Essays on Teaching the American Literatures

(from the Heath Anthology Newsletter)

A Talk Concerning First Beginnings: Teaching Native American Oral Literature

by Andrew Wiget

New Mexico State University

In addressing the issue of teaching Native American literature, I want to focus my attention on a single text, one that most teachers and students find very difficult: the Zuni Talk Concerning the First Beginning. [1, 26-40] This is a key text for a number of reasons: as a mythological text, it opens the entire question of worldview; as a transcription of an oral text, it raises all the aesthetic questions associated with oral performance and transcription; and as a foundational text, it establishes a framework for a subsequent exploration of another Zuni text, Sayatasha's Night Chant, [1, 2644-63] and for useful comparisons with foundational European texts of encounter. I would also like to call the reader's attention to a stimulating article by Jeanne Holland in a recent issue of the CEA Critic and respond to some of the issues she confronted in her attempts at teaching Native American literature from the Heath Anthology.

When we teach Native American (or Japanese or Yoruba) literature, we become acutely aware of how much we have depended when teaching, say, Nathaniel Hawthorne, not only on what we learned in formal coursework but on what we have internalized during our own informal socialization as fundamental assumptions about human nature, the physical world, causation, and a host of other metaphysical beliefs. To open a discussion of any single Native American text is to immediately invoke in one's students and one's self a tangled web of issues that, in fact, will never become entirely sorted out in the limited time available in the classroom. Here Jeanne Holland's comments about being continually self-reflexive are very astute. Too often our strategy with the unfamiliar is to provide spurious contexts of Universality or of Otherness; both are merely masks for our own values, the first disguising their positive assertion, the second their projection as exact opposites. A film on contemporary Indian lifestyles, like the recent, two-part PBS production Winds of Change, will open a lot of discussion about stereotypes and assumptions, if one has time.

However, there is, frankly, no substitute for adequate preparation, which must comprehend a general knowledge of the history of Indian-white relations, yet substantially transcend it to focus on particular tribal cultures and literatures. The literature on Zuni, for instance, is voluminous and some perhaps only accessible through interlibrary loan. One might object that college instructors do not have time to develop that kind of expertise. Yet I would argue that, if we are to take this literature seriously, we must strive to supply ourselves and our students with sufficient context to make it intelligible on its own terms we would do as much with Beowulf or Medea or not teach it at all. Holland's desire for much, much more culturally specific contextualization and for many texts from a single tribal literature reflect the anxieties of many instructors, but such solutions are practically impossible without transforming an anthology (or course) of American literature into an anthology (or course) of Native American literature. So responsible teachers are compelled to go beyond the text and the Teacher's Guide to supply what has been omitted in their own formal preparation and experience. A good initial resource for ethnographic information, as Holland recommends, is the new Handbook of North American Indians, which is available in most research libraries (volume 10 covers Puebloan peoples, including the Zunis; volume 9, non-Puebloans, including the Navajos), which is complemented by Mudrock and O'Leary's Ethnographic Bibliography of North America. The most substantial research guide for Native American literatures is Ruoff (1990). To help with this particular text, I have appended a bibliography to this article.

I regularly teach the first semester of a two-semester American Literature survey class. I am now in the second semester of using the Heath Anthology to facilitate a teaching strategy that differs considerably from my previous ones. I organize the course roughly chronologically and topically around Core Texts, which are the focus of teacher-directed lecture/discussion, and Exploratory Texts, for which student groups have the principal responsibility for presentation, with my role limited to prodding and commenting (see appended syllabus). Students keep a Reading Log as a way of preparing for class and staying on pace. The first class meeting of the semester, I immediately divide the class into working groups and, strange as it seems, have each group answer three questions: When we encounter aliens for the first time, what will they look like, how will their society be organized, and what will be the circumstances of encounter? The exercise has proven effective because it is fun and the students haven't the foggiest idea why they are doing it. After collating their responses on the board, we talk about why they generated the kinds of responses they did. This leads to a discussion of how we imagine the Other long before we actually encounter it, and how those imaginings are shaped by our own needs and desires. The class concludes by extending this framework of expectations to encounters between Europeans and Native Americans.

Talk is usually the first text we read as the subject of the second class meeting and part of the third. My opening move in class, and it is not peculiar to this text, is to invite student observations on those aspects of the text that provoked questions or strong affective responses. Soon there is a list of topics on the board, which cluster in two areas: subject-theme ( underworld , fetish , the number four , sounds like evolution , kachinas ) and language-performance ( boring repetition," audience, occasion, quality of translation and so on). Before we even begin to deal with the text as an organic whole, I try to address these questions. Currently there is great interest in understanding how oral performance differs from writing as a mode of publication. All textualizations are motivated, and usually for audiences (and hence, reasons) different from those of the original oral performance (see Murray, Forked Tongues). Contrary to popular opinion, much of the sense of these texts is not lost in the best anthropological translations. Bunzel's Zuni Origin Myths, from which this text is taken, provides much of this information. Dennis Tedlock's important work on textualizing Zuni narrative, another example, was meant to highlight certain elements of oral performance, specifically, the alternations between sound and silence. But for a number of reasons, including differences in sentence structure, it is impossible to reproduce oral performance entirely accurately in translated texts. Moreover, it is not clear that there is any thing like a Zuni performance style because canons of good performance, we are only now beginning to recognize, provide for a range of individual variation within the constraints established for specific genres. So how much can one recover of a sense of the original performance context from reading aloud a translated transcription like Talk ? Probably very little. Because the text is not a script, it just won't answer to that demand. If, however, one is interested in pursuing this in some depth in class, I would recommend viewing a film like I'isaw (see bibliography) together with my textualization and performance of it (see Telling the Tale ).

