The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
VOLUME XVIII. Later National Literature, Part III.

XXXII. Non-English Writings II

§ 12. Qualities

In the descriptive and explanatory matter of Frances Dinsmore’s Sun Dance, and in the prose intervals of the Hako Ritual as recorded by Alice Fletcher, one sees this process going on; and, incidentally, for the student of drama there is much light thrown on the office and evolution of the Greek chorus. For not the least advantage of the study of our own aboriginal literature is the place it fills in the evolution of form.

Amerind prose, and prose becoming poetized by growing important, has the first consideration, because this is the nearest point of contact. The earliest forms as well as the preponderant forms are all well within our own definition of poetry. That is to say, they have definite, repetitive rhythm pattern. They have sonority, assonance, and in some instances even alliteration and rhyme.

Over and above the quality of rememberability which every aboriginal composition was obliged to have, the instinctive choice of poetry as a medium of intimate expression had to do with the Indian’s religion. He began by being convinced of unity and continuity of life. Earth, ant-heap, beast, and stone were permeated with the same Essence which was in himself, for which we may adopt the ethnologist’s term Wakonda. To put himself in touch with the Wakonda of whatever item of creation held his interest of the moment, was the serious business of the Indian’s days. He thought of the animals as nearer to the Cause of Causes than men were, and of the forces of nature as still nearer, being so much more mysterious. At all times and continuously he thought of the necessity of keeping himself in harmony with these.

First of all he hit upon the idea of rhythm, vibration, as being the secret of such harmony, the ululating voice, the cry beaten into rhythm with the hand, then the hollow log, the pebbled gourd. Then words began to rise like bubbles through the cry, mere syllables, unrelated words, a shorthand note to the emotions involved, all arranged around the emotional impulse which set them in motion, annotating the experience, but not until a much later stage describing it.

The process of raising annals, incident, and law to the point at which they became precious enough to require remembering, in other words, to the point at which they could be called literature, was obvious and slow. But spiritual and emotional experiences were literary in their mode from their very inception. That is to say, they could be drummed, if no more than on the singer’s breast. Single personal experiences gave rise to the love song, the death song, the cradle song. Where a succession of incidents was required to complete the experience, the song sequence arose. Out of such sequences developed, with the help of the sustaining narrative, all epic and drama.

In this stage the poetic art admitted no aristocracy of talent. Any Indian who had a poetic experience could make a song of it, and apparently every Indian did. It is no uncommon thing even today to find a singer with a repertory of two hundred or more songs. Some of these will be found to be fragments of ceremonial sequences, but most of them will be personal expressions.

  • I did not make my looks,
  • Why blame me if the women fall in love with me?
  • sings the Omaha beau;
  • Setting out on the war trail, the Pawnee sings
  • Let us see is it real,
  • This life that I am living.
  • Thus the north coast lover:
  • Even from a house of strong drink
  • Men get away,
  • But not from you,
  • Raven woman.
  • Almost all personal songs are of this stenographic character so far as they are concerned with mere words. It is even possible to dispense with words altogether, but the translator will go astray who contents himself with the words and does not put into his work the rhythm pattern and the emotion of the melodic intervals. Music is to the highest degree literary with the aboriginal.

    Even with these aids the meaning of Amerind verse is obscure unless one understands that the genius of the language is holophrastic. This is to say, there is an effort to express the relationship of several ideas by combining them into one word. In the Quicha tongue it is possible to say in a single word, “the-essence-of-being-as-existent-in-humanity.” There is a Chippewa word, which means “I-laugh-in-my-thoughts,” and an Algonkin word which an unliterary translator might render correctly as dawn, actually means “hither-whiteness-comes-walking.”

    Another difficulty encountered by the student of aboriginal American verse who is not also a student of aboriginals is the relationship of ideas. When the Paiute Ghost dancer sings

  • The cottonwoods are growing tall,
  • They are growing tall and green,
  • or the Ojibway,
  • All night on the river I keep awake,
  • the first is not describing the spring landscape, but a vision of spiritual regeneration and resurrection from the dead. Nor has the latter lost his sweetheart: he speaks of the search of the soul for mystic completion.