducing Native American Materials,” Ruppert presents a thorough overview of the issues that arise when first introducing Native American oral materials to a classroom of students unfamiliar with Native American materials and epistemology. To begin, Ruppert shares three points to keep in mind:
- “an exploration of cultural values and worldviews seems essential;”
- “the dynamics of possession, resistance, trade, and war, central to the colonial attempt to define the uniqueness of the American experience;”
- “Native American oral literary traditions can challenge and illuminate the variety of human creative and literary expression that forms the groundwork of all meaning construction” (11).
As Ruppert notes, it is impossible to provide a complete overview of all Native American oral materials and traditions in one article, as there were well over three hundred different tribal cultures and over two hundred languages in the United States during the period of European exploration. Therefore, he divides his overview into these useful (though still broad) categories: Genre, Spectrum of Oral Narrative Types, Functions of Oral Narratives, Performance, Oral Style, Narrative Expectations for Typical Readers Today, Finding Meaning, and Historic Native American Materials.
Many NA oral objects of study are available in written form, and Ruppert notes that the tradition can be divided into the following genres: oral narratives, oratory, song, and religious expressions. However, he points out that these genres are anything but mutually exclusive. Interestingly, Ruppert points out that the genres of fiction, poetry, and drama—because of their relative contemporary nature in the long history of NA materials—are not as useful in studying the long-established epistemologies and cultures of Native America. The author additionally stresses that NA oral materials are often misrepresented as past or dead, and he chooses to break that academic tradition by stressing the significant, ongoing tradition of oral materials in still existing communities.
Ruppert briefly explains the following genres:
- Oral narratives can consist of sacred or secular stories, and that designation determines who in the tribe (or who outside of the tribe) can hear which stories, at what age, and what time of the year.
- Oratory, particularly in the form of historical and political speeches by historical or important leaders in the community, has recently generated particular interest in the academy, but has always been important to the NA community.
- Songs can be also be of sacred or secular importance to a tribe, and many NA tribal songs in the past have been mis-anthologized as poetry, thus downplaying “the musical dimension” and context of the song (14).
- Religious Expression, as Ruppert notes, can “range from dance dramas staged as public ritual” to the “personal vision songs of the Papago” (14). While oral narratives, oratory, and songs can be sacred or religious in nature, religious expression (as an oral genre) deals strictly with the sacred rites, rituals, and prayers of certain tribes; much of this particular genre outsiders of the tribe are not privy to.
To complicate issues related to genre further, the author rightly points out that the above genres were established by western scholars and academics; Native Americans can and have defined their own genres within their own communities. For example, tribal distant-time stories are one genre, and tribal historical narratives are another.
Spectrum of Oral Narrative Types
Ruppert provides a useful figure in this particular section of his article, which helps students the “spacious reach” of NA oral narratives (14):Origin Era Transformation Era Historical Era ___I___________________I_______________________I_______________ Distant Time Movement toward social forms Personal and communal memory (Flux) (Fixed Natures)
As Ruppert explains, on the left is the Origin Era, which contain origin stories, in which things are constantly in “creative flux, where the essential nature of things can change. It is usually inhabited by characters who are both animal and humans” (15). During the Transformation Era, things in the world become more “fixed and stable,” but “the relations among humans, animals, and the spiritual powers of the world have not yet been formalized” (15). Stories in the Transformation Era define how humans can and should “behave towards animals and spiritual powers.” The Historical Era contains stories and memories from the near-distant past, and “their function is to carry on the process of developing and defining the nature of people’s experience in the world” (16).
Perhaps the most important point to note is that “In Native American communities…the distinction is made not between the truth and falsehood but between distant time and recent time. The world was different back then; different rules governed the interactions among beings” (16). This means that students should not understand NA oral materials in terms of a western epistemological understanding of “cultural progress from an animal world to human culture or of a fall from an idealized paradise” (16-17), but rather as materials that explain how the world has transitioned into what it is today.
Functions of Oral Narratives
As he explains, the typical western narratives (parables, fables, fairy tales) are poor choices for comparison to which NA materials, particularly because of function. NA stories have three main functions in their communities, according to Ruppert, which include entertainment, instruction, and the creation of “harmony between a community and the sacred processes of the world” (17).
Ruppert writes that in stories, “vital elements of a worldview are also explored,” as “social wisdom is part of the instructional function” (18). Additionally, stories would often incorporate useful information on traditional practices, geography, or significant natural phenomena. However, the hardest concept of narratives for western audiences to understand is that storytelling in the community “heal, reestablish spiritual-human balance, and foster hunting luck” (19); therefore, the act of storytelling, in and of itself, is necessary and vital for the community.
Ruppert addresses the fact that when oral materials appear on the page, audiences are only experiencing part of the piece. An entire oral piece of any kind always includes the aspect of performance, meaning every piece is only performed in a certain way, by a certain member of a certain clan, in a certain part of the year; we miss these essential elements then when oral materials are translated into text.
In older anthologized translations of oral materials, Ruppert points out that the element of style was often left out. While there are many elements of style to consider across cultures, he notes that repetition (particularly in sets of fours or fives), as well as questions, indirect address, and code switching are just some common elements that occur across many oral materials.
Narrative Expectations for Typical Readers Today
Many modern, western readers tend to rely on and expect elements of realism (particularly in terms of chronology), reasonable motivation on the part of characters, and the typical elements of plot; but these conventions don’t really hold in NA oral materials. Ruppert reports that when teaching these materials to his students, he “must talk as much about what the stories are not as about what they are” (22).
Due to the difficult challenges western students and readers face, Ruppert offers the metaphor he gives his students when considering NA oral objects of study. Storytelling can be thought of “as a map across a narrative terrain,” which “consists of the diverse culturally moral subjects encoded by the story.” The storyteller then essentially chooses the path of the narrative, and “as one explores the motion of the narrative, one’s intent should be to understand the oral communal goals of the narrative” (23). This metaphor shows that readers have to be willing to follow the storyteller, and think beyond individual understanding and meaning to what the story may mean to the entire tribe.
Historic Native American Materials
Ruppert ends his article by focusing on historical publications, such as speeches, autobiographies, tribal histories, and sermons, which can show readers “the confluence of Native American and European values” (23). What is important to understand is that though these historic materials may seem “old” to Euro-American students and readers, these historical oral documents are actually some of the most contemporary materials to most NA tribes. Some examples of these kinds of materials are the works of Samson Occom, William Apess, Elias Boudinot, and George Copway, which Ruppert (and other scholars) demonstrate reveal “a complex interface between two competing value systems, two forms of communication, and two worldviews” (23).
To close his article, Ruppert stresses that there is no simple, easy approach or strategy to introducing NA oral materials to a class of unfamiliar readers and students: the histories, epistemologies, and even styles are completely unexpected and vastly different from western texts. Nevertheless (and I wholeheartedly agree with Ruppert here), “using these materials may take a little more time in preparation, but the rewards are great” (24).