But questions of performance and translation shouldn't deter a reader. Language-performance questions are often useful irritants. Repetition, for instance, is not a necessary concomitant of orality. Things are often repeated in myth (indeed, this text was heavily edited to eliminate most, but not all of the repetition) to underscore the notion of completeness and to highlight culturally significant categories. (Here a comparison with Genesis 1 is useful). Why most contemporary readers do not value repetition, and what boring or engaging means, are inquiries that open up a very large field of aesthetic discourse indeed about audiences and their values.

Talk is the Zuni version of a more widespread type origin story called an emergence myth (see Wheeler-Voegelin and Moore). The subject-theme questions provoke a discussion of many common mythic elements. The three-zone cosmos (underworld, earth-surface world, and sky world) also undergirds popular belief in Western cultures (Heaven is up ). The number four leads to a discussion of the basis of sacred numbers in our own physicalness and the relationship of visual field to the earth-surface world (4: bilateral symmetry, front/back :: N,E,S,W; 5: cardinal directions plus Center; 7: cardinal directions, Center, Zenith, Nadir) and the functions of such numbers in mythic narrative (see Teacher's Guide). Both of these topics inevitably lead to a larger discussion about what is cultural and what is natural. This is such an important topic that I usually allow considerable time for it, because the issue recurs throughout the semester culminating with our tendency to naturalize distinctly cultural conceptions like the organization of space, time, quantity, and so on.

The kachinas are discussed in terms of the larger theme of transformations. While some students might know of kachina dolls, the dolls are only images of the dancers, who are themselves incarnations of the spirits. Good information on kachinas can be found in Bunzel's Zuni Katcinas (see bibliography). The Zunis address kachinas as our fathers, our children, as the former because of their antiquity, as the latter because they are in fact those children of the Zuni ancestors who were swept away in crossing the river (one might here invoke the River Styx as another example of the common folklore motif of the river boundary between two worlds). Kachinas are thus mediational figures, part of the human world and part of the spirit world, and their pledge to return to Zuni with moisture in exchange for prayers furthers the reciprocal relationship between the Zuni and the Sun Father which motivates the entire story from the beginning.

In my experience, two other episodes always attract attention. The first, the origins of corn in which Coyote gives the people corn in exchange for mortality, is another transformation story in which evokes the relationship between animal life (flesh) and vegetable life (corn). The agricultural process of seeding, germinating, nurturing, maturing, and harvesting is a fundamental metaphor for many human processes among Puebloan peoples and dramatized well in the film Hopi: Songs of the Fourth World (see also, the Levi-Strauss article in the bibliography). The second is the incestuous relationship between the brother and sister that causes their reversion back to protohuman form. It is important to establish the relationship between this episode and the next, about the origin of the kachinas (cf. p. 35, n.15). Myths are about boundary-setting, establishing distinctions, which is why they always provoke questions about what is natural and what is cultural. At the same time, they are dynamic, not static, representations, that portray processes as well as forms. In short, they not only map the cultural world but dramatize how to live in it.

I usually conclude this first, rather breathless class period with a mapping out of the episodes in the story, which makes clear that it really tells three stories: the physical evolution, the sociocultural development, and the geographical migration of the Zuni people. The myth represents a powerful fusion of three charged topics Nature, Culture, and Land set in motion in a progressive dynamic that moves from separation, disorder, and marginality to a conclusion of unity, order, and centeredness.

For the second class, I ask them to read the Genesis creation story of the Garden (Gen. 2:4b-6:1). Students see many similarities in topics (especially if one extends the reading to include Gen. 1:1-2:4a, students can see how myth functions to establish categorical relationships through distinctions). On the other hand, students are also struck by significant differences in treatment: the judgmental nature of Yahweh and the fact that he is outside of creation; a chain-of-being model of life forms that subordinates animals to humans; the special creation as opposed to evolution of humans; culture and warfare as a consequence of sin, Gen. 4:17-24, 11:1-9; sin as personal disobedience to an external authority with permanent harm for subsequent human history; and so on. What to make of these similarities and differences? Students are often very quick to propose a simple dichotomy between Native American culture and Euroamerican culture, and, I take it, this is the position in which Holland found herself by isolating one portion of my comments in the Instructor's Guide. While it would be ideal, as she implies, to develop a fairly complex notion of how the cultures of distinct native peoples differ (Navajos and Zunis, for instance), my sense is that most teachers will not have time to do that very well within the limited economy of goals and resources governing even a two-semester survey class. One could read for depth more Zuni material (by following Talk with Sayatasha's Night Chant ) or for breadth among similar stories from other Native American cultures (the forthcoming revision of the Heath Anthology will address both of these strategies).

