Home  »  Volume XVIII: American LATER NATIONAL LITERATURE: PART III  »  § 3. Need of Memory Among Indians

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

§ 3. Need of Memory Among Indians

The controlling factor in the form of aboriginal literature was its need of being rememberable. Transmitted as it was by word of mouth, every song and story had to shape itself, as naturally as a river to its bed, to the retentive faculty of the mind. Ceremonies occupying several days for their performance must be passed, letter-perfect, from generation to generation. It was etiquette in Indian assemblies for a speaker, on rising, to repeat all that had been said by previous speakers on that subject. Under these circumstances remembering became a profession. Individuals with exceptional endowment became the custodians of tribal history. “Keeper of the Wampum” grew to be a title of distinction, and it is related of one of these keepers among the Five Nations that he was able to repeat all the details of public transaction connected with every one of the five hundred belts entrusted to his care.