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Native American Oral Literatures

The title of this essay begs an etymological question: How can that which is unwritten, that is, without letters, be called literature? To this, Krupat has responded effectively: "Literature, from the Latin littera, as is wellknown, served broadly to indicate anything that had been written down and-to achieve a measure of social circulation-copied over. (For oral societies without alphabetic betters,' literature is whatever language is deemed worthy of sufficient repetition to assure it will be remembered and passed along.)" (1989:39, my emphasis.) Moreover, for the longest time, the kinds of materials we today call literature were not called literature at all, but "poetry," to set them apart from other kinds of written language. While the ethnographic and ethnohistorical literature of Native Americans is voluminous (see Jennings and Swaggerty; Prucha 1977, 1982; Murdock and O'Leary), and there are several useful collections of critical essays on the subject of oral literature (Hymes 1981; Tedlock 1983; Kroeber 1981; Swann 1983; Wiget 1985; Swann and Krupat 1987), there are few volumes of extended critical discourse on oral literature as literature (but see Finnegan, Krupat 1992). Critical discussion of Native American oral literature evolves along two lines, evaluative and descriptive.