Despite our differences in strategy, I would nevertheless affirm Holland's instincts. Especially in this age of easy stereotyping, it is both necessary and just to complicate this realization of difference by returning to specific cultural and historical contexts, reminding students that different audiences in different periods of time appropriate texts for different purposes. How we (and others) might use these texts today may be very different from the way in which they were formerly used. Though, for example, Zunis understood their relationship to animals differently than seventeenth century Europeans, they did not consider themselves environmentalists, because the necessary condition for an environmentalist posture is living in a world in which one perceives the environment as threatened by human forces which humans can control through political means. Such conditions did not obtain in North America in the seventeenth century, either for Europeans or Native Americans. Nevertheless, within specific cultural and historical contexts,

some broad differences are worth highlighting, especially since they are illuminated by other texts, such as Bradford's and Villagra's (see my Reading in appended bibliography.)

These broad differences become a jumping-off point, to be tested and complicated by later readings. For instance, I usually follow Talk with Aztec and Inuit oral poetry, which contrast not only with each other, but with the Zuni text, so strongly in themes and forms that students quickly shift from talking about Native Americans to discussing things in terms of Inuits, Aztecs, Zunis, Hopis, and so on. At the same time, tentative notions about a common matrix of sixteenth century values and beliefs are tested against the literature of discovery. Because such testing is what I believe an education, especially an education through literature, is all about, I like the challenges posed to myself and my students by beginning the semester in this way, but I too am still exploring.


Bunzel, Ruth. Introduction to Zuni Ceremonialism, Zuni Katcinas, Zuni Origin Myths, Zuni Ritual Poetry. Forty-Seventh Annual Report of the Bureau of American Ethnology. Washington: GPO, 1930.

Zuni Origin Myths is the source of the text for Talk. The other essays provide a rich and valuable context for this text and for Zuni oral literature.

Cushing, Frank H. Zuni Folktales. 1931. Rpt. Tucson: U of Arizona P, 1986.

Handbook of North American Indians. 15 vols. Gen. Ed. William Sturtevant. Vol. 9 Southwest (Non-Puebloans), Vol. l0 Southwest (Puebloans). Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press.

Essential historical and ethnographic information on American Indians. Vol. 10 has several authoritative essays on Zuni culture, history and world view.

Holland, Jeanne. Teaching Native American Literature from the Heath Anthology of American Literature. CEA Critic 55 (1993), 1-21.

Levi-Strauss, Claude. The Structural Study of Myth. Structural Anthropology. 1967. Rpt. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1983.

A cogent analysis of thematic issues in the Zuni emergence story.

Murdock, George P. and O'Leary, Timothy. Ethnographic Bibliography of North America. 5 vols. New Haven: Yale U P, 1985.

Murray, David. Forked Tongues: Speech. Writing and Representation in North American Indian Texts. Bloomington: Indiana U P, 1990 .

Ruoff, A. LaVonne Brown. American Indian Literatures: An Introduction. Bibliographic Review and Selected Bibliography. New York: MLA, 1990. Essential resource.

Swann, Brian. Smoothing the Ground: Essays on Native American

Oral Literature. Berkeley: U of California P, 1983.

and Arnold Krupat. Recovering the Word: Essays on Native

American Literature. Berkeley: U of California P, 1987. Excellent collection with many substantive essays which discuss issues of translation and textmaking and offer models of interpretation.

Tedlock, Dennis. Finding the Center: Narrative Poetry of the Zuni Indians. New York: Dial, 1972.

- . The Spoken Word and the Work of Interpretation. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 1983.

Reprints several of Tedlock's important and groundbreaking critical essays on Zuni oral literature.

Wheeler-Voegelin, Erminie and R. W. Moore. The Emergence Myth in Native America. Indiana University Publications Folklore 9 (1957): 66-91.

Wiget, Andrew. Native American Literature. Boston: Twayne, 1985.

Ch. 1 on Oral Narrative discusses Emergence myths and myth systems.

. Reading Against the Grain: Origin Stories and American

Literary History. American Literary History 2 (1991): 209-31.

Reads Bradford's Plimoth Plantation, Villagra's History of New Mexico, and Zuni Talk against each other as foundational texts establishing different senses of culture, history, and relationship to land.

- . Telling the Tale: A Performance Analysis of a Hopi Coyote Story. in Swann and Krupat, Recovering the Word, 297-336.

A model of how the linguistic and performative dimensions of oral storytelling cohere in aesthetic experience.

Film Resources

Hopi: Songs of the Fourth World. Prod. Pat Ferrero. New Day Films, 1983.

I'isaw: Hopi Coyote Stories [Helen Sekaquaptewa]. Words and Place. Prod. Larry Evers. Clearwater Publishing Company, Inc. 1995 Broadway, New York, NY 10023.

Winds of Change. Available from PBS.

Andrew Wiget

This page was prepared by Audrey Mickahail at the Center for Electronic Projects in American Culture Studies (CEPACS), housed at Georgetown University, under the direction of Randy Bass, Department of English.