From Spoken Narration to Book: Adapting Oral Traditions to Modern Fiction in Native American Writing

By John K. Donaldson.

Published by The International Journal of the Book

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Article: Print $US10.00
Article: Electronic $US5.00

The world over, formerly non-literate peoples have dealt with the transition from oral tradition to the written word and book form. These shifts have often taken place in colonial or former colonial contexts, such as that of the United States. Since the so-called Native American Renaissance began in the1970s, sparked by the award of a Pulitzer Prize for Literature (1969) to the Kiowa author, N. Scott Momaday, for his novel, House Made of Dawn, we have been able to watch an evolution in the way American Indian authors have dealt with problems inherent in the oral-to-written shift. The turning point marked by the success of House Made of Dawn has also offered a perspective from which to view previously published Native American fiction. A backward glance allows us to see that Indigenous American authors have been experimenting with the oral-to-written changeover from a far earlier time, searching for ways in which to render a sense of orality in written form. Keeping alive some feeling of the long oral traditions in their native languages while writing modern fiction in English was a challenge that most major Native American authors have attempted to meet. In fact, doing so became an important part of “the project” of contemporary American Indian fiction. Thus in the 83 years since the appearance of Cogewea, arguably the first modern Native American novel, several approaches to the challenge have emerged. Among these are the use of actual oral tales as interpolated narratives; the use of the themes or “messages” contained in traditional oral narratives, but in updated plotlines; the use of magic realism; and at least one tour de force attempt to structure a novel on the basis of general American Indian oral discourse patterns. This essay will examine each of these strategies in turn and link them to relevant theoretical insights. Although insights abound scattered among the writings of critics and theorists, it must be said that no extensive, concerted critical attention has been paid to the particular problem under study here. By bringing together those insights which have already been offered and adding new ones of my own, drawn from close readings of the novels discussed, it is hoped that this essay will at least begin to fill the void.

Keywords: Native American Fiction, Oral to Written Transition, Books as Cultural Adaptations, Literacy and Traditional Culture

International Journal of the Book, Volume 7, Issue 4, pp.127-142. Article: Print (Spiral Bound). Article: Electronic (PDF File; 1.263MB).

Dr. John K. Donaldson

Professorial Lecturer, Department of Anthropology, George Washington University, Washington, DC, USA

John Donaldson teaches courses in Native American societies, cultures, and literatures, and well as language and linguistic analysis. He has presented papers on related topics at numerous national and international conferences. He is the author of The Native Americans, part of the American Portfolio Series, distributed by the U.S. Department of State, and has co-authored a book on change in America, which appeared in the fall of 2009. His most recent field work has been in the Dominican Republic, where he has done investigations on two very different subjects: Taino Indian cave art and the English spoken by the descendants of freed African-American slaves, who settled there in the 1820s.


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